Pressure builds on Syrian regime

Another UN report this week could further push for sanctions.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Analysts and UN officials say that the Security Council will issue a resolution warning of "serious consequences" if Syria fails to cooperate with the UN investigation. If Syria is subsequently judged to be stonewalling the UN commission, the Security Council could impose targeted sanctions on Syria.

In anticipation of UN action, Syria softened its tone over the weekend with Riad Daoudi, the legal adviser at the Syrian foreign ministry saying, "Syria remains committed to the decisions of international legality [the UN], and we will continue to cooperate with the international community."

Furthermore, Professor Landis has posted on his weblog an unusually detailed and frank letter from Imad Mustafa, the Syrian ambassador to Washington, addressed to US Rep. Sue Kelly (R) of New York, in which he provides a rebuttal of US accusations and expresses a willingness to engage fully with the Bush administration.

"Threats of further sanctions will have a negative impact on Syria's efforts to achieve what the US administration has repeatedly asked Syria to do, and what we have been working hard on achieving," Mr. Mustafa writes in the letter.

Some Security Council members may be wary of treading the sanctions path after the controversy surrounding sanctions in the 1990s on Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The sanctions brought widespread suffering to the Iraqi people but failed to dislodge Mr. Hussein's regime.

And it remains unclear whether sanctions would force a change in behavior in Damascus or effect the stability of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Some analysts argue that the series of strategic blunders made by Syria in recent years is leading to President Assad's inevitable downfall. They include the decision to extend for a further three years the mandate of Syria's close Lebanese ally, President Emile Lahoud, last year.

Hariri's assassination sparked the so-called Cedar Revolution and led to Damascus disengaging from Lebanon in April, ending a military presence of 29 years. Washington has a raft of issues with Syria, of which Lebanon is only one. Others include Damascus' support for Palestinian rejectionist groups and accusations that it is failing to secure its porous desert frontier with Iraq.

"If we want to assess the regime's chances for survival on the basis of its performance over the last few years, then I have to say that they are next to none," says Ammar Abdelhamid, a Syrian social activist with the Washington-based Brookings Institute. "Indeed, we find ourselves in this situation today, not as a result of some conspiracy, but on account of the cumulative effect of the regime's various miscalculations over the years."

On the other hand, while President Assad is isolated internationally and regionally, some analysts argue that he remains strong domestically, the result of a crackdown on opposition groups and tightening his inner circle of regime leaders.

Within the regime itself, the apparent suicide two weeks ago of Ghazi Kanaan, the Syrian minister of interior and a powerful member of the Alawite community that forms the backbone of the regime, removed a potential alternative to President Assad - one that might have been acceptable to the US.

"I think the regime is very stable here," says Landis. "I think the Ghazi Kanaan thing was a demonstration that they are on top of the coup possibilities. It's just too hard to pull off a coup here anymore."

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