Friday, October 28, 2005

Assad on the hot seat

THE CASE is not even filed, let alone being proved or even presented, but the "suspect" has already been tried and convicted as far as the world's superpower is concerned, and nothing would make any difference to the scenario ahead.
That is what we are seeing in the case of Syria, the US and the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, and that is what we saw in the case of Iraq, the US and weapons of mass destruction.
The Syria scenarios are unfolding as pre-scripted, as indeed was the case against Saddam Hussein that led to the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 as the world has learnt through concrete evidence that emerged after the war that is enough to convince the strongest sceptic..
In the next few days, the United Nations Security Council is expected to adopt a resolution setting a deadline for Syria to comply with the world body's demands or face sanctions. A draft resolution in circulation demands that Syria detain officials suspected of plotting the murder of Hariri, freeze their assets and impose a travel ban on them.
The draft resolution, a joint work of the US, Britain and France, threatens “further measures” if Syria fails to co-operate with the UN investigation headed by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, who has submitted a report saying he found “converging evidence” of Syrian involvement in the Feb.14 bomb blast that killed Hariri and 20 others in Beirut, and implicated Bashar Al Assad’s brother, Maher, and his brother in-law, Assef Shawkat, chief of military intelligence, in the alleged conspiracy.
Clearly sensing that the trap is closing around Syria regardless of innocence or guilt, President Bashar Al Assad has promised the three countries behind the draft resolution that any Syrian accused will face trial if "proved by concrete evidence" to have had a role in the Hariri killing.
"I have declared that Syria is innocent of this crime, and I am ready to follow up action to bring to trial any Syrian who could be proved by concrete evidence to have had connection with this crime," says the Syrian president's letter, as quoted by news agencies.
Assad also warned against using the Mehlis report as a political tool to pressure Syria. That was a reference to the US accusations that the Syrian government is supporting militant Palestinian factions, intervening in Lebanon and failing to prevent foreign fighters from infiltrating into Iraq.
"Such use of this report will have big, serious repercussions on the already tense situation which our region goes through, at a time we are more in need to have objective and constructive positions that would help the countries of the region to achieve stability," said Assad's letter.
However, Washington has smelt blood and is not having any of that.
"Once again Syria has demonstrated by its policies and its actions that it's out of step with the international community and in this instance specifically, by its failure to correctly read the tea leaves and fully co-operate" with the Mehlis investigation, said State Department spokesman J. Adam Ereli.
"That is why you have a Security Council that's meeting to come to some conclusion about what to do about that failure to co-operate," Ereli said. "So it's a little late now for Syria to try to be making up for past failures."
By "full co-operation," the US means unrestrained access for Mehlis to question any Syrian official in or outside Syria as he might deem fit and this includes Bashar Al Assad himself.
Obviously, the US believes it has Syria over a barrel wants to plunge the knife deeper by subjecting top Syrian officials to humiliating questioning and thus to demoralise the Syrian people, and that was what was inherent in the comment by US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton. "No person is above the law, and the president (Assad) has had time to talk to the media. If he has time to do that, he has time to talk to Commissioner Mehlis," Bolton said. (Here, one is reminded of the non-availability of President George W Bush to have a meeting with the anti-war mother of an American soldier who was killed in action although she was stationed for more than three weeks in August out his ranch in Texas where he was vacationing. Indeed the circumstances are different, but Bolton's comment was at best contemptuous as if Assad was already in the dock and one just wonders how it would be for him if the target of such comment was his own president).
The very fact that Washington is brushing aside Assad's pledge to try any Syrian found involved in the Hariri killing, the most substantive response from Damascus to the Mehlis report, is indicative of the shape of things to come. It is very much a re-enactment of the obviously pre-determined rejection of all pre-war proposals and offers made by Saddam.
The sanctions that the US would like to see imposed on Syria immediately include travel and financial sanctions on Assad’s family and inner circle, again another avenue for demoralising the Syrian people.
The US has arranged a special meeting of foreign ministers of the Security Council on Monday. Obviously, Washington hopes to convince Russia and China — which have rejected the move for sanctions — into shifting their stand through watering down the language a little.
Moscow has promised to work to prevent sanctions, but it remains to be see how far it would be able to resist direct and indirect American-British-French pressure into accepting the "inevitable."
Mehlis himself has added to the pressure against Syria by "disclosing" that he and his team members faced threats.
“The level of risk, which was already high, will increase further, particularly after the issuance of the report,” he said. “The commission has received a number of threats which were deemed, in the assessment of our security personnel, to be credible.”
Although Mehlis said that the threats came from “unknown groups” and not specifically from any Syrian or Lebanese officials, the implication was there.
Nejib Friji, the UN spokesman in Beirut, has been recalled from Lebanon "for his own safety” and is now working another UN mission.
