Hariri Tribunal Revives Speculation and Spin

[Landis Analysis]

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.”

Comments (64)

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52. Shai said:

I always find it funny how the same people who, in the past year, called out for Olmert to cease from his peace initiatives because he no longer represents the majority in Israel, are now using Olmert’s action to demonstrate how Israel IS serious about peace, as opposed to Syria. 🙂

It’s like claiming that if the majority of Israelis think a certain way (70% against return of the Golan), then they’re right, and we (the 30%) are wrong. But when the same majority vote for a PM that believed in Oslo, then they’re wrong? So when do we follow the majority? When by chance they support our own stance? Is following a majority something we should in general aspire to doing? When do we know if the majority are right, and when they’re wrong? Is it possible we are also part of the problem? Even in Oslo, where clearly the PA abused all the power (especially financial) it received, surely even the harshest of critics can’t dismiss all Palestinian claims against Israel. We also had something to do with the failure.

We cannot go by what the majority thinks. At the risk of sounding elitist and patronizing (though not my intention), it is fair to say that most people do not usually think too much about matters to do with politics. They do not research, they do not inquire deeply into issues of great significance and importance to their future. They do not take the time to hear other opinions, also ones not voiced in their own backyard. And yet, this same majority elects the leaders that carry out policy (or no policy) that will effect the lives of millions in the present and in the future. This is of course true about most nations, not only Israel. Each time, we hope that uneducated guesses will be right. And, of course, very often they’re not.

What is truly shocking in Israel, is how we are able to forgive, and recycle, failed politicians. This is true about Barak, and about Netanyahu. Most have forgotten how both have failed so miserably a mere decade ago. Yet we’re almost “enthusiastic” to see them back in power…

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December 9th, 2008, 7:14 am


53. Akbar Palace said:

It’s 83 minutes long, so if you have the time to spare, if it’s important enough for you, listen to it from beginning to end. Try to keep an open mind while you listen.


You’re asking a lot from me;)

I always find it funny how the same people who, in the past year, called out for Olmert to cease from his peace initiatives because he no longer represents the majority in Israel, are now using Olmert’s action to demonstrate how Israel IS serious about peace, as opposed to Syria.


What is so strange? I disagreed with Barack Obama’s policies, but I certainly can make the arguement that with a black man in the Oval Office, perhaps the US isn’t as racist as some people think.

So in the same sense, I am making a similar arguement about Israel: Israel IS preparing the way for peace (though I don’t agree very much with Olmert’s approach) much more than Syria is.

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December 10th, 2008, 8:03 pm


54. Shai said:


Read the paragraph you quote carefully. Those who call Olmert to cease his peace initiatives immediately, are claiming he must do so because he does NOT enjoy the support of the majority of Israelis. In that, they are actually correct. But the same people who accuse Olmert of “selling something that isn’t his to sell” (peace), are now using his initiatives as proof that Israel (not only Olmert) IS actually interested in peace, whereas our neighbors aren’t.

In reality, of course, we elect a PM to also do things during his term in office that are NOT very popular, including taking major decisions that effect our present and future.

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December 10th, 2008, 8:45 pm


56. Shai said:

Israeli politicians are taking off the gloves… The election campaign battle has started. http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1045449.html

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December 10th, 2008, 9:52 pm


57. Alex said:


First, about the limitations of our SC poll(s)

– They are not scientific
– Syrians and non-Syrians vote
– Most Syrians voting are expats.

Nevertheless, I think the 70/30 breakdown on the question of waiting for the Palestinians is not far from representing the way Syrians in general feel about this question.

I do not know how the leadership in Damascus is going to handle this challenge, but I will give you my opinion.

1) After Arafat, and the moderate Arab leaders, asked Syria to let them negotiate with Israel alone without any Syrian interference, and after they signed Oslo even after Hafez Assad clearly expressed his opinion that Oslo is a mistake, Syria does not have a moral obligation to wait for … Fatah.

2) Hamas, and a large number of the Palestinian people who support Hamas, on the other hand, supported Syria … coordinated with Syria, and even submitted to Syrian wishes on a few occasions.

