YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The World

Syria Defiant, Anxious After Report on Lebanon Slaying

Thousands march in Damascus to denounce the United Nations and U.S. But many believe the government hopes to resolve the issue quietly.

October 25, 2005|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

DAMASCUS, Syria — The Syrian government Monday orchestrated a wave of patriotism and anti-Western rallies to deflect international pressure over a recent United Nations report that accused Syrian intelligence of involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The streets of Damascus, the capital, echoed with chants of "We are not afraid!" as thousands marched to protest the U.N. report, which suggested that Syrian President Bashar Assad had threatened Hariri and that three senior intelligence officials had helped plot the assassination. Syrian flags flapped under a clear sky as marchers carried signs that read: "Down, down America" and "No to the Zionist U.N. report."

Assad is solidifying support at home by projecting a defiant stance toward a U.S.-led campaign for possible international sanctions. His government also is quietly looking to negotiate an end to the crisis, which could mean altering its policies in the region and succumbing to Washington's demands that Damascus stop the flow of insurgents into neighboring Iraq, according to Syrian political analysts and opposition figures.

The Assad regime is on delicate political terrain, the analysts say. It must not appear to bow to the West but at the same time it can't afford to be further isolated and burdened with sanctions. The U.N. Security Council is expected to meet today to discuss possible action against Syria and persuading Assad to provide more information for the investigation into the truck bombing that killed Hariri and 22 other people in February.

"The regime wants to reach some kind of agreement because they want to stay in power," said Ayman Abdel Nour, an editor and outspoken reformer in the ruling Baath Party. "The problem may be that Syria has nothing to bargain."

President Bush has not specified what sanctions might be discussed, but he urged the United Nations to ensure that Syrian and Lebanese intelligence officials implicated in the preliminary report by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis be held accountable. The U.S. and France are preparing a resolution that may call for more Syrian cooperation with the prosecutor. His probe is expected to be completed in December.

"It's 'true confession' time" for the Syrians, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John R. Bolton said Monday. "No more obstruction, no more half-measures. We want substantive cooperation, and we want it immediately."

With spies, tapped phones and an assassin driving a Japanese-made truck loaded with more than 2,000 pounds of explosives, the Mehlis report reads like an international thriller. Based on forensic studies and interviews with 500 witnesses and sources, the report highlights "converging evidence" that top Syrian officials -- including Assad's brother Maher and his brother-in-law Gen. Asef Shawkat, head of Syrian military intelligence -- conspired with pro-Syrian Lebanese officials.

Syrian opposition figures and political analysts say the report on the state of the investigation is often vague, allowing the Assad government to criticize it as hearsay and call it a U.S. ploy to meddle in the Middle East. The opposition had anticipated that the report would spur widespread protest against the regime. But analysts now say it has resulted in a government campaign to depict the nation as unjustly accused, forcing the opposition to temper anti-regime statements to avoid appearing unpatriotic.

"The report will allow France, Britain and the U.S. to escalate pressure on Syria," Nour said. He added that Mehlis' lack of named suspects and witnesses and an airtight chain of events leading directly to the explosion in Beirut "make it weak on concrete evidence and will not mobilize the street against the regime."

Hussein Jumaa, head of the Arab Writers Union in Damascus, said the report can be "read in different ways. America and Lebanon can interpret these witnesses according to their imaginations. This is what makes the report so dangerous. Syrians are not connected to this crime."

Others say the strong language in the preliminary report stunned Syria and prompted emergency government meetings.

Some analysts predict that between now and December the government will calculate its options for easing international criticism, including full cooperation with U.N. investigators, further reducing its influence in Lebanon, cracking down on insurgents who cross the border to Iraq and reexamining its support of anti-Israeli militant groups.

"The report is not a knockout, but it's a good first step. The tide is going against the regime," said Haitham Maleh, a twice-jailed Syrian human rights lawyer. "Assad should put Shawkat [and others] under investigation in jail. But if he does, he will be in trouble with his family. The regime will have to negotiate with the U.S., but it is very weak and they're afraid that if they give something to the U.S., they won't get anything in return."

Los Angeles Times Articles