What's Next? Regime Change or Not
It looks like the next step is to get the Security Council to condemn Syria on Tuesday, October 25 for not cooperating with, and lying to, the Mehlis investigation. This will be Bolton's strategy. Most probably Washington will try to copy the basic outline of Security Resolution 1559, which worked so well in compelling Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon. Resolution 1559 insisted that Syria withdraw its troops from Lebanon by a certain date or serious action would be taken by the UN. Roed Larsen, a UN official was sent to Lebanon on periodic investigative trips to determine whether Syria was complying in a timely fashion.
I suspect that the UN will not name specific sanctions to be placed on Syria at this time, but will use the threat of them in order to demand that Syria cooperate with the criminal investigation, which should now be established as the logical continuation of the Mehlis report. If Syria stonewalls the investigation, the UN will impose sanctions. In the interim, sanctions will remain undefined. If the bar for the investigation is raised too high, by demanding that top Syrian officials leave Syria to be interrogated, Syria will have to stonewall. Then the UN will have little choice but to impose sanctions.
Where this leaves Syria and the West is uncertain. On the one hand, the US says it only wants Syria to change regime behavior and that it doesn't want to change the Syrian regime. On the other hand, it looks like Washington wants the Syrian leopard to change so many of its spots that it will become a border collie. Washington's demands for behavior-change could be so radical that they become tantamount to regime change. Syria will balk. It will have sanctions imposed on it, and there will be a race to the bottom.
There is no immediate threat to the Syrian regime from inside the country. The opposition is weak and disorganized. There is also no external threat, because the US army is bogged down in Iraq. The result will be that sanctions will wear down the country over the course of several years, but only if Europe agrees to impose real, and not just symbolic sanctions.
A number of European ambassadors in Damascus have told me that Europe will resist placing economic sanctions on Syria. Why? Because they fear that if Syria collapses, the outflow of refugees will end up at Europe's doorstep. Already Kurds, Africans, and Eastern Europeans are flooding into West Europe. They cannot take in Syrians.
Israel's stand is ambiguous. Intelligence figures have warned against Syrian regime change, but Shimon Peres came out yesterday in support of regime change. Everyone seems to be of two minds about what the end game should be and what they really want.
Syria's Stand on Mehlis - The report is a Lie, but we will cooperate." This seems to be Syria's present stand toward the Mehlis report, based on the news conference at the UN yesterday with Syria’s Ambassador to the UN, Faisal Mekdad
October 21, 2005
Here are the notes I took on the radio report of the news conference with Mekdad. My notes are not a full transcript but give the main points of his argument. Here is a short news story on it.
We did not hinder the investigation. We gave Mehlis full access to the people he wanted. We did not interfere and gave him full cooperation.
The investigation has been conducted during an escalating media atmosphere. Leaks have been unprofessional. A great deal of the investigation deals with political analysis and not facts on the ground. We have warned of the politicization of the report.
My first reading was the fact that much of the report repeats the talk which took place right after the heinous assassination. In four months they have added very little to the first allegations.
My country is studying the report, and we will have an official announcement. It is clear the report is based on the allegations of a few witnesses. But these allegations have not been thoroughly investigated. I would like to assure you that at no point did we mislead Mehlis. We helped him, rather than impeded him.
Of course the report gives the possibility to many countries to undermine Syria and allows them to increase their pressure on us.
We shall cooperate with the ongoing investigation. We hope that in the future all these allegations concerning Syria that these matters will be investigated and everyone will be brought to justice.
We do not believe any Syrian official has been seriously implicated.
Question: What do you say to the fact that Asef Shawkat is implicated?
Answer: “I think this is a big lie. We have proof that such people were never involved in such a case.”
My view of the report is that it is not a creditable report. It has been built on a very strange synthesis based on the meeting of President Asad and Hariri. This was not the beginning of events. This investigation must go deeper into the realities.
It is all politics. There is no real background. It is political because this is the only way they could establish what they wanted. Look at the way things have been leaked. Certain foreign ministers have been working for the last weeks as if they have read everything in the report.
Lets hope that members of the Security Council will help us to get to the truth.
Question: What do you think of Zuhir Saddik’s testimony in the report?
Answer: Saddik is a liar. He is not a reliable witness. He fled from military service and took refuge in Lebanon.
Question: Economic sanctions: “What are you going to do to avoid sanctions.”
Answer: We do not believe in these sanctions. They will hurt the people. The members of the council do not want them. We are going to cooperate in bringing peace to the region and to help bring quite to the Middle East.
Question: What is necessary for you to do now?
Answer: Rafiq al-Hariri was a good friend of Syria. We want to find the people who killed him. His killing was meant to hurt us.
