Damascus protests too much

October 31, 2005

Syria needs to do more than declare its innocence in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. That's a dead end. The findings so far of a special United Nations investigation implicate top Syrian officials in the murders of Mr. Hariri and 22 others in disturbing ways that cannot be dismissed by Syrian President Bashar Assad's repeated protests.

The investigation's log of cell phone traffic tracking Mr. Hariri on the day of his death revealed a trail of complicity that led to Syria's Lebanese surrogates. Mr. Assad's offer last week to bring to trial any Syrian credibly accused in the Hariri murders, as reported in The Washington Post, is in keeping with a leader who has nothing to hide. But if Mr. Assad is so thoroughly convinced of his government's innocence in the Feb. 14 car bombing, he should turn over whatever investigators need to conclude their inquiry.

The investigation's early findings have put Mr. Assad on shaky ground. The alleged involvement of key people in Mr. Assad's inner circle brings the matter right to the president's door. The allegations suggest either that Mr. Assad approved of a plot to kill Mr. Hariri or that he conveniently didn't have a clue. German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, the lead U.N. investigator, has cautioned that no one's guilt has been affirmed. But Mr. Assad, who has sought a more public role for himself than that of his late father, won't necessarily emerge from this investigation unscathed.

The trouble with Syria is that the fall of the present regime wouldn't necessarily benefit the region. Who would replace this government if it fell? Mr. Assad's father tightly controlled the political landscape - and crushed any vocal opposition. That's still going on. The instability of neighboring Iraq and Lebanon's restive democracy foster a sense of insecurity among average Syrians, which helps secure the Assad regime.

The United States, France and Britain are mounting a campaign to impose U.N. sanctions against Syria in anticipation of the conclusion of the Hariri investigation. Mr. Assad could circumvent that effort by cooperating fully with Mr. Mehlis' investigation, improving political conditions at home, and stopping aid to Palestinian and Iranian-backed terror groups in the region. That would hold greater sway in the international community than protestations of innocence.

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