U.N. Weighs Next Move on Syria
The Security Council began considering ways to keep pressure on Syria to cooperate with a U.N. investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri after hearing Tuesday that Damascus had burned documents and intimidated witnesses.
Several diplomats said the council was not ready to consider sanctions or call for the arrest of suspects from the Syrian president’s inner circle after closely questioning the chief investigator, German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis. Instead, the council is mulling a new draft resolution reflecting two requests from the Lebanese government: to widen the inquiry into Hariri’s death to include other political killings, and to create an international tribunal that would try suspects in the Hariri assassination.
In a closed-door Security Council session, Mehlis described interviews with five high-level Syrian officials at the United Nations compound in Vienna last week. He said a sixth had not yet been interviewed, who a diplomat close to the investigation confirmed was Asef Shawkat, the president’s brother-in-law and head of Syrian military intelligence. Mehlis did not reveal the names of those interviewed or urge their detention, saying that “it would not be helpful” at this point in the inquiry.
An early draft of Mehlis’ first report to the Security Council named some of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s close aides as suspects, including Shawkat and Maher Assad, the president’s younger brother and commander of the Republican Guard. The names were not in the final report released to the public.
The Syrian government did not grant the interviews until a week before the deadline, causing Mehlis to lament a pattern of “reluctance and procrastination.” He urged Damascus to be “more forthcoming” and to cooperate fully and unconditionally with the inquiry.
“At this rate, the investigation might take another year or two,” he told the U.N. Security Council. A council resolution threatens sanctions if Syria does not comply quickly and completely.
Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations said his government was seeking to cooperate with the Hariri investigation, and he again denied charges that Damascus was behind the Lebanese politician’s slaying.
“Syria is making every possible effort to facilitate the task of this commission in order for it to fully and satisfactorily discharge its task,” Ambassador Fayssal Mekdad told the Security Council.
But U.S. Ambassador John R. Bolton said that details in the report about disappearing documents, grudging testimonies and witness intimidation made it clear that Syria was trying to block the inquiry and should be pressured to comply with investigators’ demands.
“On the part of the United States there is absolutely no wavering from the proposition that Syria is not going to get away with obstructing this investigation,” he said. “It’s not going to cover up the actions of its senior officials, and it’s not going to escape the consequences.”
France introduced a draft resolution Tuesday evening seeking an extension of the investigation beyond its six-month mandate, which expires Thursday. It also proposes establishing an international tribunal to try suspects in the assassination and expanding the investigation to include political killings in Lebanon since October 2004, at the discretion of the commission. Since then, four prominent Lebanese critics of Syria have been killed by car bombs, including newspaper publisher and politician Gibran Tueni on Monday.
Tueni died a day after he returned to Lebanon from Paris, to which he had fled believing that his life was in danger.
Mourners streamed through a Greek Orthodox church Tuesday to pay their respects. Schools closed and newspapers and TV stations ran tributes to Tueni, who is to be buried today.
“We are facing a real state of war, not a traditional or classical war, but a war that is being carried out through these assassinations,” former Christian militia leader Samir Geagea told LBC television. Geagea, who had been serving a life sentence for his role in the assassination of rival leaders during Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war, was pardoned in July.
“They are waging a war to prevent the establishment of a real state in Lebanon.”
Times staff writer Megan K. Stack in Beirut contributed to this report.