Syria can not let them down. Not completely… not the way Anwar Sadat abandoned the Palestinian cause.

3) If Syria signs a peace treaty with Israel which is limited to the relatively easy Syria and Lebanon settlement (and not including a settlement with the Palestinians), Syria will obviously not disappoint the Israeli people by supporting or tolerating any military or guerrilla action against Israeli civilians. Syria will be more forceful in rejecting statements like those from Iranian President Ahmadinejad and some Hamas leaders in Gaza. And most likely Mashaal would be privately asked to move to Qatar or some other decent place.

Hizbollah will move its attention to Lebanon. If Israel does not attack Lebanon, Hizbollah will not do a thing to Israel. It will also start a process of turning into a political party, a process that will take a few years probably.

4) The rest falls in a gray area … Syria never supported Hamas with weapons or money. Those are supplied through private donations from rich Arabs in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia and transferred through Egypt. Syria’s support to Hamas is strong and effective but it is political in nature.

After a peace treaty with Israel, I expect Syria will take it case by case. If Israel is genuinely trying to reach a meaningful and fair settlement with the Palestinians, then Syria’s reaction will be harsh if Hamas sponsored some suicide bombing mission in Israel. But if Israeli settlers continue doing what they do, Syria will be very critical and very supportive of the Palestinians .. more supportive than today’s Egypt and Saudi Arabia for example.

5) Before jumping to conclusions, I think we need to first wait for the Obama administration to see if there will be a genuine effort to reach a comprehensive settlement. The Hamas/Fatah divide is not impossible to bridge if Egypt works WITH Syria, For Egypt to work with Syria a signal needs to come from Washington.

I am moderately hopeful that this is possible. It is definitely worth a serious try before we conclude that there is no Palestinian partner for Israel to negotiate with.

And I am reasonably convinced that Hamas will be much more reasonable than the Hamas of today. Syria was able to moderate Hamas already. If Israel and the United States show their honest will to settle the conflict, after some semi-difficult process, Hamas will not disappoint.

Those who are old enough to remember the Lebanese civil war, know that Syria did not hesitate to fight old allies (including Palestinian factions) when they persist in acting against efforts to reach a settlement that is fair for everybody.

6) Even if Syria decided to settle alone (plus Lebanon) … Israel will need to make things considerably better for the Palestinian people under occupation. The Syrians will not be able to negotiate while Israel closes Gaza every other month or while pictures of Israeli soldiers mistreating old Palestinian women are on Aljazeera.

7) The Syrians are absolutely convinced that everyone, Israel included, should be satisfied that they did the right thing by signing those peace treaties.

Syria will respect the spirit as well as the legal implications of the agreements it will sign.

Israel will have to do the same though… Israel (nation and leadership) will need to be convinced that the only solution that works is that where no group of people in the area is sacrificed to the benefit of other groups.

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December 10th, 2008, 10:05 pm


58. Shai said:


I didn’t see the dotted line. Where do I sign? 🙂

Great response!

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December 10th, 2008, 10:11 pm


59. Alex said:


Our friend Zenobia used to make fun of my engineer’s user-manual writing style. She observed that if I don’t use lists, I can’t write.

Besides, I had two #4 items … thanks for not mentioning it : )

I fixed it now.

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December 11th, 2008, 12:00 am


60. why-discuss said:


Why do you think Syria would get involved or wait for a Lebanon-Israel peace? Lebanon is too divided to reach an agreement with Israel soon. The main problem for Lebanon is not the small pieces of land but the huge problem of the palestinians refugees camps. Contrary to the Palestinians in Syria who could get a financial compensation and become syrians the same way armeniens became syrians, in Lebanon there will be a violent opposition to any attempt to keep the palestinians in Lebanon. Why would Bashar jeopardize Syria-Israel already advanced plans for a country that continues to vilify him?
I personaly believe Bashar either must ask a very high price to include Lebanon in the negotiations at the risk of hampering his own plan or just go on his own and let the lebanese “democratic” government find their own solution.
What do you think?

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December 11th, 2008, 1:29 am


61. Alex said:


The question of Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees is a serious one. I agree.

