September 21, 2005
U.N. Murder Investigation Closes in on Syria
BY Kate Seelye
Children display a poster of Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad during a pro-Syrian rally earlier this year.
The bomb site had a familiar feel. Shards of glass littered streets. Shop fronts and apartment windows were completely blown out. Dazed residents picked through overturned furniture and broken kitchenware by candlelight. Outside, the charred frames of several cars still smoldered, marking the site where two bombs had been planted on a side street just before midnight, this past Friday, September 17.
The attack was the 12th bombing in Lebanon since the February car bomb assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. I've been to seven of the bomb sites so far. Like most previous attacks, this one targeted a Christian neighborhood, the working-class Beirut neighborhood of Jeitaoui.
It killed one man and wounded dozens. At the crime scene, I found Jeitaoui residents, many of them elderly, still in their pajamas, angry, fed up. "When is this going to end?" complained Paul, a jeweler from the neighborhood, who asked that I not use his family name.
Atef Majdalani, a member of the Lebanese parliament, said later that the attacks would not end until the "truth comes out about those who planned the killing of Rafiq Hariri."
Many Lebanese blame Syria for the assassination of the billionaire businessman. It's a charge that the Syrian government strongly denies. But these days, as progress is made in a U.N. investigation into the Hariri killing, the noose is tightening around the Damascus regime. A U.N. team has been in Lebanon since June investigating the Hariri assassination. Led by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, the team has spoken to nearly 300 witnesses, reassembled the Mitsubishi truck that carried the bomb, traced phone calls and pieced together myriad scraps of other evidence. According to The New York Times, investigators say they have also been greatly helped by a former Syrian intelligence agent in Lebanon who came forward over the summer, divulging critical information about the killing.
"Bashar al-Assad cancelled his much-anticipated trip to attend the U.N. General Assembly in mid-September. He would have been the first Syrian president to travel to the United States in 40 years."
That helped lead to a major breakthrough in the case in late August -- the arrest of four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals. The three former security chiefs and the commander of the Presidential Guards have since been charged by a Lebanese prosecutor with planning and executing the bomb attack that killed Hariri and 20 others.
All four generals had close ties to Syria, according to Dory Chamoun, a Christian political leader and longtime Syrian critic. "They were all handpicked by the Syrians," Chamoun told me. "So if they are implicated, it means somewhere down the line, Syria is implicated too."
Butheina Shabaan is Syria's Minister of Expatriates and an articulate spokeswoman for the Syrian regime. I contacted her by telephone while she was in New York attending a gathering of world and business leaders hosted by former President Bill Clinton (coinciding with the U.N. General Assembly). I asked her to respond to growing rumors about Syria's involvement in the Hariri assassination.
Syria's Minister of Expatriates, Butheina Shabaan, says that dialogue not international isolation is needed for her country.
Shabaan warned against prejudging the investigation. "Even Mehlis," she told me, "has said no one is indicted." Shabaan added that Syria has the most to lose from the Hariri killing. "The real target is Syria and Lebanon," she said, noting that the assassination was not in the interest of either country -- the same point she had made when I interviewed her in Damascus last spring for FRONTLINE/World.
Despite Syria's protests of innocence, however, international pressure on the regime has been building, led by almost daily criticism from the Bush administration, which accuses Syria of supporting Iraqi insurgents and continuing to meddle in Lebanese affairs. Following the arrest of the four Lebanese generals and facing increased international isolation, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad cancelled his much-anticipated trip to attend the U.N. General Assembly in mid-September. He would have been the first Syrian president to travel to the United States in 40 years. Many in Damascus were hoping that the high-profile visit by the 39-year-old president and his telegenic British-born wife, Asma, might help boost Syria's sinking international image.
But according to a Syrian official, who spoke off the record, the U.S. administration made it clear that the Syrian delegation would not be welcome in the United States. Some were even denied visas.
Much of the U.S. pressure stems from what the U.S. government says is Syria's role in encouraging violence in Iraq. President Bush said recently that Syria could "do a lot more to prevent the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq," and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilizad, warned that "our patience is running out." But Shabaan insists Damascus is doing all it can. She points to a fortified sand barrier along the Syrian-Iraqi border and stepped-up border patrols. Shabaan says that, like the United States, Syria wants a stable Iraq and is also threatened by radical jihadists. Instead of throwing accusations at Damascus, Shabaan says, Washington should sit down and talk about its concerns with the Syrian government.
"Syria has been saying for two years that dialogue is the way to go," Shabaan told me. But instead, Shabaan argues, Syria is being unfairly targeted by the United States and other nations. "Why is Syria on the hook?" she asks, pointing out that Damascus has fulfilled the terms of U.N. Resolution 1559 by withdrawing from Lebanon, whereas Israel has yet to implement U.N. Resolution 242, which calls for its withdrawal from occupied Arab lands, including Syria's Golan region. But with the U.N. investigators breathing down Syria's neck, few nations are willing to come to its defense.
FRONTLINE/World reporter Kate Seelye on her way to Damascus.
U.N. prosecutor Mehlis heads to Damascus this week to begin questioning at least four Syrian security officials who were based in Lebanon. The move comes after Mehlis complained last month that a lack of Syrian cooperation was slowing down his work. President al-Assad quickly responded by pledging full cooperation and inviting Mehlis to Damascus to work out the details. "We have nothing to hide," insists Shabaan.
Among the officials who will be questioned is Ghazi Kanaan, the former head of military intelligence in Lebanon and currently Syria's Minister of the Interior. There's even talk that Mehlis may seek to question the president's brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, who is head of Syria's military intelligence, and possibly Maher Assad, the president's brother and head of the Syrian Republican Guard.
This unprecedented turn of events is causing enormous anxiety in Damascus. After dismissing the U.N. investigation much of the summer, Syrians are waking up to the fact that their government could be implicated in the Hariri murder and possibly face crippling U.N. sanctions. There's even talk of a regime change, with rumors swirling about possible palace coups. Friends tell me that some members of the ruling Alawite minority are making plans to leave the country -- fearing a Sunni backlash -- should Assad fall.
Certainly some in Lebanon are looking ahead to a Syria free from al-Assad. Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt told me recently that he's confident the Mehlis report will determine who killed Hariri, causing what he predicts will be "an earthquake in the Middle East." Lebanon should look "beyond the regime of Bashar al-Assad," Jumblatt said, adding, "[Then] we have to establish good relations with the Syrian people. Syrian stability is a must for Lebanese stability."
U.N. investigator Detlev Mehlis has until October 25 to complete his investigation.
Kate Seelye is a Middle East correspondent for the PRI/BBC radio program, The World and a regular contributor to FRONTLINE/World. Read more of Seelye's dispatches and watch her Lebanon and Syria story "The Earthquake," broadcast last May and available in streaming video on this site.