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U.N. Raises Pressure on Syria Over Killing

The Security Council tells Damascus to fully assist in Hariri inquiry or face consequences.

November 01, 2005|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS — The Security Council unanimously demanded Monday that Syria fully cooperate with a U.N. probe into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri that implicates senior Syrian officials -- or face unspecified consequences.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and 10 other foreign ministers came to New York to add weight to the demand that Syria open its doors to the U.N.'s chief investigator, Detlev Mehlis. In a report last month, Mehlis identified seven senior Syrian officials as suspects in the plot to kill Hariri, but said the regime had stymied his inquiry.

The resolution demands that Syria allow investigators to question, at a location of their choice, anyone designated as a suspect by a U.N. committee. It also imposes travel restrictions and an asset freeze on suspects to keep them from fleeing.

Though cosponsors the United States, France and Britain dropped an explicit threat of economic sanctions in order to win the backing of the full Security Council, the measure calls for consideration of "further action" under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter if Syria does not comply. That amounts to diplomatic language for economic sanctions or even military intervention, but such action would require an additional resolution.

Syria said it would cooperate with the U.N. inquiry and had begun one of its own.

The popular Hariri, a vocal opponent of Syria's domination of Lebanon, died in a Feb. 14 bombing, along with 22 others. The bombing resulted in intense international pressure on Syria, prompting it to remove its troops and intelligence agents from Lebanon. After the release of the Mehlis report, President Bush said he would not rule out military action if Syria didn't comply with the inquiry.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said Monday's resolution had one aim: "the truth, the whole truth, about Rafik Hariri's assassination so that those responsible for it answer to the crime, whoever they are, wherever they are."

The 15-0 vote appeared to increase the isolation of Syria and places the country firmly on the defensive as the probe focuses on the key power brokers in Damascus. Even Syria's Arab neighbors have not defended President Bashar Assad's government.

Among the suspects are senior members of Assad's inner circle, including his brother, Maher Assad, the commander of the presidential guard, and his brother-in-law, Asef Shawkat, the chief of military intelligence who is considered a possible successor to the president. Bashar Assad, who had refused previous requests to meet with investigators, must now answer questions or trigger further action by the U.N.

Though the U.S., France and Britain agreed to soften the resolution to win the agreement of Russia, China and Algeria, U.S. officials including Rice described the outcome as a diplomatic victory that could help pressure Assad to be more responsive to Washington's broader concerns about Syria's destabilizing role in the region.

"With our decision today, we show that Syria has isolated itself from the international community -- through its false statements, its support for terrorism, its interference in the affairs of its neighbors and its destabilizing behavior in the Middle East," she said. "Now, the Syrian government must make a strategic decision to fundamentally change its behavior."

Syria has been trying to rally Arab countries to come to its defense, calling for an emergency meeting later this week of the Arab League. But Foreign Minister Mohammed Bedjaoui of Algeria, the lone Arab representative on the Security Council, refused to back Syria. He condemned Hariri's assassination as "absolute evil" and said it must not go unpunished.

"Let it be the last in an uninterrupted chain of misdeeds that have sorely tried the region and developed a culture of injustice and impunity," he said.

The lack of regional support signaled a watershed moment for Syria, said Rachel Bronson, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

"There is an element of Bush bullying Syria, but when the United States works through international organizations like the U.N., it gets significantly more support because it's a forum that the Arab world strongly believes in," she said. "So we are getting credit for working with the international community to isolate Syria, and no one is shedding any tears over Syria because they got themselves into this mess."

Anti-Syrian Lebanese political leader Walid Jumblatt warned that Damascus could face chaos and instability if Assad failed to cooperate with the U.N. inquiry.

"If [he] acts like Saddam [Hussein] did, yes, we are heading to a situation similar to what happened in Iraq," Jumblatt said in an interview Sunday with the Dubai, United Arab Emirates-based Al Arabiya satellite TV channel. "But if he acts in order to preserve Syria's national unity and Syria's interest before [serving] the brother-in-law, a brother or anyone, he can save Syria."

Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh said that Damascus had launched its own inquiry over the weekend and that the government would cooperate with the Mehlis investigation, but that there was no evidence that Syrian officials had committed a crime. He added that the presumption that Syria knew about the plot against Hariri was the same as saying that the United States must have known about the Sept. 11 attacks and Britain must have known about the July 7 bombings in London.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw dismissed Shareh's remarks as "most grotesque and insensitive," and said they betrayed the insincerity of Syria's intentions. "Like all colleagues, I look forward to full cooperation by the government of Syria in substance as well as form with the Mehlis commission," he said.

"But I have to say, after what I've heard, I'm not holding my breath."

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