DAMASCUS, Syria — A top legal advisor to the Syrian government signaled Wednesday that his nation would cooperate with an inquiry into the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister, though he harshly criticized a United Nations investigator for bringing Syria to the brink of international sanctions.
Riad Daoudi suggested, however, that it was unlikely that investigators would be permitted to question Syrian President Bashar Assad or that top intelligence officials would be detained as a proposed U.N. Security Council resolution demands. The U.S.-backed measure is expected to be voted on next week.
In an interview in his office, Daoudi was defiant in the face of Western pressure and what he described as a politically motivated report that links Syria to the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. He indicated that Damascus was willing to provide more access to the chief U.N. investigator, Detlev Mehlis. But Daoudi listed several caveats that might conflict with the Security Council's demand for "substantive" cooperation.
"We're ready to cooperate with Mehlis, but he has to show us evidence and truth," said Daoudi, who arranged interviews and meetings with witnesses when the U.N. investigator recently visited Damascus. "He just can't go to the right and then to the left and then back and forth. I would like him to tell me what kind of investigation he'd like to do. There's no way [for Mehlis] to have access to the president unless he has something in hand."
Mehlis' preliminary report to the U.N. last week says there is "converging evidence" that Syrian and pro-Syrian Lebanese intelligence officials planned the truck bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others in February. After he briefed the Security Council on Tuesday, Mehlis said Syria had obstructed his investigation and provided no documents related to the attack.
The Mehlis report names Assad's brother-in-law, Gen. Asef Shawkat, who is the head of Syrian military intelligence, and other government officials as suspects. The proposed U.N. resolution, which may include threats of diplomatic and economic sanctions, calls for Syria to detain officials named in the report. Daoudi grew agitated at such a prospect.
"I can't put the head of our security intelligence agency, one of the highest-ranking officials in our country, in jail just because Mr. Mehlis wants him in jail," he said. "To do this he will have to produce evidence."
A separate U.N. report submitted Wednesday to Secretary-General Kofi Annan criticizes Syria for not stopping the flow of weapons and Palestinian militants crossing its borders into Lebanon. Under pressure after Hariri's assassination, Assad's government began pulling out troops and intelligence services from Lebanon, in compliance with a U.N. resolution passed in 2004. The troops have gone, but Hezbollah guerrillas and Syrian-backed Palestinian groups are still active.
The review says there is an "increasing influx" of arms and guerrillas crossing through Syria into Lebanon, jeopardizing security. The border between the two nations has been in dispute, and arms flow both ways.
Lebanese troops, meanwhile, were deployed near two Palestinian outposts close to the Syrian border after the slaying this week of a Lebanese contractor, allegedly by militants. The soldiers Wednesday searched vehicles entering the area and used loudspeakers to demand that the militants hand over suspects in the shooting.
The Syrian regime has been under increasing domestic and international pressure since Hariri's killing. Sanctions would undermine an economy that only recently has shown signs of improving and anger a public that has become suspicious of its leaders. The Arab world, most notably Egypt and Saudi Arabia, has been tepid in its public support for Damascus and is awaiting the final report on Hariri's assassination, which is expected by Dec. 15.
"Arab countries are not backing Syria because they're afraid of the U.S. reaction if it is proved Syria is involved in the assassination," said Michel Kilo, a Syrian political analyst. "The U.S. is talking about changing the map of the Middle East, so naturally the regimes want to avoid differences with Washington. If Syria is guilty it would be the end of Assad."
Assad and his 5-year-old regime have not evolved with the politics of the Middle East, analysts say. During the Cold War, when his father, Hafez Assad, ruled this nation, Syria was strategically important.
Although still vital to security in Lebanon and the Arab-Israeli conflict, Syria has lost clout in recent years. Analysts say this has led it to miscalculate the international community's anger over its alleged role in Hariri's killing.
"This regime hasn't figured out how the world looks in the post-Soviet era," said an analyst in the region who asked not to be named. "It hasn't even understood what the post-Sept. 11 era looks like. Their ideology is wooden."