New York, Asharq Al-Awsat- Syria”s UN representative has said that the main obstacle that faces the international investigation in the assassination of the late Lebanese Prime minister Rafik al-Hariri is not the place where the investigation will take place but the credibility of the investigation. In an interview with Asharq al-Awsat in New York, Fayssal Mekdad said that summoning Syrian officials to meet Mehlis in Beirut is a provocation for them and for Lebanese-Syrian relations. Mekdad added that the place where their testimony is given would not affect what they will say.
Mekdad said that if Syria receives a request from Mehlis to interview Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara, "we will be fully ready to respond" to the request. He voiced surprise that Mehlis is not cooperating with the Syrian investigation commission and asked: Is Mehlis sincere in his intentions to deal with Syria or does he only intend to accuse it without justification?
The following is the interview with Fayssal Mekdad:
(Q) The main obstacle facing the UN International Independent Investigation Commission (UNIIIC) to investigate Rafik al-Hariri”s assassination continues to be connected with the place where the Syrian officials will be questioned. Why do you attach such importance to the place where the questioning is to be held?
(A) The main obstacle that faces the investigation is not where the questioning will take place. The main obstacle facing the investigation is to what extent will the investigation be credible. Moreover, we must take into consideration the fact that our viewpoints and those of others concerning the UNIIIC report, which was discussed at the UN Security Council, were that it was clearly politicized and that it was not like any other investigation worthy of respect. What do I mean by that? I mean that the starting point on which the investigation was based was inaccurate and that the preliminary results as reflected in certain paragraphs were inaccurate. Another point is that the investigation is required to reveal the facts and only the facts and not to reach conclusions or reveal expectations or inferences. This is because the report used many words like "we expect," "we imagine, "we believe" and "we think." This made the real enemies of the investigation cast doubt on its credibility.
Therefore, this is the real problem. In fact, concerning the place where the questioning should take place, we never imagined at all that this would constitute a problem. It is natural to sound Syria”s opinion on this point despite all the powers that the UN Security Council gave to Mr. Mehlis, and we respect this. However, for Mehlis to summon those persons whom he wants to question to Beirut is a provocation of those who are summoned for questioning and a provocation involving relations between the two countries and the two fraternal peoples. I believe that this issue should have been studied more carefully by the UNIIIC. For our part, we stressed that this is a procedural matter and should not dominate everything else, even though some tried to make it the main issue, which was wrong. We say that this investigation can be held anywhere outside Lebanon and we proposed the UN headquarters in the Syrian Golan Heights on Syrian territory. We said that the United Nations can guarantee full protection for this location, under UN flag and in a comfortable atmosphere without any possibility of the investigators facing any obstacle concerning entering or leaving Syria. Therefore, Syria for its part offered everything it could and we hope Mr. Mehlis and the UNIIIC members will take this into consideration and that others might not exploit this procedural matter to exercise further pressures on Syria and deviate the investigation from its genuine aims.
(Q) If this issue is procedural, as you say, then why do you insist on your refusal to hold the interviews in Beirut? Why do you insist on holding them at the UN Forces headquarters in the Golan? Will the testimonies change from one place to another?
(A) This question once again proves Syria”s point of view. The testimonies will not be influenced by one location or another.
(Q) Then why this insistence?
(A) The insistence is not on the testimonies. The insistence is because this location creates sensitivities between the Syrian and Lebanese peoples, and between Syria and Lebanon as two countries. We do not want further problems in Syrian-Lebanese relations. We want to avoid this kind of problems that might be created as a result of sensitivities caused by summoning Syrian officials to Lebanon once again for questioning.
(Q) You do not attach great importance to the place of the questioning, but does your hard-line attitude on this matter not provide Mehlis with the pretext that some at the UN Security Council members are looking for to prove that you are not cooperating as you should?
(A) We believe that the return to the UN Security Council will not be useful to Mehlis or the others because the international community will discover that the important thing (for the anti-Syrian sides) is not the investigation, which Syria insists on holding in circumstances that are very convenient to Mr. Mehlis and the investigation Commission, but the important thing is to harm Syria and exploit this procedural matter in one form or another to exercise pressures and realize the real aims of these sides.
(Q) But is it not natural and logical for Mehlis to summon these persons to Lebanon because the crime was committed there?
