TOPICS > Politics

Syrian Murder Plot

October 21, 2005 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: This was the scene in downtown Beirut last February after a massive explosion killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Fingers were pointed at neighboring Syria, which had occupied Lebanon for nearly 30 years.

Hariri’s death triggered massive demonstrations in Beirut, demanding the Syrian troops leave. And in April, they did. Soon after, Lebanon held new elections that diminished Syria’s heavy political influence there.

Separately, the U.N. Security Council tapped a German prosecutor, Detlev Mehlis, to conduct an unprecedented international investigation of the crime. Yesterday Mehlis delivered his first report to Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

The conclusions, made public today, pinned responsibility for the assassination squarely on top Syrian and Lebanese intelligence officials. It said the attack was carried out with a group with an extensive organization and considerable resources and capabilities; that many leads point directly towards Syrian security officials as being involved with the assassination; and that the likely motive of the assassination was political.

The report also noted several interviewees tried to mislead the investigation by giving false or inaccurate statements, among them, Syria’s foreign minister, Farouk al Charaa. Today Syrian officials vehemently denied any involvement in Hariri’s death.

FAYSSAL MEKDAD, UN Ambassador, Syria: Syria strongly believes that it is innocent and that the committee has to look somewhere else to find those who committed this heinous crime.

MARGARET WARNER: The tone was similar on the streets of the Syrian capital, Damascus.

MAN (Translated): The report is orchestrated to give Syria a bad image.

MARGARET WARNER: Some of the most startling revelations in Mehlis’s report came in e-mailed copies in which names marked for deletion nonetheless appeared in the margins. Those sections fingered Syrian President Bashar Assad’s brother, Maher Assad, and his brother-in-law, the powerful military intelligence chief, Assef Shawkat.

That accusation, like the rest of the report on Hariri’s killing, was based on extensive interviews conducted with senior Lebanese and Syrian officials.

Among those interviewed was Syria’s interior minister who had exercised major influence in Lebanon, General Ghazi Kanan. Kanan was found dead in his Damascus office last week from a gunshot through his mouth.

In Lebanon today the UN report dominated the newspapers. In the U.S., Secretary of State Rice said, “Accountability is going to be very important for the international community.”

The Security Council is scheduled to discuss the report on Tuesday. Mehlis, meanwhile, says his investigation continues.

And for more on all of this we turn to: David Ignatius, a foreign affairs columnist for the Washington Post who’s covered Lebanon since the early 1980s; and Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief for the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar; he also hosts a weekly program on the Arab satellite channel Al-Arabiya. Born and raised in Lebanon, he’s now a US Citizen.

MARGARET WARNER: Welcome to you both.

David Ignatius before we get into all the details, what did you find most striking about this report?

DAVID IGNATIUS: Well, I just found the tone extraordinary. If you think of a novel, imagine “The Godfather Meets the Baath Party” — it is so unlikely. But you read the details of this investigation and as your earlier report says, they have a witness who says that the head of the Lebanese security met with the brother of the president of Syria, Maher Assad, and the brother-in-law of the president of Syria, and they together plotted to assassinate the former prime minister of the neighboring country, Lebanon. There’s all kinds of evidence in this document that back up their claims. I found it a quite devastating piece of investigation.

MARGARET WARNER: What was your immediate reaction?

HISHAM MELHEM: I saw in the report broad political and moral indictment of the Syrian regime, specifically a criminal indictment of both the security apparatus in Syria and Lebanon; also I think it’s an indictment of a pervasive culture of fear and intimidation in most of the Arab states, not only in Lebanon and Syria.

Beyond that, this report could be historic for the simple reason that this is the first time since the Lebanese conflict began in the mid 1970s, and for that matter, throughout the Arab world in the last 50 years, this is the first time we’ve seen a serious international investigation into the killing of a major political figure.

And in the Arab world, we’ve seen literally scores of such killings going without any serious investigation or any consequences. That’s why it is historic.

MARGARET WARNER: David, the report, while the report, for instance, the thing you just mentioned and we mentioned about these five gentlemen, that comes from one witness but the report absolutely concludes that this could not have been carried out without the active involvement of the Syrian — senior Syrian officials.

As we heard, the Syrians are saying it is riddled with inconsistencies, uncorroborated reports. Help us out with this. How extensive is the evidence to back up that major charge?

DAVID IGNATIUS: The evidence is extensive but its witnesses, it’s evidence that would have to be tested in a court of law. There is some technical evidence. There were a series of cell phone calls within minutes before the bomb blast took off — as it appears — the route of Hariri’s motorcade was surveilled by Syrian and Lebanese agents.

There is other communications information, some brutal threats that were made by Syrian officials against Hariri that have — were recorded or appear here in transcription.

But I think the honest answer is that to make this case in court will take a lot of work. And it will take witnesses who stay alive. I mean, you know, the key person in Syria in some ways overseeing Lebanon, a man who was a friend of Rafik Hariri’s in fact, ended up dead a week ago from an apparent suicide.

Very few Lebanese that I talked to believe that was a suicide. I know that French officials are very worried that in the next few days reprisals will come in Beirut against potential witnesses in an attempt to derail this investigation.

MARGARET WARNER: What was your thought about how well documented this is? I mean Mehlis says himself there is a lot more to be done and all this has to be tested in a tribunal.

HISHAM MELHEM: There is also belief that Mehlis did not include everything he has or he knew in this report because, again, this is an interim report. This is not the final word.

Now obviously as David said, there is a significant amount of recording, of taped conversations.

MARGARET WARNER: Transcripts.