The US is also trying to project Syria as being isolated although one fails to see the extent of any isolation. Indeed, Washington has suspended all but routine diplomatic contacts with the Syrian government and is keeping a deaf ear to attempts in recent months to resume dialogue on intelligence issues.
The Arabs at large seem to be convinced that Syria is being railroaded into being deprived of its pan-Arab nationalist credentials in order to suit Israeli interests and make concessions and compromises over issues that are central to Syria's integrity, territorial rights and political process.
However, there seems to little the Arabs could to do help ease the situation as the case was indeed with Iraq.

Notwithstanding the detailed findings of Mehlis, there is no "concrete evidence" to support his allegations. Obviously, the German prosecutor hopes to come up with such evidence before Dec.15, when he is expected to present his final report the UN Security Council.
The initial report contains direct quotes from people who were close to Hariri as saying that the assassinated prime minister had received direct threats from Assad himself in the run-up to the amendment in the Lebanese constitution that allowed a three-year extension of the term in office of pro-Syrian Lebanese President Emile Lahoud last year. Obviously, Mehlis wants to question Assad on that point.
When the news of the Hariri assassination broke, few in the Arab World accepted that Syria could have been behind it. Damascus is not deemed that naive to believe that it could get away with the killing. If anything, as events have proved out, Syria suffered the most as a result and this is a factor that no one expects Damascus to have overlooked.
Many in the Middle East subscribe to the theory that Israeli agents penetrated Syrian circles and engineered the killing in such a way that all the fingers pointed to Damascus.
Indeed, there are many ifs and buts in the light of the Mehlis findings that contradict the Israel theory. But the idea that a much more sinister plot was behind the killing was raised immediately after the incident not only by Arabs but also Americans.
Mark Whitney writes on
"One can hardly imagine a greater disaster for poor Syria who has been scrambling to avoid the American bludgeon for the last four years. Few people realise that Syria provided more assistance in the first year of the war on terror after 9-11 than any other nation. That’s of little consequence now, as the US is on a mission to quickly integrate the entire region beneath the American standard and prove that it can be trusted with its continued stewardship of the world economy."
According to Whitney, "to understand who assassinated Rafiq Hariri we don’t need to look any further than the $1.5 billion US embassy currently under construction in Baghdad. The new embassy, the largest of its kind in the world, will facilitate 1,800 employees and serve as the regional nerve centre for American political and economic activity. What does this have to do with al Hariri? 
"It demonstrates that the US is establishing a massive command centre for its future domination of the entire Middle East. This suggests that Lebanon must be entered into the family of client states who accept a subservient role to American military and economic power, and who willingly comply with the requirements of the regional constable, Israel. 
"Hariri’s assassination provides the raison d'ĂȘtre for severing ties with Syria and for transforming Lebanon into a US vassal. This conforms nicely with Israel’s ambition to surround itself with non-threatening states as well as affording access to the vital water resources of Lebanon’s Wazzani River. In other words, the murder of Hariri has created some extremely fortunate opportunities for both Israel and the US; merging seamlessly with their overall objectives in the region."
Bushra Al Khalil, a Lebanese lawyer and political activist, told a few days after the killing that the plot against Hariri's life also targeted Syria.
"If we look at the way the assassination has been conducted, it is very sophisticated, I knew Hariri's security measures - no local system could have breached them.
"The question is, who stands to benefit from his death? Syria's enemies. I think Hariri's death is part of the plan to divide the region into tiny helpless sectarian states. This plan has started in Iraq and it will continue to hit all other Arab countries."
There is another school of thought that gained strength in view of the Mehlis findings. It says that criminal activities rather than politics were the prime factor behind the killing.
This school believes that the fear of losing annual earnings of hundreds of millions dollars through clandestine means including smuggling, drugs and money-laundering was behind the assassination; that people in influential position in Syria and not necessarily directly linked to the president were behind the plot and there is no indication that Assad knew of the conspiracy.
The reason for the killing did not involve Syrian-Lebanese politics, although Hariri had turned to be a bitter critic of Syria's military presence in Lebanon at that time (Syria withdrew its forces from Lebanon in April this year under world pressure following the Hariri killing).
The real reason, proponents of this theory say, those who plotted the killing feared that Hariri was bent upon ending the Syrian presence in Lebanon and this would have meant hundreds of millions of dollars in losses through smuggling, fraud, corruption and drug business and money-laundering using Lebanese and Syrian banks. .
The theorists argue that the group had extensive organisation and considerable resources and capabilities. They used the Syrian military intelligence presence in Lebanon to monitor Hariri's movements for months before deciding setting a date for the killing.
The Mehlis report contains the conclusions on the Hariri assassination drawn from testimonies taken from more than 400 witnesses, but it does not offer any material evidence. More importantly, it does not refer directly to the alleged Lebanese-Syrian nexus which operated the smuggling, fraud and money-laundering network.