(A) The last time round, Mehlis came to Damascus and nobody raised this issue with him. He questioned these same persons and nobody in the Lebanese press or media or in the United States raised this issue. Moreover, none of the Lebanese officials raised this issue. Then why are they raising it now?
(Q) Mehlis insists on questioning the Syrian officials alone without the presence of anyone working for the Syrian Government. Will you give him the freedom of questioning them?
(A) Yes, we will give him any freedom he wants to question these persons but we must reach agreement with him in principle on the assurances that he himself believes these persons can be given.
(Q) Then you are seeking assurances?
(A) We have not raised this issue because we have not reached this stage. However, we believe that Mr. Mehlis, as a judge and expert in this matter, will give these witnesses the assurances that any defendant should enjoy during the interrogation. We demand nothing more and nothing less than that. However, this issue has not been raised so far. By the way, if we go back to the previous interrogations, we will find that Syria did not impose anything on Mr. Mehlis. There was a so-called "gentlemen”s agreement" between Mr. Mehlis and the Syrian Foreign Ministry”s legal adviser, and Mr. Mehlis accepted this without objection. In fact we were surprised, nay, shocked by Mehlis” attitude in this regard. If he said that he did not want anyone, we would have responded to this.
(Q) Did he not inform you that he wanted to question the Syrian officials alone?
(A) He did not demand this at all. I believe Syria was tricked. We were tricked and stabbed in the back.
(Q) In your opinion, what is the way out of this current impasse concerning the place of the questioning? What possible compromise will be acceptable to all?
(A) In fact we are still saying that the entire issue could have been resolved through the meeting that was held between Mr. Mehlis and the Syrian legal adviser. However, if this problem continues to be unresolved, we hope that Mr. Mehlis and the UNIIIC will understand this and we hope that all parties concerned will find the appropriate solution that satisfies all sides. Naturally, Syria will cooperate with the substantive, pure, and clean investigation that Mr. Mehlis wants.
(Q) Do you see any divergence between the stands of the United States and the EU concerning the place of the questioning and the mechanism of the investigation?
(A) In fact we do not want to make the investigation take the form a polarization. We hope this issue will be resolved calmly because the investigation means meeting these individuals and directing questions at them without any restrictions or conditions. This has nothing to do with the location of the questioning, given that Syria proposed specific places, allowing the essential matter, which is the questioning, to take place without any obstacles.
(Q) How will Syria respond to Mehlis” demand for a meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara?
(A) We said that Syria is fully prepared to respond. When Syria receives such a request, it will respond to it.
(Q) Has the Syrian Government not received a request?
(A) I personally do not know about that.
(Q) You always say that Syria will cooperate with the Mehlis-led investigation but some say that you are still placing obstacles to hinder the start of a serious investigation. What do you say to that?
(A) I do not know who says that Syria is placing obstacles. Indeed, we are removing the obstacles from Mr. Mehlis” path. If there are obstacles, I hope they will be investigated with other non-Syrian sides.
(Q) How will the obstacles be removed if you are still continuing to insist on your position on the place where the Syrian officials can be questioned?
(A) This is logical, and I believe that Mr. Mehlis should have understood this problem from the beginning and should not have taken a certain approach on this issue because he is aware of the sensitivities and the problems that this inflexibility, this insistence on selecting a place in Beirut, would create after all that happened.
(Q) In light of the wide-scale powers that the UN Security Council gave Mehlis in Resolution 1636 to choose the place and circumstances of the questioning — taking into consideration the fact that a mere assertion by him that you did not cooperate would prompt the Council to adopt additional anti-Syrian measures — do you not think that you are endangering the interests of the Syrian people?
(A) We are not. We do not believe that we are endangering the Syrian people”s interests. We demand a very simple and natural thing. We said from the beginning that Syria would cooperate fully with this resolution despite our dissatisfaction with it. However, these obstacles and problems are created by the other side and by those who do not want this investigation to continue. Syria is fully convinced that it should cooperate with this investigation because it will end up in one result; namely, absolving Syria from the blame in perpetrating this crime. Therefore, we say that Mr. Mehlis must concentrate on all possibilities in his investigation and not ignore other enemies of Lebanon and of Al-Hariri. It was these enemies who acted and executed; it was they who plotted this crime which harmed Lebanon and Syria and their bilateral relations.
