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French Version

Mehlis report will mark new chapter in history

One of the rare points on which most Lebanese agree lately is that Detlev Mehlis' report will definitely open a new chapter in Lebanon's and the region's history.

It is therefore not surprising that the initial release date for the German prosecutor's report on the assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri was brought forward to diffuse the rising tensions over its contents. But just as its contents remain a mystery, so are the repercussions of this enigmatic report.

According to diplomatic sources following U.S.-Syrian relations, even if Syria is not incriminated in the report, it does not mean that Damascus is off the hook.

If nothing else, the glaring contradiction between President Bashar Assad's latest comments of his country's innocence and those of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that a military strike option was still on the table reflect the tremendous gap between the two sides.

Washington's interest in neutralizing Syria and keeping it under control is neither a secret, nor a surprise. As put by the diplomatic sources, Syria is increasingly perceived as "a dangerous regional power" interfering in the region's security. Washington is determined to fight Damascus by all possible means until it cooperates, in particular, on the Iraqi issue.

The U.S. is uncomfortable with a dominant Syrian influence over key security issues in the region. According to sources, the only grounds on which Washington can reduce Damascus' position in the region is through its role in Lebanon, under the auspices of the UN.

If the Mehlis report incriminates Syria - which until Thursday evening was the most probable likelihood - sanctions could easily (and legitimately) be taken against Damascus.

But if the Mehlis report fails to level direct accusations against Syria - and back them up with hard evidence - the U.S. will have to come up with other means by which to pressure Damascus. One such method recently mentioned in The Washington Post is two joint American-French draft resolutions reportedly being prepared for submission to the Security Council condemning Syrian interference in Lebanon.

Additional pressure could also be applied through another pending report, that of UN special envoy in charge of following up the implementation of Resolution 1559, Terje Roed-Larsen.

Initially slotted to be delivered simultaneously with that of Mehlis, Larsen's report has been delayed until the end of the month. Extending Larsen's deadline was obviously meant to allow the various concerned parties an opportunity to gauge local and international reaction to the Mehlis report, and to see how it affects Syria.

Larsen's report is widely expected to include renewed calls to disarm the Palestinians and Hizbullah - two cards in Syria's hand. However, disarmament of both groups will become even more difficult if Mehlis does not contain conclusive evidence against Syria. Without evidence, neither the Palestinians nor Hizbullah will wish to be seen as cooperating with foreign efforts to isolate Syria.

Another factor hinging on the Mehlis report is the potential establishment of an international tribunal to handle the Hariri case.

Legal experts agree that creating an international tribunal is in itself a difficult mission. But while some consider it an almost impossible task, others see it as the only way out of what is likely to become a major judicial deadlock.

While a UN resolution calling for the building of such a tribunal could be ratified quickly, these experts said that the legal and technical procedures necessary to put such a court in place would require at least a year to become operational.

Moreover, they added that the cost of such an endeavor could easily climb to $20 million to $30 million a year.

Another complication, however unlikely, could present itself should a permanent Security Council member, such as Russia, decide to veto a resolution calling for an international tribunal if there is no definitive evidence pointing to Syria's involvement in the Hariri assassination.

However, political sources say that, amid an international atmosphere so clearly hostile to Syria, it is unlikely any party would go against the current.

In any event, it is difficult to imagine that any trials could be held outside an international tribunal, especially if Mehlis - as expected - names Syrian suspects.

Although the Lebanese judiciary is viewed to be fit for the task, according to Lebanese law, it is highly unlikely that Syria would accept the extradition of its nationals, whether to Lebanon or anywhere else.

At the same time, it is just as unlikely that the international community would accept the Syrian judiciary handling the trial of its own nationals in the event they are indicted.

A further complication has appeared concerning the opposition of some international powers to the fact that, if convicted, suspects tried for Hariri's murder would face the death penalty in both Lebanon and Syria. The polemic over the Lebanese extradition request of France for Syrian Zuhair Saddiq is a perfect illustration of the difficulties that may emerge in the post-report phase.

Beirut,10 24 2005
Zeina Abu Rizk
The Daily Star
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