A Swift Kick in the Assad

The Mehlis report may mean the U.S. zeroes in on Syria.


In Kazuo Ishiguro's dreamlike novel When We Were Orphans, the main character, a British detective who never quite outgrew his childhood, travels to Shanghai to solve the mystery of his parents' separate disappearances, decades after they occurred. In the detective's mind, the resolution of his investigation takes on a transcendental quality: He imagines that the city's inhabitants (it is the late 1930s) see this as the event that will save them as China descends into war with Japan. Absurdly, the detective assumes that truth is the key to a rediscovered idyllic order.

Much the same attitude has prevailed in Lebanon in the period before Detlev Mehlis of presents his report on the assassination of Rafik Hariri to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan. But the truth, while necessary and desirable, will hardly be a basis for renewed serenity. The Mehlis report, which will be delivered to Annan later today, will help bring about a denouement to the Hariri assassination, but no one should soon expect order in Lebanon or the region, particularly if the United States sees its conclusions as another reason to strike at Syria.

What will Mehlis say? The latest round of speculation, quoting Lebanese judicial sources, suggests he will publish "the names of suspects in security posts, former politicians and civilians," and that this will include the names of Syrian officers. The information seems to square with a statement last week by an unidentified Arab diplomatic official, who told the daily Al-Hayat that the report would "not include final results that are 100 percent conclusive," but that it would reveal that Hariri's assassination was planned months in advance and "was institutional, not the act of an individual." Mehlis, the source continued, would also direct accusations against members of the Syrian intelligence services, and would conclude that "orders came from a high level." If one believes Germany's Stern magazine this week, Syrian President Bashar Assad's brother-in-law Assef Shawkat will be named as a suspect, as will Syria's former intelligence chief in Lebanon, Rustom Ghazaleh.

The claims have been contradicted by some Lebanese press reports, citing unidentified U.N. sources, suggesting that while Syria will be blamed, Mehlis will not name specific officials. If true, that's probably because the Syrian regime did not collaborate adequately with his investigation, something the German prosecutor is expected to mention. His writ is to prepare a legal accusation for Lebanon's judiciary, and the standard he is apparently seeking to meet is that the evidence holds up in a German court. Mehlis may ask that Syrians be interrogated outside Syria for a subsequent trial, and his investigators are expected to remain on hand for a month or so longer to help the Lebanese judiciary in its efforts.

What must we look out for? First of all, the type of tribunal that emerges to judge the suspects. Lebanon favors an international court, but there is apparently little enthusiasm for that at the U.N. Last August, in an interim report, Mehlis informed his headquarters that the Lebanese had little confidence in their country's judiciary. This implied that a solely Lebanese trial would be a problem, whose success Syrian involvement in Hariri's murder would make all the more unlikely, given the possibility that Syria could intimidate Lebanon. This has led to an assumption that the most probable outcome will be the establishment of a mixed international-Lebanese court.

Beyond Lebanon, however, all eyes will be turned to the United States to see how it will react to Mehlis' findings. Last week, The Times of London reported that the Bush administration had offered a deal to Assad "a la Libya": Syria could avoid isolation in exchange for onerous concessions, including surrendering guilty officials accused by Mehlis, and ending its destabilization of Iraq and Lebanon and its support for Palestinian groups opposed to a settlement with Israel. The Syrians denied accepting this. The conditions appeared to have been leaked by the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton, to scuttle any understanding.

Whether such a deal was serious or not, the Mehlis report will effectively lead to efforts for its implementation. In other words, if the Syrians are accused, the Bush administration and others in the international community will turn up the heat on Assad and demand the very concessions the "Libya redux" offer supposedly outlined. That's why The Times story was interesting but also, perhaps, irrelevant inasmuch as the American offer to Damascus was a splendid trap; its acceptance would have been suicidal; its rejection makes Syria look inflexible; and whatever happens, Assad will probably face hard times ahead because of Mehlis.

Whereas the Mehlis investigation imposed a partial gag order on politicking as the Bush administration and the international community awaited the results of the inquiry process, release of the report will change all that. On Wednesday, in an appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice refused to rule out the use of force against Syria because of its actions, particularly in Iraq. "The president never takes any option off the table and he shouldn't," Rice said.

For the first time, U.S. officials quoted in a New York Times story last week suggested that Syria had become like Cambodia during the Vietnam War: a sanctuary for those opposed to stability next door. The comparison was only partly accurate (foreign fighters are using Syria as an entry point into Iraq, and perhaps as a training ground, but Syria still very much controls the border area); it was also alarming in that American actions in Cambodia are hardly what the Bush administration should want to emulate: The Nixon administration ended up ordering an invasion in April 1970, helping push the formerly neutral country down the path to chaos.

For the moment, the Bush administration seems uncertain how far to push Assad. Earlier this year, a senior administration official dealing with the Middle East told me he did not believe the collapse of the Syrian regime would necessarily lead to an Islamist government. Nevertheless, according to columnist David Ignatius in his latest Washington Post piece, that confidence hasn't made things much clearer for American policymakers. He writes that the new director of national intelligence, John Negroponte, and his analysts at the National Intelligence Council, "have been warning [George W.] Bush that if Assad is toppled, the result isn't likely to be better in terms of regional stability, and it could well be worse." The analysts have argued "there isn't now any coherent, organized opposition to Assad."

That's true, though one should bear in mind that Assad's continued presence is no guarantee of stability either. His regime's international isolation, its negligible domestic support and its almost total inability to effect positive change today in Syria are sources of considerable volatility. What may ensue is a period of stalemate as everyone decides what to do next, with Syria simultaneously facing mounting pressure from the U.N. and the international community, perhaps even sanctions, because of Lebanon. The paradox of stalemate, however, is that it often leads to violence, as the parties seek to break the deadlock. That's why the aftershocks of the Mehlis report mean a bumpy road ahead in U.S.-Syrian relations, and why Americans may soon have to add Syria to their already cluttered Middle Eastern radar screens.