Syria has burned all intelligence documents relating to Lebanon and attempted to hinder a UN inquiry that found further evidence of the involvement of the Syrian intelligence services in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, according to the second report into the killing.
Statements by two of the five Syrian suspects who were interviewed in Vienna between December 5 and 7 "indicated that all Syrian intelligence documents concerning Lebanon has been burned" the report said.
Only five of the six senior Syrian security officials requested to be interviewed as part of UN chief investigator Detlev Mehlis' inquiry were made available by Damascus, the report said, despite the demands of UN resolution 1636 made in that threatened Syria with "further action" unless it cooperated unconditionally with the inquiry.
A number of new witnesses, with what the report described as "potentially critical information about the assassination" had been interviewed by the commission, including a witness who provided "detailed information" that "points directly at perpetrators, sponsors and organizers of an organized operation to kill Mr. Hariri".
The operation, the report said, included "the recruitment of special agents by the Lebanese and Syrian intelligence services, handling of improvised explosive devices, a pattern of threats against targeted individuals, and planning of other criminal activities."
Mehlis' first report into the assassination of Hariri, who died on 14 February along with 22 others in a massive explosion on a seafront road in Beirut, concluded the decision to kill Hariri "could not have been taken without the approval of top-ranked Syrian security officials".
The Commission has identified 19 individual suspects, the report said, four of whom, described in the report as "high level officials in the Lebanese security and intelligence services" have been detained.
On 30 August, on the request of Mehlis, Lebanese authorities detained four pro-Syrian senior security chiefs - Mustafa Hamdan, still the head of Lebanon's presidential guard, Jamil Sayyed, former head of General Security, Ali Hajj, ex-chief of police, and Raymond Azar, former military intelligence chief - who were serving at the time of the Hariri assassination.
The report also said it had received credible information that close relatives of a key witness, Hussam Taher Hussam - who appeared on Syrian television to recant the evidence he gave to Mehlis that implicated the Syrian president's brother Maher Assad and brother-in-law, Assef Shawqat, in the Hariri assassination – had been arrested and threatened by Syrian officials.
"Preliminary investigation leads to a conclusion that Mr. Hussam is being manipulated by the Syrian authorities," the report said, concluding that Syrian authorities were "aiming to cast doubt" on the content of Mehlis' first report, which constituted an attempt to "hinder the investigation internally and procedurally."
Neither Riad Daoudi, the legal advisor to the Foreign Affairs Ministry who has been dealing with Mehlis, nor Ibrahim Daraje, spokesman for the Syrian Judicial Commission, could comment on the findings of the report, after being contacted by IRIN.
While the report welcomed the creation of the Syrian Judicial Committee, which met the terms of 1636, it said:"It remains to be seen if a substantive law-enforcement investigation will be carried out".
The United States, France and Britain prepared to introduce a draft resolution on 13 December for approval from the Security Council to expand the inquiry into Hariri's assassination to cover other political killings in the past 14 months in Lebanon. The agreement on the text came after Washington dropped its demand that the council impose fresh sanctions on Syria for not fully cooperating with UN investigators.
Observers in Damascus remained deeply sceptical of the ability of a state-appointed judicial committee to investigate the intelligence services of a security state.
Despite the fresh evidence against its intelligence services, some analysts suggested that Syria's confrontation with the international community, and particularly the US, might be tipping in Damascus' favour.
"Syria's position is better than people think," said Joshua Landis, the Damascus based author of the SyriaComment website, and an expert on the country.
"The Syrians are counting on the fact that the US policy for the Middle East is built on two very weak nations, Lebanon and Iraq. The Syrian president has said that the region is not ready for democracy and that he stops terrorism from breaking out all over. [President] Bush and [President] Bashar stand at two ends of this battle. But who is correct? Are Lebanon and Iraq really stronger than Syria?"
For Fadi Faisal, a 23 year old student at Damascus University, the finding of the report, were "weak" and formed part of "a chain of pressure being put around Syria".
"I think now the people will gather around the president and the government because now we know we are being targeted," he said. "The US even wants to change Mehlis to increase pressures on Syria."
Mehlis has indicated he will step down when his six-month mandate expires on 15 December to return to his work as a magistrate in Germany
In neighbouring Lebanon, the presentation of the Mehlis report to the UN Security council on Tuesday was overshadowed by Monday’s killing of Lebanese journalist and MP Gebran Tueini, which the majority of Lebanese blamed on Syria. Damascus denied the accusation.
Tueini’s murder pushed Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who was handed the 25-page UN report on Monday morning, to ignore the reservations of Syrian allies in the matter and demand an international tribunal to try the suspects in Hariri’s murder.
“We won’t give in… I will call for an international tribunal,” Siniora declared at a press conference after he met with members of the investigation team.
An extraordinary cabinet session was later held during which ministers were given the UN report.
Five ministers representing Amal, a Shi’ite party and the Hizbullah Shi’ite armed political party, known for its resistence in the past, in the cabinet walked out of the session before a vote. They announced the indefinate suspension of their participation in the cabinet.
The session was terminated and Information Minister Ghazi Aridi said the government "will ask the U.N. Security Council to expand the duties of the investigation commission set up under Resolution 1595, and create an independent commission to help the Lebanese authorities probe the terrorist crimes that have struck the country since 1 October 2004," media reported.
Aridi added that Lebanon would leave it up to the Security Council to decide whether the international tribunal would be established in Lebanon or abroad, a move regarded as a concession to pro-Syrian parties.