Question: How do you explain the fact that no one believes your story?
Answer: We believe that the true story will come out. We must see the draft resolution and then decide how to move forward.
Here is the Washington Post report. The Post and Robin Wright have been far superior to the NY Times on Syria. Anthony Shadid has just come to Damascus and to get a few stories. Bravo Washington Post.
Bush Seeks Urgent U.N. Meeting on Syria Sanctions
By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 22, 2005; Page A18
President Bush called on the United Nations yesterday to meet urgently to consider taking action against Syria after a U.N. investigation implicated top officials in the regime of President Bashar Assad in the assassination of Lebanon's leading reformer.
In a sign of the sudden escalation in tension between Syria and the international community, Britain yesterday called on the world body to consider punitive sanctions on Damascus. The Security Council is expected to meet Tuesday to consider possible actions for two new resolutions, according to U.S. and U.N. officials.
Bush called the detailed U.N. investigative report into the Feb. 14 killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri "very disturbing" and asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to immediately convene the foreign ministers of the 15 Security Council members to "respond accordingly" to its allegations.
"The report suggests, strongly suggests, the politically motivated assassination of Prime Minister Hariri could not have taken place without Syrian involvement," Bush said, speaking in front of a piece of the Berlin Wall at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, Calif.
En route to Alabama with British Foreign Minister Jack Straw, Rice told reporters that the international community must "demand accountability" from Damascus. Intense diplomatic discussions are expected to continue through the weekend among U.S., British, French and Russian officials to broker a consensus behind potential punitive action, according to U.S. and U.N. officials.
Ideas under discussion range from a ban on Syrian international flights and trade limitations to an embargo on goods that can be used for military purposes, according to Western officials familiar with the diplomacy who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Envoys are also considering demanding that Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000, require those named in the report to help in the investigation -- or take action himself against them.
At the United Nations, U.S. Ambassador John R. Bolton said pursuing the investigation is the first priority for the Security Council. "In the absence of serious Syrian cooperation on substantive matters, the mission can't get to the ultimate truth," Bolton said. "That is what it seems to me the focus [of] the U.N. Security Council should be. . . . We need to look at other steps to obtain Syrian cooperation."
The United Nations may lay out a series of steps Syria must take over a limited time, giving it an opportunity to more fully cooperate with investigators, Western envoys said. Secretary General Kofi Annan has extended the investigation, conducted by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, through Dec. 15. But a senior U.S. official involved in the diplomacy said discussions are still "in their infancy."
The Bush administration has already heavily sanctioned Syria under the provisions of anti-terrorism laws, the Patriot Act and the Syria Accountability Act. Although no options have been taken off the table, the State Department emphasized yesterday that Washington is looking for a united international response. "We seek peaceful, negotiated diplomatic solutions," said spokesman Adam Ereli.
The report stirred drama yesterday as it became clear that a key passage had been edited at the last minute and that the names of Assad family members and Syrian officials had been deleted from the version released publicly.
The original report, which became public yesterday, included allegations that two family members and three top intelligence and security officials plotted the bombing of Hariri's entourage as it drove through Beirut, killing him and 22 others.
The document, compiled after a four-month probe by Mehlis, named Gen. Assef Shawkat, Assad's brother-in-law and the head of Syrian military intelligence, and Maher Assad, the president's younger brother. A witness told Mehlis's commission that the two men and the three others decided to kill Hariri two weeks after the passage of U.N. Resolution 1559 in Sept. 2004. The resolution, co-sponsored by the United States and France, called for an end to Syria's nearly three-decade-long occupation of Lebanon.
The original version of the report cited a witness who claimed that the five officials -- including Hassan Khalil, Bahjat Suleiman and Jamil Sayyed -- met several times in Damascus, including at Shawkat's office, over the next several months to complete the planning. The final meeting was in Shawkat's home less than two weeks before the attack, it said.
The version of the report distributed at the Security Council Thursday night excluded the names, referring only to senior Lebanese and Syrian officials.
Mehlis told reporters yesterday that the names were deleted after he learned his work was going to be made public. "No one outside of the report team influenced these changes, and no changes whatsoever were suggested by the secretary general or anyone at the U.N.," Mehlis said.
Syria's ambassador to Washington, Imad Moustapha, charged yesterday that the probe was based on "tales, innuendos" and did not contain a single substantiated piece of evidence that could be used in a court of law. "It is based on political attitudes, not fact," he said in an interview. "We ended up with a political report" laden with loopholes, contradictions and "shady testimonials" from witnesses who were not credible, he added.
Bolton dismissed the denial from Syria as "ridiculous."