Posted by Joshua on Saturday, December 6th, 2008
Ban Ki Moon’s announcement March 1 will be the opening day for the international tribunal to judge the accused killers of Rafiq Hariri has set off another paroxysm of speculation and spin about what the trial could mean for Obama’s Middle East diplomacy, Syria’s future, and whether Israel will be pushed by the international community to give back the Golan.
I have copied two articles below. One appeared in Atlantic Magazine by Joshua Hammer, a previous Newsweek correspondent who has written a moving memoir about his younger brother, Tony, a troubled teenager who traveled to Israel to work on a kibbutz and fell in with an ultra-orthodox Jewish sect. A second, “A Season in Bethlehem” is the story of one West Bank town’s two-year disintegration. Although Joshua is not a newcomer to the Arab-Israeli conflict, he gets lost in the new terrain of the Syria-Lebanon conflict. His effort to bring us up to date on the status of the Hariri investigation goes seriously astray because he takes sides at the expense of the facts.
The first part of the article does a good job of capturing the fear of the investigators and takes us into the super-heated world of Lebanese conspiracy theories about possible deals the Great Powers are making to conceal the truth about Syria’s guilt and to protect Assad from the evidence which must surely implicate him in the Hariri murder — at least that is what we are told people in the region believe. The problem is that Hammer buys these theories. In order to substantiate them, he recounts the dramatic evidence laid out in the first UN investigator, Mehlis. Where he goes wrong, however, is that he accepts the Mehlis’ narrative that has been thoroughly discredited. Josh recounts that the evidence provided to March 14 people by junior Syrian operatives such as Husam Husam and Saddik as if it were the truth. Consequently we are treated to the story of how top Syrian officials met in hotels to hatch the murder plan, get the white van loaded with explosives, and force an unsuspecting Lebanese simpleton to act as the suicide bomber.
This narrative, although compelling, complete, and vivid, was discredited when Hussam Hussam went on Syrian TV to recant and explain that he was coached on the story to suit March 14 operatives in exchange for money, a new citizenship, and his freedom. On watching Hussam on TV and discovering that he was a young, rural Kurdish hairdresser in Beirut, who had been recruited by the Syrian mukhabarat, it seemed obvious that he could not have known the sensitive and top level secrets he pretended to divulge to Mehlis.
After all, would Syria’s top spy masters tell this most junior gum shoe where and how they had hatched the plan to kill Hariri? Would a Kurdish hair dresser have been privy to the fact that Syria’s super secretive Alawites met on such and such a day and in what room in the Meridian hotel in downtown Damascus? Would he know how the White Mitsubishi van bomb had been prepared? All of this was so improbable. It was crazy of Mehlis not to smell a rat.
Saddik also turned out to be untrustworthy. He claimed to have been promised money in exchange for his testimony. Even after the testimony of these prime witnesses was shown to be highly suspicious if not completely manufactured, Mehlis continued to insist that he was no sucker and that his report was good.
So why did the UN’s next investigator — Serge Brammertz — drop the Mehlis narrative implicating Syria’s top intelligence leaders? Hammer eviscerates Brammertz. He calls him an ambitious Belgian lawyer who was not only a careerist but willing to bite the hand that fed him. Hammer quotes one “UN insider” to explain that “The UN has a culture of destroying your predecessor and starting from scratch, and Brammertz succumbed to that.” Of course, Hammer quotes a UN person who says that Saddik was a nut case, but he doesn’t mention Hussam Hussam, who was more important to the discrediting of the Mehlis narrative. Hammer also suggests that Brammertz was sensitive to shifting political currents and was willing to suppress evidence in order to allow the secret hands of the great powers to make a deal to save Syria from regime change and the “Iraq Syndrome” or civil war and internal chaos.
All of this heavy breathing by reporters and expansion on conspiracy theories cannot obscure the fact that we do not know what the investigation or trial will reveal. Brammertz said that a criminal network was behind the murder. What we don’t know is if the criminal network had links to Syria’s leadership or if the investigation has evidence of these links. In the meanwhile there will be lots of speculation and spin.
I am also copying Blanford’s CSM article on the same topic. It is much more cautious although he quotes many of the same experts.
Perhaps the most interesting bit of news we learn from Blanford is that Andrew Tabler has accepted a position as a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. This is a major coup for WINEP, which has been without a Syria Scholar ever since Seth Wikas left to become an analyst at the U.S. Treasury Department, working in the Terrorism and Financial Intelligence group.
Tabler knows Syria well and helped found Syria Today, Syria’s first English language magazine and has served as editor-in-chief or guest editor of the magazine for many years. Possibly, his serving as a fellow at WINEP means that it will be adopting a new, more pro-dialogue policy toward Syria during the Obama presidency. During the Bush years, WINEP was very anti-Syria and militated against opening dialogue with Damascus.
How a murder investigation could snarl Mideast peace
By Nicholas Blanford | The Christian Science Monitor, December 6, 2008
Syria is the prime suspect in former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination. But many say an internationaltribunal could cause it to turn away from engaging with the West and Israel.
While his assassination sparked a politicalawakening in this country, the eventual findings into Rafik Hariri’smurder investigation have the potential to undo progress on several fronts throughout the Middle East.
Syria stands at the nexus of many of the interconnected disputes throughout the region and in recent months has shown new willingness to talk with the West and engage in indirect peace talks with Israel.
But it is also the chief suspect in the death of Mr. Hariri, a powerful former Lebanese prime minister whose murder triggered an international outcry that forced Damascus to end its political control over its tiny neighbor.
