Report on Lebanon assassination puts Syria's leadership on the spot

October 25, 2005|By TRUDY RUBIN

PHILADELPHIA -- Three months ago, I visited the flower-bedecked grave of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a makeshift memorial tent erected beside Beirut's Martyrs' Square.

A U.N. investigation into the Hariri murder, led by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, pointed the finger Friday at top Syrian officials. Mr. Mehlis' hefty report paints a detailed picture of top Syrian and Lebanese security thugs plotting to eliminate Mr. Hariri because he wanted Syrian troops to leave his country.

A Syrian intelligence source who squealed claims the plot was hatched by the powerful brother and brother-in-law of Syrian President Bashar Assad. He describes alleged meetings at Damascus' Meridien Hotel, the Presidential Palace and the office of the brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat.

The strong evidence that the Syrian regime did order the murder could shake up an already unstable region. The U.N. report guarantees that international pressure on the weak Syrian regime will be intense, and it could crumble.

But there is no opposition movement positioned to replace Mr. Assad. When I visited Syria in June and spoke to several brave dissidents, they admitted they have little following in the country. Human rights advocate Anwar Bunni told me: "The problem is that we haven't a real organized opposition. With no political life or civil society, [the regime] has killed all political movements."

Although the smattering of opposition groups has just issued a "Damascus declaration" calling for democratic change, they couldn't put forward a political alternative if the regime collapsed. The most potent opposition groups are banned Islamists (and Kurdish separatists). "If there were chaos here, the mosques would mobilize," I was told by Joshua Landis, an expert on Syrian history at the University of Oklahoma. "The seculars have zero purchase. There is no grassroots base here."

This reality is now recognized by the Bush administration. No one wants to see Syria implode like postwar Iraq (though a few U.S. officials still nourish hopes for speedy Syrian "regime change"). Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice talks of pressing Mr. Assad for "policy change" rather than "regime change."

Yet Mr. Assad seems unwilling or unable to make the changes he needs to deal with new realities in the region. U.S. officials express frustration at his unwillingness to shut down the flow of Arab Islamists into Iraq and his help to hard-line Palestinian groups and Hezbollah. The U.N. report on Mr. Hariri will prompt a push for economic sanctions against Syria at the Security Council.

If Mr. Assad fails to respond, there may be pressure within the Bush administration for military action inside Syria along its border with Iraq. This would be counterproductive, alienating Sunni tribes that straddle the Syria-Iraq border; those tribes might become even more willing to aid the flow of Islamists.

The Syrian leader could have taken pre-emptive action to arrest officials involved in the Hariri murder. Instead, his regime stonewalled U.N. investigators. He may be too weak to act, too beholden to members of his family clique who allegedly ordered the murder. He may believe his weakness will save him because others fear post-Assad chaos. Or he may think there's nothing he can do that will satisfy the Bush team.

Whatever the reason, the Syrian leader can dally no longer. The U.N. report on Mr. Hariri's death has hastened his moment of truth.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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