(Q) But it seems that there is a contradiction in Syria”s arguments. On the one hand, you assert that you will be cooperating with the UNIIIC, and on the other hand you cast doubt at the work of this Commission and its conclusions.
(A) These are two different things. Concerning our criticism of the UNIIIC, nobody is above criticism. In every investigation there are both correct and wrong measures. When Mehlis said that the report was not a final one and that every suspect is innocent until he is proven guilty, we said that this is correct and we did not criticize it. However, we criticize the general trend of the report, which is a wrong trend that would not lead to the truth.
(Q) Despite your reservations on certain parts of the investigation, the Syrian Government”s recent stands forced some to ask about the extent of Damascus” readiness to escalate the situation and challenge the Security Council to impose sanctions against the Syrian people at a time when the regime is trying to protect itself. What do you think?
(A) I find these arguments laughable. Is there a government in the whole world that asks the international community to impose sanctions on its people? Is Syria trying to or working for the imposition of sanctions? This is amazing. In Syria there is no regime and counter regime. There are Syrian people led by a responsible government. We say that Syria will cooperate with this investigation and will not place any obstacles on its path and there is a full readiness to do that. We established the Syrian judicial investigation commission and this commission was given powers. The Syrian leadership on the highest level sent letters to Mr. Mehlis to reassure him that Syria would cooperate. The Syrian commission sent to Mr. Mehlis minutes of the questioning it held with some suspects.
We believe that this commission, with which Mr. Mehlis has refused to cooperate so far even though it was created at his request as mentioned in his statement to the UN Security Council, is carrying positive activities. However, this lack of cooperation with it is surprising.
(Q) However, in light of Syria”s credibility crisis in certain international circles, what will this Syrian judicial commission be able to offer?
(A) This commission was created by a highest level order and it has absolute powers. If we offer to certain sides manna from heaven to prove our credibility to them, they will not be convinced. However, we are convinced, and we believe that many share this conviction with us, that the Syrian judicial commission is doing what it was asked to do and is working in the right direction but so far it needs genuine cooperation from the two other sides. A letter was sent to Mr. Said Mirza, head of the Lebanese investigation commission demanding documents but he has so far not sent us anything. Of course this does not mean that he will not send anything later, and we hope these documents will be sent. We also asked Mr. Mehlis to tell us what he wants, the investigations he wants us to carry out, and the documents that proves the involvement of some officials but we did not receive these documents. Indeed, he has not so far recognized this commission.
Therefore, we hope the question of credibility will be transferred to the other side, whether he is sincere in his intentions to deal with Syria or whether he intends only to direct accusations at Syria without any justifications.
(Q) But was the decision to create this Syrian judicial commission not somewhat late?
(A) We agree that it was not formed at the time when its establishment was possible but it is a step that should not be ignored at all, given that the circumstances surrounding the assassination of former prime minister Al-Hariri did not allow us even to think of establishing a commission because all charges were directed at Syria and all the media were waging campaigns against Syria. When things matured and a balance was restored to the situation, our first step was to establish this commission.
(Q) Is there not some contradictions and rivalry between the Syrian commission and the UNIIIC, especially since you imposed a travel ban on the Syrian suspects? Does not this make Mehlis” investigation operation more difficult?
(A) There is no contradiction. This commission was established as a national mechanism to help these investigations. What kind of establishment can judicially deal with a legal inquiry commission? The Syrian commission was formed for this purpose. It deals with the Syrian side. If Syria is asked to do anything — and this will eventually have to be asked — then it will be done through this Syrian judicial commission. What is wrong with this?
Moreover, when individuals are accused or when they become suspects, the first measure is to prevent them from leaving the country so there will be no disorders in the work of the UNIIIC or the national commission later on.
(Q) If Mehlis insists on questioning them outside the Syrian territory, will you lift the travel ban on them?
(A) Of course, we said that the Arab League Headquarters could be used as a place for questioning. This means that the national commission will lift this ban on the travel of these individuals to go to Cairo, and if the two sides agree on any acceptable place we will be prepared to lift the ban and help the investigation along.
(Q) In case it transpires that certain Syrian officials are involved in the crime, will Syria hand them over to the Lebanese judiciary irrespective of the positions they occupy?
