U.S. and Allies Seek Action Against Syria

Times Staff Writer

International pressure on Syria mounted Tuesday as the U.S., France and Britain introduced a Security Council resolution threatening to consider sanctions if the country didn’t cooperate with an inquiry into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. And President Bush said he had not ruled out military action if Syria didn’t comply.

Bush told Al Arabiya television channel, based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, that he preferred a diplomatic solution to what he viewed as Syria’s persistent efforts to destabilize the Middle East, including possible involvement in Hariri’s killing.

But when asked what the U.S. would do if Syria did not change its policies, he said: “We’re going to use our military. It is the last, very last option. No commander in chief likes to commit the military, and I don’t. But on the other hand, you know, I have worked hard for diplomacy, and I will continue to work the diplomatic angle on this issue.”

Bush’s comments were echoed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who said that the U.S. had not eliminated any options regarding the Damascus government.


But the saber-rattling was seen by diplomats at the U.N. as an attempt to lend gravity to diplomatic efforts here, rather than a brazen threat to send in troops.

Those efforts intensified Tuesday, as the United States, France and Britain introduced their resolution, which also calls for freezing the assets of suspects in Hariri’s slaying and banning their travel.

The U.N. has been investigating the Feb. 14 bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others in Beirut. The chief of the investigation, German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, told the Security Council on Tuesday that evidence pointed to the involvement of senior Syrian officials and their Lebanese allies in the plot to kill the former prime minister.

An early version of his report, which became public last week, said evidence suggests that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s brother, brother-in-law and a close friend planned the assassination over several months. The plotters would meet in the house of the brother-in-law, Gen. Asef Shawkat, Syria’s military intelligence chief, the report said.


A witness described the plot in detail, telling U.N. investigators that Shawkat held a gun to a man’s head and forced him to make a videotape claiming he was the suicide bomber to make it appear that an extremist group was behind the killing, the Mehlis report said.

The videotape surfaced after the slaying, although it was widely rejected as a fraud. The man has disappeared and is presumed dead.

Mehlis expunged the names from the report hours before its release, saying they were meant for the Security Council only. The men have not been detained.

Mehlis said that Syria had not been cooperative: President Assad refused to meet with his investigators, Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh lied to them, and the answers from other senior Syrian officials he interviewed were so uniform that they appeared to have been coached. The chief investigator asked for an extension of the inquiry until Dec. 15 -- which was granted -- so he could interview Damascus officials privately, even taking them out of the country if necessary to protect them.


Syria’s ambassador to the U.N., Fayssal Mekdad, called Mehlis’ report inaccurate, a rush to judgment and a way for Washington to push its political agenda through the Security Council.

“Every paragraph in this report deserves comment to refute it,” he said. But Mekdad pledged Syria’s cooperation and repeated Assad’s promise to consider as a traitor anyone found to be involved in the plot and to put those responsible on trial.

The foreign ministers of the 15 Security Council member countries plus Syria will meet at a special session in New York on Monday during which the council is expected to vote on the proposed resolution.

The draft text is unusually stringent, demanding “substantive cooperation” from Damascus in the investigation, including detaining the Syrian officials whom Mehlis’ team considers suspicious and making them available for private questioning.


If Mehlis’ commission officially designates someone as a suspect, the text states, that person would be subject to an international travel ban and asset freeze to keep them from fleeing. The suspects would probably include the 10 people already arrested by Lebanese authorities, including four pro-Syria Lebanese generals.

The draft resolution also declares that Syria must stop interfering in Lebanese affairs and “scrupulously” respect the sovereignty and independence of its neighbor. It threatens to consider economic sanctions if Damascus does not comply.

“We want a very strong signal from the council to the government of Syria that its obstructionism has to cease, and cease immediately,” U.S. Ambassador John R. Bolton said. “And we want substantive cooperation in the investigation from Syria. We want witnesses made available; we want documents produced; we want real cooperation, not simply the appearance of cooperation.”

In preliminary negotiations, Security Council members China, Russia and Algeria have resisted the idea of sanctions until Mehlis makes his final report in December.


Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin warned in a statement Saturday that “the settlement of this problem should in no way lead to the emergence of a new hotbed of tension and further destabilization in the Middle East.”