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Pressure builds on Syrian regime

Another UN report this week could further push for sanctions.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 24, 2005


The beleaguered Syrian regime is set to be hit this week with another critical report from the United Nations, days after a UN investigation implicated senior Syrian security officials in the killing of a former Lebanese prime minister.

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Together, the two reports are expected to underpin a diplomatic offensive led by the US and France, which could lead to sanctions against Damascus.

"They want this [Syrian] leopard to change so many of its spots that it turns into a lap dog.... It's tantamount to regime change," says Joshua Landis, an American professor of history presently living in Damascus and author of the influential Syria Comment weblog.

Late last week, Damascus was stung by the findings from the UN investigation into the murder of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister, killed in a bomb explosion in February. Later this week, UN Middle East envoy Terje Roed Larsen is expected to report that Syria is still meddling in Lebanese affairs even after it withdrew its troops in April.

Mr. Larsen is expected to hand to the UN Security Council his latest report on Syria's compliance with Resolution 1559, which calls for a withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and respect for Lebanese independence and sovereignty. While Syria has pulled out its troops, an erratic campaign of bomb attacks and assassinations against anti-Syrian Lebanese is being blamed on Damascus and its remaining allies in Lebanon.

According to Sunday's edition of Israel's Haaretz daily newspaper, which claimed to have received a copy of the report, Larsen's findings confirm that Syrian troops have left Lebanon but accuse Damascus of continued indirect military intervention and direct intelligence intervention in Lebanon, including supplying weapons to pro-Syrian Palestinian groups.

Tuesday, however, the UN Security Council will assess the findings of Detlev Mehlis, the German prosecutor who heads the UN investigation into Hariri's murder. The report - released Thursday, which over the weekend captivated Lebanese gathered around TV sets to listen to news on its findings - concludes that there is "converging evidence pointing at both Lebanese and Syrian involvement in this terrorist act," and recommends the investigation continues.

President Bush called the report "deeply disturbing." Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, "There will have to be some way to ensure accountability for what has already been found here."

The Lebanese government on Saturday welcomed the report, saying it "provides the basis for finding the truth ... and punishing those responsible."

On Saturday night, Lebanese police arrested Mahmoud Abdel-Aal, a member of the pro-Syrian Islamist group, Al-Ahbash, and a brother of one of the chief suspects in Mr. Hariri's death. The police also announced Saturday the arrest of three men who had confessed to being recruited by Syrian intelligence to carry out bombings and shooting attacks in Lebanon.

Although the Mehlis report does not provide conclusive evidence against senior Syrian officials, an earlier version of the report mistakenly released to the media did name suspects in the Hariri assassination. They are Maher Assad, Syrian President Bashar Assad's brother, and his brother-in-law Gen. Asef Shawkat, head of military intelligence.