UNITED NATIONS, AP – Arab leaders are worried Syria could become the next Iraq, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said on his return from a visit to the Middle East.
Annan said the issue of Syrian cooperation with an investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri came up in every capital he visited.
"They”re all concerned and anxious to see Syria cooperate and to see the issue settled diplomatically and not lead to a situation that destabilizes possibly Syria and Lebanon," he said Monday. "They”re worried if we are leading to another Iraq situation."
Last month a U.N. interim report implicated Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services in the Feb. 14 assassination and said Syria was not fully cooperating with the U.N. investigation of the killing. The U.N. Security Council warned Syria of possible "further action" if it does not do its part in the probe, which has been extended until Dec. 15.
Syria has objected to a request from chief investigator Detlev Mehlis to interview six top Syrian officials about the assassination in Beirut. Syria”s U.N. Ambassador Fayssal Mekdad said Monday that Lebanon "creates problems, sensitivities and other issues."
Last week, Mekdad said Syria had proposed alternative venues including the headquarters of the U.N. observer force on the Golan Heights, the Arab League office in Cairo, or at U.N. facilities in Vienna and Geneva.
Mekdad said Syria is insisting on a memorandum of understanding spelling out the kind of cooperation the U.N. investigating commission requires in its interrogation.
After Mehlis arrived in Lebanon, he signed a memorandum of understanding with the government in June, "and in Syuria we want to do the same, so that we know how … we organize our cooperation and work together," Mekdad said.
"It is not in our interest to delay things," he said. "I think it is against our interest and we hope that Mr. Mehlis and his team will expedite the work so that we can proceed directly to the investigation and the interrogation processes."
Annan refused to respond to reports of U.S. criticism for allegedly interfering in the Mehlis investigation, but he said "I have had the chance to assist him sometimes to push people along, encourage leaders in the region to urge Syria to cooperate and to cooperate fully."
"I have also had the chance to talk to Syrian authorities since the resolution several times urging them to cooperate with Mehlis — and I think it is my duty as secretary-general to do whatever I can to assist to make sure that everybody cooperates," he said.
Stressing the widespread concern in the region, Annan said he has made it clear to the Syrians that the Security Council wants "to get to the truth and then show that the culprits are brought to justice and a message will be sent out that impunity will not be allowed to stand."
In tandem with the suspicions about Syria”s hand in Hariri”s assassination, the United States, joined by the new Iraqi government, has accused Damascus of not doing enough to patrol its border with Iraq, and at the least turning a blind eye to hundreds of so-called foreign fighters crossing over to Iraq. Those insurgents are believed to be behind some of the most violent attacks in Iraq, including the suicide bombings.
Syria has disputed those claims, saying it is doing all it can, but that it would be impossibile to fully patrol such a long and porous desert border.
Damascus has repeatedly has denied any role in the Beirut bombing that killed Hariri and 20 others. But Syria”s opponents in Lebanon accuse Damascus of ordering the slaying because Hariri had increasingly resisted Syria”s control of Lebanon.
Syria withdrew its soldiers from Lebanon in April under intense international pressure, ending a 29-year presence in its smaller neighbor.
"We want to see a situation where the countries in the region respect each other”s sovereignty and do not interfere in each other”s affairs," Annan said.
"So if there is pressure on Syria, it”s pressure for a behavioral change," he said. "That”s the way I see it."