The report stops short of naming at least five key Syrian personalities involved in the assassination plot, but the names were removed by Mehlis before it was released to the public, reports have said.
According to the report, the five names removed from the report are those of:
—  Maher Al Assad, the younger brother of Bashar Al Assad;
— the president's brother-in-law General Assef Shawqat, who is also chief of Syrian military intelligence;
— Gen. Roustum Ghazali, the head of special external intelligence and former Syrian military intelligence chief in Lebanon;
— Gen. Hassan Khalil, a liaison officer between the various Syrian intelligence bodies;
and Col. Mohsein Hamoud, a former military intelligence officer who served in Lebanon.
Hamoud is said to have identified by Mehlis as the colonel who drove the Mitsubishi Canter bomb car from Syria to Lebanon on Jan. 21.
That was the vehicle rigged with 1,000 kilogrammes of military explosives which blew up as Hariri's convoy, according to Mehlis.
While the report says that Japanese investigators helping him established that the vehicle was stolen from Sagamihara City, Japan, on Oct.12, 2004, there is no indication whether the German prosecutor sought to trace its transfer from Japan to the Middle East. Surely, establishing the ownership of the vehicle based on registration documents could be central to pinpointing individuals supposedly linked to the bomb attack. Why was the avenue not pursued is a question many are asking.
Robert Parry, author of who broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek, observes (
"The UN report contains no details about the Japanese investigation of the theft, nor does it indicate what Japanese police may have discovered about the identity of the thieves or how they may have shipped the van from a suburb of Tokyo to the Middle East in the four months before the Hariri attack.
"Though the investigation of a vehicle theft may have attracted little Japanese police attention a year ago, the van’s apparent role in a major act of international terrorism would seem to justify a redoubling of those efforts now.
"At minimum, the UN investigators might have insisted on including details such as the name of the original owner, the circumstances surrounding the theft, and the identities of car-theft rings in the Sagamihara area. Plus, investigators could have checked on shipments of white Mitsubishi Canter Vans out of Japan to Middle East destinations.
"Since the time frame between the reported theft and the bombing was less than four months, Japanese authorities could have at least narrowed down those possible shipments and Middle East customs services might have records of imported vehicles."
He goes on to say:
"...While Syria and its freewheeling intelligence services may remain prime suspects in the Hariri assassination, the bitter Iraq experience might justify at least the running down of obvious leads that could either strengthen or disprove the case, like the mystery of the white Mitsubishi Canter Van.
"Investigators might get much closer to the truth if they could determine what happened to the van between the moment it disappeared off the streets of a Japanese city and reappeared almost four months later, rolling towards Rafiq Hariri’s motorcade."
Following are some of the highlights of the Mehlis report:
Gen. Mustapha Hamdan, the commander of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud’s security detail , was the main Lebanese counterpart of the gang.
Gen. Jamil Al Sayyed (head of Lebanese general intelligence) co-operated closely with Hamdan and Gen. Raymond Azar (chief of Lebanese police) in preparing the assassination. He also co-ordinated with Gen. Rustum Ghazali (head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon) and, among others, members of the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP-GC) headed by Ahmed Jibril in Lebanon.
Hamdan and Azar provided logistical support, providing money, telephones, cars, walkie-talkies, pagers, weapons, ID-cards etc.
(Contributing to this theory is an argument that the suicide driver assigned to the bomb-rigged Mitsubishi was an Iraqi individual who was led to believe the target was Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi (who happened to be in Beirut prior to the assassination). The explosives used were of the kind used in Iraq so as to misdirect suspicions towards extremist groups.
Following are highlights of the Mehlis report:
The day before the assassination, the head of Hariri's close protection unit, Yehya Al Arab alias Abu Tareq, had a meeting with Ghazali. He was so shaken up by that meeting that he went home, turned off his phone and stayed there for a few hours. The version given by Ghazali of this meeting is not compatible with other testimony.
In November 2004, Hajj, head of the Internal Security Forces, ordered the state security detail around Hariri reduced from 40 to eight guards.
Eight telephone numbers and 10 mobile telephones were used to organise surveillance on Hariri and to carry out the assassination. The lines were put into circulation on Jan.4, 2005 in the northern part of Lebanon, between Terbol and Menyeh and used to observe Hariri’s habits, mostly in Beirut city.
On the day of the assassination, six of the telephones were used in the area between Parliament Square and the St. George Hotel and the axes of Zqaq Al Blat and Al Bachoura — the route of the Hariri convoy.
Cell site records show that cellular telephones utilising these six calling cards were situated so that they covered every possible route linking Parliament to Kuraytem Palace.
