AUS DEM SPIEGEL
Ausgabe 43/2005

"Bye-Bye, Hariri!" UN Report Links Syrian Officials to Murder of Former Lebanese Leader

The report issued by United Nations chief investigator Detlev Mehlis heavily implicates Syria of being involved in the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. However, Mehlis' investigation failed to uncover any evidence that Syrian President Bashar Assad may have ordered the attack himself. The United States is pushing for severe sanctions in the UN Security Council.

By Erich Follath, Georg Mascolo and


Demonstrators gather after Rafik Hariri's murder in Beirut.
AP

Demonstrators gather after Rafik Hariri's murder in Beirut.

First they gave him the task of investigating one of the most spectacular political murders in recent history. To tackle that job, he was appointed Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations, which formally placed him in the third-highest-ranking position at the UN. Then they gave him four months to investigate the murder, providing him with several million dollars and a team that at times included more than a hundred investigative aides. Now they're waiting for the outcome.

It's high noon in New York. On Tuesday, "Detlev from Germany," as UN Secretary General Kofi Annan calls him, will present to the Security Council the results of an investigation unprecedented in UN history. Detlev Mehlis, 56, a senior public prosecutor from Berlin, will be asked to explain why he holds at least some members of the Syrian government responsible for the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

"The expectations are like cement sticking to my legs," Mehlis told acquaintances ahead of his upcoming presentation. "Now I know how Hans Blix felt." Before the Iraq war began, the UN sent Blix, a Swedish citizen, to Iraq to search for the weapons of mass destruction Saddam Hussein had allegedly stockpiled. Mehlis's mission is no less explosive, dealing as it does with war and peace and the future of the Middle East.

The results of the investigation, which the German prosecutor has compiled and presented in his 58-page report, heavily implicate the Syrians. "Many leads point directly towards Syrian security officials as being involved with the assassination," reads the report's key sentence. Mehlis denounces a "conspiracy of Lebanese-Syrian security officials" whose motive, he writes, was obvious: to kill Hariri in retribution for his unrelenting demand for the withdrawal of Syrian occupation forces from Lebanon.

But the information in the report will hardly suffice as justification for a second "regime change" in the Middle East. Mehlis was unable to find the proverbial "smoking gun" -- evidence, hoped for by the United States, that Syrian President Bashar Assad, not exactly a favorite of the Bush administration, personally ordered Hariri's assassination. Although Mehlis believes he is close to discovering the truth, he does not claim to have found it yet. The final report requested by the UN is, as Mehlis himself says, merely an "advanced progress report." In the report, which he delivered personally to Annan on Thursday afternoon, Mehlis concludes that the investigation must be continued, and that the 22 accused it names must be presumed innocent until the report is in fact complete.

Rarely have so many leading politicians been so bent on interpreting a report to suit their own interests -- and using it to further their own international agendas. The Americans, at the head of the pack in this respect, are keenly interested in using the Mehlis report as a tool to reshape the Middle East by internationally isolating Assad and forcing him to buckle under UN sanctions.

It is already clear that the US intends to intensify its diplomatic pressure on Damascus, which has dismissed the report as a "big lie." In the version released to the public, Mehlis faults the Syrian government for its lack of cooperativeness, and in a classified version of the report for the UN Security Council, he names additional suspects. The investigation was particularly focused on one man, Rustum Ghazali. The Syrians' regent in Beirut until they withdrew in April 2005, Ghazali is alleged to have been personally involved in the conspiracy. This allegation raises another, even more critical question: If one of the most powerful men in the regime was involved, is it possible that the Syrian president had no knowledge of the plot? US President George W. Bush calls the allegations "deeply disturbing" and wants to see the issue addressed in a special session of the UN Security Council.

For months Assad has been a thorn in the side of the Bush administration, and its rhetoric against what Bush has called a "regime of the lawless" is becoming increasingly shrill. While Damascus cooperated with the CIA in 2003, even helping it track down al-Qaida terrorists, the situation changed dramatically after the Iraq invasion, when Assad put an end to cooperation between the two countries. Moreover, he apparently turned a blind eye to heavily armed jihadists who were beginning to use Syria as a base for their fighting in Iraq. The Syrian border was long the most porous of Iraq's frontiers for insurgents infiltrating the country from abroad. Assad's contention that the region surrounding the 500-kilometer border between Malikiya and Tanf is largely unpopulated and therefore difficult to monitor seems less than credible. Indeed, his military has declared the country's inaccessible eastern region off-limits and patrols the terrain with military jets. The Americans contend that Syria has assumed a role similar to that of Cambodia in the Vietnam War: It has become the staging ground for a shadow and proxy war. The Syrian version of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which is causing great concern for the Americans, leads through the desert in this remote region.

Washington is now getting something it would prefer to do without, given the catastrophic situation in the Iraqi heartland near the Tigris and Euphrates valleys: a second front. That is why the Americans want to gain control over Assad, especially in light of other trump cards he holds in the Middle East -- namely his influence in Lebanon and on the radical Shiite Hezbollah militias threatening Israel.