(A) First of all, we in Syria said that we would cooperate with the investigation. We also said that all those who are absolutely proven guilty based on material evidence are traitors and must be treated as such. Therefore, and without further studies of the circumstances, Syria”s assertions that it will fully cooperate mean that it is against all those who backed and plotted this crime.
(Q) There is a campaign in the Syrian official media casting doubt on Mehlis” integrity and his credibility with the aim of tarnishing his reputation. Does this become Syria? Does this not weaken Syria”s position and exacerbate the problems that you are facing?
(A) First of all there are criticisms directed at the Mehlis report. These criticisms are common knowledge and we voiced some of them in our statements. They are no secret. As for the media, they are free and can express what they want. All channels are open to the Syrian masses to express their opinions. They do not necessarily express the opinion of the state.
(Q) How do you evaluate the level of the Arab governments” understanding of the Syrian position?
(A) I believe there is understanding. The Arabs and us have a common desire to reveal the truth. We do not differ with the Arabs at all. There is no Arab state that said that Syria is guilty and it must confess to this guilt. All the Arabs say that they are looking forward to credible investigations that follow the paths of the truth. We agree with the Arabs because full search and investigation is necessary to know who stands behind this crime. Therefore, we cannot say that there is no Arab understanding of Syria”s position. On the contrary, I feel that all the Arabs understand our position but we blame certain groups in Lebanon which are trying to deepen the differences and pool their efforts, money, and resources to promote their forgeries and prove their untenable charges against Syria.
(Q) You say that you blame certain groups in Lebanon, but were the Syrian president”s attacks against the Lebanese prime minister useful at these delicate times?
(A) If you ask me as a Syrian diplomat, I completely agree with what the president said. I believe that those who believe that they are Arab nationalists must also take care of Syria”s interests, defend these interests. They should not visit all the world countries to mobilize them against Syria, launch hostile campaigns against Syria, and take revenge against Syria. We believe that those who do that do not serve any pan-Arab cause and do not take any Arab responsibilities; and if they use such language, I am sorry to say that they will not be sincere or truthful.
(Q) To what extent does Syria feel today that it is isolated at the United Nations as a result of the latest UN Security Council resolution?
(A) There is absolutely no isolation.
(Q) Do you believe that the US Administration has made its decision on the issue of imposing sanctions against Syria and perhaps resorting to the military option?
(A) We hope — and this is the view of the international community — that matters in the Middle East region will not be escalated. Now allow me to describe the Arab situation. I am saying that there is a patch of blue in the cloudy sky; namely an Arab consensus on the need not to create any more problems to be added to the explosive problems that are already in the region. Therefore, if the United States wants to bring its forces to the region, as it brought them to Iraq behind the back of the international community, then I personally cannot stop it. Nobody will be able to stop it. However, the United States, the people of Iraq, and the Arab people in general are paying the cost of this US invasion of Iraq.
Yet, we also must observe that there is a popular stand, even inside the United States, against any escalation, any adventures by this Administration whose popularity has dropped to levels that no other administration in the history of the United States reached. We believe that the next battle will not be against Syria but against everyone. We also believe that all the Arab regimes now have strong relations with Syria. All the Arab peoples believe that Syria has absolutely nothing to do with this crime. These people will not see any pretext for and will not even understand any US action. We think this is unlikely and we also think unlikely that there will be sanctions because the world public opinion is mobilized against these sanctions.
(Q) The United States and other Arab states at the UN Security Council have started to warn the Syrian Government that time is running out and that it must demonstrate genuine cooperation with the UNIIIC. Will we see a softening of the Syrian position in the next stage?
(A) The US side will continue to say that we are not doing enough. For instance, concerning our eastern borders with Iraq, we offered everything without any limits and yet every time we realize something, they come and say this is not enough. This proves that there is a US plot that has nothing to with Lebanon, the Lebanese domestic conditions, or any other conditions. The plot has to do with two primary goals: The first goal is the US backing for the Israeli policies in the region and the destruction, in the interest of Israel, of all peace opportunities that had been available some time ago. The second goal is to keep the region under US hegemony to preserve well-known US interests. Therefore, the United State does not need further pretexts because it is continuing to implement a definite policy despite all Syria”s attempts.