Long before the assassination of the late Rafik Hariri on 14 February 2005, Washington’s policy vis-à-vis Syria was clear: it wanted a radical policy shift in Damascus, or else “regime change”. With the release of the interim report by the German Prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, appointed by the Secretary-General of the United Nations “to assist the Lebanese authorities in their investigation of all aspects of this terrorist act, including to help identify its perpetrators, sponsors, organizers and accomplices”, Washington is a step closer to achieving its strategic goal. Today, no matter how one looks at it, President Bashar Assad of Syria is in a serious predicament with a “Damocles-Mehlis sword” hanging over his head.
Mehlis was given two more months to pursue his unprecedented Security Council-mandated investigation into the assassination of a private citizen, albeit a most prominent one. His controversial interim report intimates that according to a testimony, President Assad’s younger brother, Maher, and brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, had “decided” some two weeks after the Security Council had adopted resolution 1559 on 2 September 2004, to assassinate Hariri. The release of these names, which were omitted from the official report but included in the earlier draft released by what the UN calls a “clerical error”, is being exploited as a de facto smoking gun. Mehlis, who does not hide the fact that his investigation has already concluded that “Syria” was implicated in the assassination of Hariri, will seek to pursue aggressively the Syrian track during the next phase of his investigation. Whether by mistake or design, the quasi-official disclosure by Mehlis of the names of two of the pillars of the Syrian regime puts the latter under extraordinary pressure. It produces in the court of public opinion a guilty verdict of Syria –and gives Washington the silver bullet to bring the Syrian regime to its knees, or provoke its collapse.
To this end, Washington is for now trying to further its goals through the United Nations. Last Tuesday, it circulated a draft resolution in the hope that it be adopted when the Security Council meets early next week at the ministerial level requested by Washington. The grotesque side of this initiative is that the draft resolution is to be adopted under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which relates to the threats to peace, breaches of peace and acts of aggression, and which provides for “enforcement” through the imposition of sanctions and/or the use of force. Not even when the Israelis invaded Lebanon in 1982 did the Security Council act under Chapter 7.
For now, with his own brother and brother-in-law possibly becoming prime suspects, the Syrian President finds himself in an extremely difficult situation. This is not because the president could not sacrifice family members, as his father President Hafez Assad in 1985 exiled his younger brother, the then Vice-President Rifaat Assad. The reason is that the thesis that Hariri’s murder could have been ordered and planned by lower rank Syrian intelligence operatives, which would have spared the President himself collapses, for his brother and brother-in-law hold extremely sensitive intelligence posts.
Obviously, this criminal case is primarily a bras-de-fer between Washington and Damascus. If everyone agrees that justice should be served, Washington’s wider strategic objectives are clear: compel a zealous Syrian cooperation with respect to Iraq and Hezbollah, and soften Syria’s stance vis-à-vis Israel. By deciding to release an interim report on his continuing investigation in breach of Security Resolution 1595, which required the Mehlis Commission to report to the Council only once it had concluded its investigation, Mehlis and the Secretary-General have taken the decision to heighten tensions in an already troubled region. And two years later, the Council may again find itself on another collision course if Moscow and Beijing decide, like France at another Ministerial Council meeting on 14 February 2003, not to go along with Washington’s position. That day –exactly two years before the assassination of Hariri- France’s then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dominique de Villepin gave an impassioned speech before the Security Council where he argued against the war on Iraq. Today Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin more than anyone else should recall that the last time the Council adopted a resolution under Chapter 7 pushed by a US Administration that had made no secret of its “regime change” doctrine, it afforded Washington the pretext that Chapter 7 resolutions gave it the authority to use force against Iraq.
Even though the principled positions taken by veto-wielding Russia, France and China –who also had their own vested interests- did not prevent the war against Iraq, it prevented them from becoming accomplices to what Secretary-General Annan eventually called an “illegal war”. On 14 September 2004, he stated that he hoped there would not be another “Iraq-type operation” for a long time. But in the light of the interim report issued by Mehlis, it seems increasingly possible that the French-American-British draft resolution falling under Chapter 7 will be adopted by the Council. This would signal the countdown to what the Secretary-General had been hoping would not happen again –unless the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, or his Chinese counterpart, decide to deliver a vintage 2003 Villepin speech, now that France and the United States are riding the same wave.