BEIRUT, LEBANON — Syrian President Bashar Assad hinted yesterday that he would not agree to the demands of a U.N. probe into the killing of a top Lebanese politician, setting up a possible showdown between Syria and the United Nations.
In a defiant, 80-minute speech at Damascus University, Assad said there would be limits to Syria's cooperation with U.N. investigator Detlev Mehlis.
"We will play their game," he said, adding that Syrian assistance will "stop when Syria is going to be harmed."
Assad said Mehlis, who is investigating the Feb. 14 bombing that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, has rejected Damascus' terms for interviewing six top Syrian officials. They include Assad's brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, who heads Syrian military intelligence.
In a resolution approved last week, the U.N. Security Council demanded that Syria agree to any conditions set by Mehlis for interviewing its officials. If Syria does not cooperate, the council could take "further action," such as imposing economic sanctions.
French President Jacques Chirac, whose country sponsored the resolution along with the United States and Britain, warned Syria that it is close to facing international isolation. If Assad "continues to refuse to listen, or understand, then it will become necessary to move to another level, which is that of sanctions," Chirac said in Paris.
U.S. officials also criticized Assad for his speech. If Mehlis "wants something, he should get it without delay and without complication," said Adam Ereli, a State Department spokesman. "It's not up to Syria to negotiate terms."
In an Oct. 20 report, Mehlis concluded that the decision to assassinate Hariri "could not have been taken without the approval of top-ranked Syrian security officials" and their Lebanese allies. A draft of the report named Assad's brother and brother-in-law as among the Syrian officials who plotted Hariri's killing. But Mehlis expunged the names from the report hours before it was released, saying they were meant for the Security Council's eyes only.
Assad made clear yesterday that Syria would not be cowed.
"President Bashar will not be the president who will bow to anyone in this world. We bow only to almighty God," Assad said, drawing applause and a chant of "With our soul, blood, we redeem you, oh Bashar!" from the crowd.
Assad continued to deny any Syrian involvement in the plot, and he attacked Prime Minister Fuad Saniora of Lebanon, a country that Syria dominated until it was forced in April to withdraw its troops amid the outcry that followed Hariri's assassination. He said Saniora had failed to honor a pledge "not to allow Lebanon to be a passage for conspiracy against Syria."
But Assad also braced Syrians for the prospect of Mehlis' next report on Dec. 15 accusing Damascus of stonewalling.
"Whatever we do or say to cooperate, the response is just going to be that Syria is not cooperating," Assad said, drawing more applause. "Syria is being targeted."
Mohamad Bazzi writes for Newsday. The Associated Press contributed to this article.