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How a murder investigation could snarl Mideast peace

Syria is the prime suspect in former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's assassination. But many say an international tribunal could cause it to turn away from engaging with the West and Israel.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 5, 2008

Government supporters gathered in Beirut Feb. 14, 2008, to mark the thirdanniversary of Rafik Hariri's assassination. Syria is the chief suspect in the murder of Mr. Hariri, but the investigation may cause setbacks in peace overtures initiated by Syria.

Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP

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BEIRUT, Lebanon

While his assassination sparked a political awakening in this country, the eventual findings into Rafik Hariri's murder investigation have the potential to undo progress on several fronts throughout the Middle East.

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Syria stands at the nexus of many of the interconnected disputes throughout the region and in recent months has shown new willingness to talk with the West and engage in indirect peace talks with Israel.

But it is also the chief suspect in the death of Mr. Hariri, a powerful former Lebanese prime minister whose murder triggered an international outcry that forced Damascus to end its political control over its tiny neighbor.

Now suspicions are arising that a deal being is being concocted in which Syrian leaders could be spared prosecution in exchange for progress on peace with Israel, loosening its close ties to Iran, and an end to meddling in the affairs of neighboring Lebanon and Iraq.

"Many Syrians believe that a peace treaty with Israel would be concluded in exchange for guarantees from the West that top echelons of the regime would not be targeted in the tribunal," says Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of an upcoming book on Syria.

Last week, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon announced that a tribunal to judge the accused killers would begin operating in the Netherlands on March 1.

"The tribunal is the first among a growing list of foreign threats" that face Syria, says Mr. Tabler. Other than the UN probe, he cited the International Atomic Energy Agency's investigation into a suspected nuclear reactor in north east Syria bombed by Israel in 2007.

Syria says it has nothing to do with Hariri's death and the subsequent murders and attempted assassinations of other prominent Lebanese, some of them politicians and journalists critical of Syria.

In its latest progress report issued Tuesday, the UN commission investigating the Hariri assassination said it has uncovered new evidence that expands the list of suspects.

The current mandate of the UN commission runs out at the end of December, but it has asked for a two-month extension to cover the transition period leading to the launch of the tribunal.

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