Truth and consequences in Syria

WHEN LEBANESE police arrested four former army and intelligence chiefs in late August, Arab commentators quickly concluded that something profound was happening -- not just for Lebanon but the whole Arab world. The four, once pillars of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud’s pro-Syrian regime, are suspects in the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The arrests were made at the request of Detlev Mehlis, the German prosecutor in charge of a U.N. team investigating the case.

For commentator Raghida Dergham of the pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat, the U.N. inquiry was “an earthquake” ending “the era of political assassinations.” For Rami Khouri of Beirut’s Daily Star, the arrests marked a “turning point that could shatter the dominance of political power by Arab security and military Establishments,” much as the birth of the Solidarity trade union movement “resulted in the collapse of the communist police state system” in Eastern Europe.

Perhaps. But the resistance to such an outcome will be fierce, and nowhere more so than in Damascus, where Mehlis has begun to widen his investigation in pursuit of Syrian suspects in Hariri’s murder.


The deep importance of the Hariri affair to the Arab “nation” stems in part from the way it contrasts to that other external intervention in the region, the Iraq war. The small-scale intervention in Lebanon and the radical, comprehensive one in Iraq are different in their particulars, but they both seek to repair and reconstruct governments ravaged by conflict or misrule, and to treat maladies such as tyranny, terrorism and abuse of human rights. But as the radical one sinks deeper into the mire of calamity, the small one, largely welcomed by the society to which it has been applied, is working.

Of all Arab countries, Lebanon was the best candidate for such an experiment. Thanks to the pluralism of its explicitly sectarian politics, it has a resilient, if flawed, democratic tradition that never succumbed totally to authoritarian Syrian domination. In the end, it was Syria’s very excesses that generated Lebanon’s “democratic uprising” and the consequent American- and French-led international will to back it, in the shape of Mehlis’ investigation.

His pursuit of the truth about who killed Hariri is central to the whole reconstruction enterprise. And so far, so good. But in his interim report to the United Nations, leaked to the Beirut press, he openly doubts whether Lebanese institutions are yet capable of carrying through the trial and conviction of culprits he is unmasking. Witnesses remain fearful of reprisals by the old order which, with Lahoud at its head, is still fighting for power.

Yet the challenges Mehlis faces in Lebanon pale before those that await him in Damascus. If the U.N.-enforced withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon dealt the tyrannical Baathist regime in Damascus a mighty blow, Mehlis’ findings could deal it a mortal one. That is what many Syrians think, and why a mixture of excitement and fear now stalk the land.

SYRIAN PRESIDENT Bashar Assad certainly faces a hard choice -- between cooperating with Mehlis or defying him. At the moment, he has welcomed him, but if Mehlis goes on to demand the prosecution of Syrian suspects as high-ranking as those in Lebanon, will the welcome continue?

Assad is the weak head of a regime built around clan solidarity and the consensus of rival fiefdoms. If he attempts to save himself through the sacrifice of others, Syrians say, he could set off an internal explosion that, in the absence of an effective opposition, has long been seen as the likeliest manner of the Baathists’ eventual undoing.

To defy Mehlis, as Assad hints he might, would seem almost as suicidal. It would turn Syria into an international pariah, align Europe behind economic sanctions and convince his already restive people that their government is the prime source of their woes, with the Hariri murder as the crowning blunder for which they must pay the price.

Many Syrians would like to see their Baathist leaders get a comeuppance in an international tribunal. But they are also afraid that a regime crisis could degenerate into a national one, even into civil war.

So serious is that fear that “apres moi le deluge” is seen as Assad’s last card, his only chance of clinching a grand bargain for continued mastery in his own house. He would yield Syrian strategic “assets” in Lebanon and Iraq, for instance, that have always furnished the means to impede or assist American purposes -- in return for survival.

If the Syrian people are worried about the outcome of the Hariri affair, shouldn’t the world be too? Would it really like its “good” intervention to go the grim way of its “bad” one -- and risk a second Iraq? If, in the era of President Bush’s “freedom and democracy,” the United States and the world were cynical enough to strike a bargain with a minor player such as Libya’s Moammar Kadafi, might they not do the same with an embattled Assad, for much greater reward at the strategic and emotional heart of the Arab world?

DAVID HIRST, the Guardian’s Middle East correspondent from 1963 to 1997, is the author of “The Gun and the Olive Branch” (Nation Books, 2003).