Following the release of a long awaited UN report on the February assassination of former Lebanese premiere Rafik Hariri, which strongly suggests Syrian involvement, reactions in Beirut and Damascus were mixed.
While Syrian officialdom roundly rejected the report as being “politically motivated,” its findings were welcomed among some Lebanese circles.
Led by German investigator Detlev Mehlis, the inquiry states in its preliminary report that, "There is converging evidence pointing at both Lebanese and Syrian involvement” in the killing. It goes on to conclude that the decision to assassinate Hariri "could not have been taken without the approval of top-ranked Syrian security officials."
The report, submitted to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Thursday, also concedes that the investigation “must continue for some time to come.”
With the aim of providing investigators with more time to gather evidence, therefore, Annan further extended Mehlis' mandate until 15 December.
Syrian authorities, meanwhile, were quick to reject the conclusions found in the 63-page initial report.
"These are pure allegations," Riad Daoudi, legal advisor to the Syrian Foreign Affairs Ministry, said at a press conference. "Everything is based on the presumption that the assassination couldn’t have been carried out without the knowledge of Syrian security services in Lebanon."
The report also chastises a number of Syrian officials for misleading investigators "by giving false or inaccurate statements." It cites a letter addressed to the commission by Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara'a, for example, which was "proven to contain false information."
The report also notes that Deputy Foreign Minister Walid Al-Moualem had lied in a statement to investigators.
While Daoudi expressed Syrian “regret” over these criticisms, he stated that Damascus was ready to "continue cooperation with the UN" in any further investigations.
With another seven weeks to follow up its inquiries, investigators are particularly interested in the roles played by Assef Shawkat, head of Syrian Military Intelligence and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s brother-in-law; and Maher Assad, the president’s brother. Both were named by witnesses in an earlier version of the report as having had a hand in the assassination.
Also named in some testimony were Hassan Khalil, Shawkat's predecessor; Bahjat Suleyman, dismissed as head of Syria's Internal Security Forces following the assassination; and Jamil Al-Sayyed, a pro-Syrian Lebanese security chief.
However, all five names – all members of Syria's ruling Allawi sect – were deleted from the final text of the report shortly before its publication. "It could give the wrong impression," said Mehlis of the omissions, adding that the alleged involvement of the five had not yet been corroborated, and that they must be presumed innocent until the emergence of further evidence.
The report did not contain any reference to Ghazi Kanaan, the head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon who, say Syrian officials, committed suicide on 12 October.
According to local analysts, the last minute deletions of highly-connected suspects suggest an interest in avoiding direct confrontation with members of Assad's inner circle, at least at this stage. "The report doesn’t let Syria off the hook, but it seems designed to buy someone some time," said Andrew Tabler, a fellow with the Institute of Current World Affairs, based in Damascus and Beirut.
When asked whether Damascus' future cooperation with the inquiry would extend to allowing investigators access to top Syrian security officials and close associates of the president, Daoudi told reporters, "I don't know. We’ll see."
In Syrian political circles, the lack of a final conclusion in the report – seen as a Damocles’ sword hanging over the country for seven months – has led to suspicions that the UN deliberately omitted the names of the Syrian security chiefs in order to maintain international pressure on the country.
Indeed, the report’s release prompted the US – already frustrated by Damascus’ alleged cross-border support for Iraqi insurgents – to call for firmer action against Syria, which some observers say could result in UN sanctions.
``There is the very strong implication that Syria was involved somehow in the assassination of former Prime Minister Hariri,'' US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Sunday. ``I am quite certain that when the international community gets together we will decide what to do... This really has to be dealt with.''
The UN Security Council is due to discuss this issue on Tuesday.
Many Lebanese politicians, meanwhile, expressed satisfaction with the report.
Saad Hariri, son of the slain politician, called it “a step closer to the truth,” and urged that his father's killers be tried in an international court. "We are not seeking revenge, we’re seeking justice," he told the BBC on Saturday.
Still, some Lebanese observers opine that the report doesn’t go far enough in establishing Syrian culpability, and call for an end to Syrian interference in Lebanese domestic politics. On Friday, some 2,000 demonstrators in downtown Beirut called for the resignation of President Emile Lahoud, who is seen by his critics as a puppet of Damascus.
While no violence was reported, soldiers and tanks were deployed on the streets of the capital as a precaution against disturbances.
A handful of arrests were also made in the wake of the report’s release. On Saturday, Mahmoud Abdel-Al, member of the pro-Syria Ahbash Islamic group, said to have made a phone call to President Emile Lahoud minutes before the explosion, was arrested by Lebanese police. A second member of the group was reportedly detained for stockpiling explosives.
The local media reported that Lebanese State Prosecutor Said Mirza had issued 11 travel bans on unnamed Lebanese politicians and security officials who could be wanted for subsequent questioning.
According to some local observers, the inconclusive nature of the report reflects the uncertainty of how suspects eventually named in the report will be prosecuted, if at all.
“Lebanese politicians have to decide if and when they want to start the legal process, which will be long and extremely complicated,” said Lebanese analyst Michael Young. “I’m not sure if all Lebanese politicians want a trial to happen, as a lot of stories will come out that they may prefer to remain hidden.”
He added, “For that reason, a combined national and international tribunal may be an option.”
Damascus withdrew thousands of troops and intelligence agents from Lebanon in April/May after the Hariri assassination galvanised Lebanese and international opinion against the Syrian presence. Damscus had run domestic Lebanese affairs since the end of country’s civil war in 1990.