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.
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Although the UN commission is playing down the chances of trials beginning soon, the probe's move to The Hague has heightened expectations that the investigation is drawing to a conclusion.Skip to next paragraph
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The investigation owes its existence chiefly to the US and France. Both countries helped push it through the UN in 2005, hoping that the threat of international justice would compel Syria to stop interfering in Iraq and Lebanon and drop its support for militant anti-Israel groups. In recent months, Syria has patched up its previously poor relations with France and received a visit last month from David Milliband, the British foreign secretary. In May, Syria and Israel announced that they had begun indirect peace talks brokered by Turkey, which if successful could alter the geopolitical map of the Middle East.
"The threat of the tribunal has had an influence in changing Syria's behavior in Lebanon and Iraq and in opening peace talks with Israel," says Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut.
With Syria coming in from the cold, the UN investigation has gone from being a source of pressure on Damascus to a potential threat to Middle East stability if it concludes Syria was involved in Hariri's death and top officials are indicted.
The UN insists that the investigation is unstoppable and the truth behind Hariri's death will emerge.
In October 2005, four months after the UN probe was launched under the stewardship of Detlev Mehlis, a German prosecutor, the highly detailed first progress report heavily implicated top Syrian and Lebanese officials in the murder. Mr. Mehlis' two successors as chief investigators have adopted a more sober approach, issuing perfunctory reports that are sparse on detail, to the irritation of Lebanese critics of Syria who feared the probe had lost momentum.
"There is a lot of suspicion that a deal is being worked out on the tribunal and what makes it even more suspicious is that the Syrians appear to be openly confident about the results of the investigation," says Ousama Safa, head of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies.
Certainly, Syria's view of the investigation has improved following the sensationalist original report, which was a "script for an Agatha Christie novel," says Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst.
"The probe was politicized in a dramatic way under Detlev Mehlis," he says. "That is when the Syrians were worried because there was a feeling back then that even if Syria was innocent, it would be incriminated for the Hariri murder."
He added, "Based on what we have [seen] after Mehlis, the Syrians are not worried."