But the fact both General Aoun and his Syrian hosts talked about being in agreement over rejecting a settlement that will force Lebanon to absorb its Palestinian refugees, tells me that there is way to deal with this challenge that they all discussed and accepted.

“Lebanon” is a question mark for now. The particular sequence of event in the coming 6 months will be worth paying attention to.

Case 1:

By next March, President Obama met already with President Assad … they announced they ae starting a new page in relations between the two countries … Obama (after President Sarkozy) makes it clear he is depending on Syria to provide the necessary additional weight to tip the scale in favor of a solution to the various problems in the region, Egypt joins American Syrian efforts at the expense of its relations with Saudi Arabia in cse the kingdom is still adamant not to talk to Syria and not to allow anyone of its allies to talk to Syria.

If something along those lines did take place, the Lebanese opposition (Syria’s allies) will win the next elections.

Case 2:

The Obama administration is either not convinced of the value of working with Syria, or is still busy saving GM and Ford, … in the mean time, the Hariri tribunal is launched in March 2009 and teh Saudis and their allies in Likud, Lebanon, and Washington work hard to create a lot of noise about Syria’s role in the assassination ..

And who knows .. maybe if they are lucky, some M14 politician might be assassinated and Syria would be accused automatically …

M14 might have a good chance to win again the Lebanese elections.

“Lebanon” will be defined to some extent by who leads after summer 2009. If Syria’s allies win, Syria will not sign a separate peace treaty without Lebanon … i can not see how this would be possible, even if Syria wanted to.

If M14 wins, then they will not work with Syria … and I can’t see how they can “deliver” Hizbollah’s cooperation either in case they wanted to negotiate separately with Israel.

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December 11th, 2008, 1:57 am


62. Shai said:


Engineers do great things… Btw, where is Zenobia? Haven’t seen her here in a long time… I think you should consider having one of those super-annoying emails that start coming daily, after a month away from SC. And the unsubscribe box will be marked, for Arab members in Hebrew, and for non-Arab members in Arabic… 🙂

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December 11th, 2008, 4:30 am


63. Ali said:


Obama will still be trying to save the American economy in March 2009 and probably well into 2010, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t multi-task!

The 4 generals will probably take down someone like Rustom Ghazaleh with them and if we (Lebanese who do not agree with what Syria did from 1990 until 2005) are luck Asif Shawkat or Maher, but I do not believe that they will be able to get to Bashar. They need him to keep the Islamists out of the picture and the Israeli border with Syria peaceful.

I love how you have added Saudi and Likud together as allies! If anything, it is the syrians who are negociating and the Qataris who are hosting! I am also facinated by how Syrian stooges in Lebanon and some appologists on this site always end up classifying the “other side” as traitors. People disagree, it’s a fact of life, but that does not mean that they are traitors to their country. Traitors are armed resistence groups who turn their weapons on their own people to impose their will by force.

No need to go on… We’ll just have to agree to disagree.


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December 14th, 2008, 11:52 am


64. Alex said:

Dear Ali,

I am not a fan of Syrian. or other, stooges in Lebanon. But if you really followed me comments you will realize that I am not calling “the other side” traitors … I support talking to Israelis … but for the right reasons …. reaching a comprehensive peaceful settlement.

I have advocated inviting Israeli journalists to Syria and communicating with the Israeli people directly through them.

But forgive me is I think that what Prince Bandar was cooking in Washington (then in Riyadh) with the neocons is … evil (to borrow the favorite label of “the other side”).

Neocons that prince Bandar (and other Saudis) were in bed with are pure Likud … and worse. And their strategies the past few years caused nothing but misery and destruction … it seems that almost everything they did was .. evil.

The only significant and “good” byproduct of their otherwise “evil” plans was Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon.

As for the Hariri investigation … There will be nothing close to Asef and Maher … that was purely and solely based on the testimony of the two false witnesses .. Siddiq and Husam Husam.

It has nothing to do with keeping Bashar to fight the fanatics and to keep the Golan peaceful…. there is simply no evidence whatsoever pointing in that direction.

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December 14th, 2008, 7:09 pm


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