The calls --- and the usage of the cards --- terminated a few minutes before the blast. The lines have all been inactive since.
The technical department of Lebanese Military intelligence Service, headed by Col. Ghassan Tufayli, placed important figures, including Hariri, under permanent wiretapping. The transcripts were forwarded on a daily basis to Raymond Azar and to the head of the army, General Michel Suleyman. Tufayli admitted that transcripts were sent to the Lebanese president and to Ghazali.
The CCTV of the HSBC bank, located close to the scene of the explosion, showed a white Mitsubishi Canter van entering the area of the explosion shortly before Hariri’s convoy and moving six times more slowly than other vehicles on the same stretch of road. The car entered the area one minute and 49 seconds before the Hariri convoy.
The weakness of the Lebanese authorities’ initial action and the tampering with evidence during the first crime scene examination have made it difficult to identify the type of explosives used in the blast and track it to source - and thus denied the investigation an important lead to the perpetrators.
It appears that at least one of the three jamming devices in Hariri’s convoy was operational and functioning at the time of the blast. Further investigation may provide information about how the explosion was activated.
Expert teams deduce from the distribution of the so far located parts of the Mitsubishi Canter truck that the vehicle was possibly used as the bomb carrier.
An aboveground explosion is the most feasible possibility — in which case around 1,000 kg would have been used of extra-high explosive. Samples from the crater wall indicate TNT. No sign of the trigger was found.
The physical evidence and the fact that small human remains were found of an unidentified person, but no large body parts such as legs, feet or lower arms, points to a suicide bomber as the most likely cause of the blast. Another only slightly less likely possibility is that of a remotely-controlled device. However, no residues of such a device have been recovered from the crime scene.
A Palestinian, Abu Adass, who claimed responsibility for the murder in the name of a radical organisation on a videotape aired by Al Jazeera TV, was no more than a decoy. He was detained in Syria and forced at gunpoint to record the video tape. The videotape was sent to Beirut on the morning of Feb.14, and handed over to Gen Jamil Al Sayyed (head of Lebanese General Intelligence). A civilian with a criminal record and a security officer placed the tape somewhere in Hamra and notified Ghassan Ben Jeddo, an Al-Jazeera TV reporter.
There is no evidence that Abu Adass belonged to the group Al Nasra Wal-jihad Fee Bilad Al Sham as claimed in the videotape, or even that such a group ever existed.
There are no indications (other than the videotape) that he drove a truck containing the bomb that killed Hariri. The evidence does show that Abu Adass left his home on Jan.18, 2005, and was taken, voluntarily or not, to Syria, where he was most probably killed.
These details all fall too pat into the case being built against Syria, and that is why they are suspect.
According to Germany's Der Spiegel magazine, a key source of information that Mehlis collected was a convicted swindler who has no credibility.

Pressure point

The US has secured an additional point of pressure against Syria.
A report submitted to the UN Security Council by special envoy Terje Roed-Larsen sharply criticises the Hizbollah’s unchanged status in Lebanon as failure to implement Security Council Resolution 1559’s order to disband all militias and armed groups in Lebanon, including the Palestinians.
He challenges the Hizbollah’s claim to be “a legitimate resistance movement” fighting for the liberation of the Shebaa Farms from Israeli occupation in stark contrast to the UN position that Israel has fulfilled all Security Council resolutions and withdrawn all its forces from Lebanese territory. The UN has ruled that Shebaa Farms are Syrian and not Lebanese territory and therefore Hizbollah does not have a raison d'etre to fight for liberating it from occupation.
Hizbollah is part of the new government of Lebanon; for the first time ever, this group holds a ministerial portfolio.
Roed-Larsen says s that despite its readiness for an internal dialogue and the possible transformation of the Hizbollah from an armed militia to a political party — operating as a political party and as an armed military is contradictory. The group's members are carrying of arms and such practice is not compatible with Hizbollah's participation in power and government in a democracy, said the UN envoy.
Disarming Hizbollah and Palestinians is a key Israeli/American objective, and the UN report strengthens moves towards that end.
Beyond that, however, is the implication in the report that Damascus is violating Security Council resolution 1559 which ordered foreign forces to quit Lebanon and the dismantling of militias in the country.
The report implies that Syria as continuing to maintain military intelligence agents in Lebanon and derailing efforts to start decommissioning the Hizballah.
There could be many who clearly see a pattern that aims at placing Syria in a deathlock as the case was with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, but no argument or theory could dissuade the US and Israel from pursuing their goal for "taming" Syria into total submission through rendering Damascus "teethless" — in all aspects — or through destabilising that country and leading it into a "regime change" and installation of a US-friendly government in Damascus.
If anyone needed any indicator to the joint effort, then here is one: Reports are plenty in cyberspace that the US is already in consultations with Israel and key European allies over a "successor" to Assad.