HISHAM MELHEM: Transcripts between Syrian officials, intelligence officials and Lebanese politicians, recording of conversations between Prime Minister Hariri himself and a senior Syrian official probably found in Hariri’s office in addition to interviews with literally scores and hundreds of witnesses.

And most of it paint a bleak picture of conditions in Lebanon when the Syrians were operating and shows the depth of the animosity that the Syrians had for Rafik Hariri because they saw in him a potential for creating a political coalition in Lebanon that would include other figures and other groups in Lebanon that will say to the Syrians, ask the Syrians to leave Lebanon and their hegemony over the country.

MARGARET WARNER: The report does say that the motive was political. Was that the political motive, that Syrians had one for getting rid of Hariri?

DAVID IGNATIUS: If you look at the text, Margaret, you will see that this key meeting that took place in Damascus that we have referred where the Syrian President — Assad’s brother and brother-in-law plotted with the Lebanese colleague –

MARGARET WARNER: According to this one witness.

DAVID IGNATIUS: According to this witness, took place two weeks after the United Nations Security Council had approved Resolution 1559 calling for withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

In other words, it appears to have been a direct response and reprisal against Hariri, who had been a champion of this call for Syrian withdrawal. It was intolerable to the Syrians and it they took — it is alleged — brutal action.

MARGARET WARNER: And the Syrians thought, did they not, that Hariri was in cahoots with French President Chirac to get it through the UN?

DAVID IGNATIUS: They regarded this as a French-Hariri project. They were very close. And in fact, it was the French who had pushed the United States to pass 1559 in the first place.

MARGARET WARNER: Then there’s this very important meeting in August of 2004, they interviewed many witnesses from, this is from President Assad summoned then-President Hariri to Damascus. Why was that so important, just tell us a little about that.

HISHAM MELHEM: He was summoned to Damascus, before he went to Damascus he had to meet the Syrian intelligence boss in Lebanon on his way to Damascus. And he had to meet him; he had to meet him again on his way back from Damascus. It was a short brisk meeting, ten, fifteen minutes according to many people. I even spoke with before the matter. This was a well-known story, account of what happened in Lebanon. According to Hariri, he told a number of people, family members parliamentarians, other colleagues that President Assad said essentially I want you to say yes to my decision to extend the terms that the President Emil Lahud -

MARGARET WARNER: Who was pro Syrian.

HISHAM MELHEM: More that than pro Syrian, actually. And if you don’t do that, I will break Lebanon over your heads and over the head of his ally, and in other accounts he said Jack Chirac thinks he can drive Syrian out of Lebanon I’m going to destroy Lebanon, I’m going to destroy Lebanon. This account or this chilling account was corroborated by a number of witnesses. And it was a very short meeting.

And in fact, we heard about this account from many people before Mehlis, immediately after the assassination of Hariri, this is a very well-known story. I mean, these threats to Hariri are believed in Lebanon to be extremely documented and true.

MARGARET WARNER: Now another charge in this report by the investigator is that Syrian officials actively tried to mislead investigators. Give us an example or two of how the investigators concluded that. In other words, the Syrians were saying one thing and somehow they had evidence of something else.

HISHAM MELHEM: Well, in fact, that meeting with Assad and Hariri, according to, Farouk Charaa, the foreign minister of Syria, and according to the last security boss in Lebanon painted a misleading picture. It was cordial, it was friendly. Assad referred to Hariri as my friend. And when you compare that to the other accounts, the Lebanese accounts it’s black and white.

And also there were other reports in which the former Syrian ambassador in Washington, Willard Marlin — it’s very well-known in the United States — saying one thing to the commission on the record and then according to a transcript of a taped meeting between Hariri and Willard Marlin, Willard Marlin essentially is telling Hariri we got you cornered. I mean, it is a completely different account.

MARGARET WARNER: Where does it go from here? Let’s say at the UN, first of all, David?

DAVID IGNATIUS: Well, Margaret, President Bush today began to suggest what the US view is, and this is a view that has been worked out especially with France but in consultation with the Lebanese government with other allies. The president called for a meeting at the United Nations of foreign ministers, in other words, an unusually high level meeting next week, probably, you know, the middle of the week that would discuss what to do about Syria and about this report condemning Syria’s top leadership in this killing.

I’m told that the administration is discussing now, will be brainstorming over the weekend what that session should call for. There is a worry first — and I mentioned this earlier, the French are very concerned that on the ground in Lebanon Syrians in effect will double their bets. You know, you think we have been brutal so far? Just watch and really try to back everybody off. So there is a feeling that you have to move very quickly.

There is a worry in the administration that simply announcing sanctions, you know, of indeterminate duration won’t really get at this. There’s a need to act very quickly and decisively. We’ve had sanctions placed against Cuba for what, 40 years. I mean, so there’s a desire not to put Syria in that category for permanent sanctions, maybe much more aggressive sanctions, short term, maybe a call for very quick delivery of key witnesses and information, or much more dramatic action subsequently.

MARGARET WARNER: So, in other words, you think that will be the game plan here to try to put more pressure on Syria to actually cooperate further with this investigation?

HISHAM MELHEM: The American assessment of the Syrian regime is that it is weak and flailing. And I think that’s an objective assessment of many Syria watchers, Europeans in the Arab world or in the United States. And I think while the Americans publicly talk about change of behavior in Damascus, not necessarily change of regime, they believe at this stage that they cannot deal with the president. They don’t believe him. They want him to deliver on certain specific promises. And they are going to hold him accountable. And that is why this word “accountable” accountability was used -

MARGARET WARNER: Which Condi Rice used today.

HISHAM MELHEM: — by not only Condi Rice but other American officials, definitely.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Hisham Melhem, David Ignatius, thank you.