Now suspicions are arising that a deal being is being concocted in which Syrian leaders could be spared prosecution in exchange for progress on peace with Israel, loosening its close ties to Iran, and an end to meddling in the affairs of neighboring Lebanon and Iraq.
“Many Syrians believe that a peace treaty with Israel would be concluded in exchange for guarantees from the West that top echelons of the regime would not be targeted in the tribunal,” says Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of an upcoming book on Syria.
Last week, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon announced that a tribunal to judge the accused killers would begin operating in the Netherlands on March 1.
“The tribunal is the first among a growing list of foreign threats” that face Syria, says Mr. Tabler. Other than the UN probe, he cited the International Atomic Energy Agency’s investigation into a suspected nuclear reactor in north east Syria bombed by Israel in 2007.
Syria says it has nothing to do with Hariri’s death and the subsequent murders and attempted assassinations of other prominent Lebanese, some of them politicians and journalists critical of Syria.
In its latest progress report issued Tuesday, the UN commission investigating the Hariri assassination said it has uncovered new evidence that expands the list of suspects.
The current mandate of the UN commission runs out at the end of December, but it has asked for a two-month extension to cover the transition period leading to the launch of the tribunal.
Although the UN commission is playing down the chances of trials beginning soon, the probe’s move to The Hague has heightened expectations that the investigation is drawing to a conclusion.
The investigation owes its existence chiefly to the US and France. Both countries helped push it through the UN in 2005, hoping that the threat of international justice would compel Syria to stop interfering in Iraq and Lebanon and drop its support for militant anti-Israel groups. In recent months, Syria has patched up its previously poor relations with France and received a visit last month from David Milliband, the British foreign secretary. In May, Syria and Israel announced that they had begun indirect peace talks brokered by Turkey, which if successful could alter the geopolitical map of the Middle East.
“The threat of the tribunal has had an influence in changing Syria’s behavior in Lebanon and Iraq and in opening peace talks with Israel,” says Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center in Beirut.
With Syria coming in from the cold, the UN investigation has gone from being a source of pressure on Damascus to a potential threat to Middle East stability if it concludes Syria was involved in Hariri’s death and top officials are indicted.
The UN insists that the investigation is unstoppable and the truth behind Hariri’s death will emerge.
In October 2005, four months after the UN probe was launched under the stewardship of Detlev Mehlis, a German prosecutor, the highly detailed first progress report heavily implicated top Syrian and Lebanese officials in the murder. Mr. Mehlis’ two successors as chief investigators have adopted a more sober approach, issuing perfunctory reports that are sparse on detail, to the irritation of Lebanese critics of Syria who feared the probe had lost momentum.
“There is a lot of suspicion that a dealis being worked out on the tribunal and what makes it even more suspicious is that the Syrians appear to be openly confident about the results of the investigation,” says Ousama Safa, head of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies.
Certainly, Syria’s view of the investigation has improved following the sensationalist original report, which was a “script for an Agatha Christie novel,” says Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst.
“The probe was politicized in a dramatic way under Detlev Mehlis,” he says. “That is when the Syrians were worried because there was a feeling back then that even if Syria was innocent, it would be incriminated for the Hariri murder.”
He added, “Based on what we have [seen] after Mehlis, the Syrians are not worried.”
Getting Away With Murder?
by Joshua Hammer
The Atlantic, December 2008
……In the nearly four years since [Hariri was killed], the UN team has carried on its work in fear. Unsolved car bombings and other attacks have killed or maimed two dozen prominent Lebanese opponents of Syria. The first team leader, German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, stepped down from his post and fled Beirut in January 2006; after implicating senior Syrian officials in Hariri’s murder, he had been informed by Western intelligence officers of two assassination plots against him. This past January, Wissam Eid, a high-ranking intelligence official in the Lebanese Internal Security Forces, was killed by a car bomb east of Beirut. He’d been working closely with the UN commission. “Things got very tense after that,” a UN insider who had left the investigation earlier this year told me, when we met at a café in downtown Beirut. “Morale dropped away. People got scared…”
…The Mehlis report to the United Nations, a preliminary assessment submitted in October 2005, deeply implicated the Assad regime. It chronicled the rising antipathy between Hariri and high-ranking Syrian officials, including Assad himself, as Hariri followed an increasingly independent course for Lebanon. According to a Syrian source inside Lebanon, identified in the report as a former Syrian intelligence agent, antipathy coalesced into a murder plan two weeks after the adoption of the Security Council resolution that demanded Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. The agent claimed that “senior Lebanese and Syrian officials” met at the Meridien Hotel in Damascus,…
…. Brammertz reopened the crime-scene probe, discovered one of the suicide bomber’s teeth—Mehlis’s team had been unable to recover any of the bomber’s remains—and carried out definitive DNA testing. He also made headway, the UN insider told me, in tracing the cell-phone traffic and in naming the spotters who had tracked the route of Hariri’s convoy. And he investigated and debunked alternative theories of the crime—for instance, that Hariri had been killed by al-Qaeda. Brammertzleft in January 2008, to become chief prosecutor at the InternationalCriminalTribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. “Brammertz was tired; he realized it was time to go,” the UN insider told me. When I asked whether Brammertz’s conclusions had differed significantly from Mehlis’s, he replied, “Mehlis’s approach was sensationalist, but what Brammertz found more deeply confirmed Mehlis’s conclusions.” …
…“You cannot talk to dictators,” Jumblatt told me as he put on his leather motorcycle jacket and mounted the bike. “You cannot appease dictators, like Sarkozy is doing. You can only kill them—like they have been killing us … But nobody at this moment is willing to make the Syrian regime fall down.”