Will the militias soon be disarmed, as the UN has demanded? Will Lebanon develop into the region's first democratic model state, as Washington hopes? Will the current chain of events drive Assad from office? If so, who would take future control over strategically important Syria?

The Middle East is at a turning point, triggered by an act of Shakespearean proportions -- a family tragedy complete with murder and suicide, tears and a healthy dose of grand politics.

On Feb. 14, 2005, at 12:56 p.m, a ton of TNT exploded near Hariri's motorcade as it passed in front of Beirut's famous Hotel St. Georges. The explosion was so massive that it produced a two-meter-deep crater and hurled body parts onto the roofs of surrounding buildings.

According to the results of Mehlis' investigation, the seed for the murder was planted in late summer 2004, when the Syrians demanded that the term of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud be extended once again. Under the Lebanese constitution Lahoud, perhaps the Syrians' most loyal supporter in Beirut, would have been required to leave office at the end of the year. Assad invited Hariri to Damascus for a one-on-one discussion of the crisis. "Lahoud stays," the Syrian president instructed his guest from Beirut. It was August 26, 2004.

Instead of addressing Hariri appropriately as "Mr. Prime Minister," as protocol would dictate, Assad was essentially issuing orders, acting as an authoritarian ruler giving his underling directives. Hariri, a graying gentleman with sparkling eyes and Eastern charm, left the palace deathly pale and in shock, as his bodyguard recalls. Mehlis believes that the meeting was a critical turning point. In his view, it says a lot about the relationship between the Syrians and Hariri, and it also provides a motive for the murder, even if Assad had, as he claims, no personal knowledge of the plot.

Hariri resigned as prime minister shortly after his experience in Damascus, evidently because he felt threatened. But by no means did he back down. Instead, Hariri, who had cooperated closely with the Syrians for years, immediately aligned himself with the Lebanese opposition. In an effort to remake himself as the strong man in a free Lebanon, Hariri, the wealthy owner of a construction empire, invested millions of his own money to prepare for an election campaign.

According to the investigative commission's reconstruction of the affair, the conspirators soon began spying on Hariri to track his habits. Unknown men bought ten mobile telephones in December. As the Mehlis team discovered, the phones were activated in northern Lebanon on Jan. 4, 2005 and used almost daily in the weeks before the attack, frequently in places where Hariri also happened to be located.

On Feb. 1, the Syrians sent a negotiator to Beirut: Deputy Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallim, a friend of Hariri's. It was the Syrians' last attempt to negotiate. Muallim went to see Hariri at his residence in the western section of Beirut. The emissary wanted Hariri to toe the party line, and then he threatened him: "We and the intelligence services have driven you into a corner. Please do not take these things lightly!"

Hariri, who had the conversation taped and had expected nothing less, remained steadfast, continuing to insist that UN Resolution 1559, which calls upon the Syrians to withdraw from Lebanon, must be implemented. Mehlis is now convinced that Hariri's perseverance amounted to his death sentence.

According to the UN team's investigation, six of the mobile phones logged in at Beirut's Place de l'Etoile and along the motorcade route on February 14, a bright Monday offering a clear view of the glittering Mediterranean. The square is the site of the Lebanese parliament building and the eponymous café where Hariri drank his last cup of coffee at about 12:30 p.m. At 12:53 p.m., a member of the assassination team made four calls, apparently reporting that Hariri was leaving the café. The bomb was detonated minutes later, and the mobile phones were never used again.

The analysis of the mobile phone records, one of Mehlis' most important pieces of evidence, led to a group of five high-ranking intelligence officials the UN investigator believes made up the core of the conspiracy group. According to Mehlis, not only did they plan the murder and hire the assassins, but they also provided "money, telephones, cars, radios, pagers, weapons, ID cards and the like."

Four of the men have already been detained. They include Jamil Al-Sayyid, the former head of the Lebanese intelligence service, Sûreté Générale, General Raymond Azar, the former head of Lebanese military intelligence, General Ali Al-Hajj, the head of the Internal Security Forces, and Mustafa Hamdan, commander of the presidential guard. According to one witness, Hamdan made the following incriminating remark in October 2004: "We are about to send him on a journey. Bye-bye, Hariri!"

U.N. investigator Detlev Mehlis turns over his report to Secretary General Kofi Annan.
AP

U.N. investigator Detlev Mehlis turns over his report to Secretary General Kofi Annan.

The most important suspect, who is still at large and lives in Damascus, is Rustum Ghazali, who served as Assad's Chief of Syrian Military Intelligence for Lebanon until the Syrian withdrawal. Mehlis accuses Ghazali of direct involvement in the assassination, alleging that he coordinated the preparations with Jamil Al-Sayyid.

Some of the key passages in the Mehlis report are based on the testimony of two witnesses. One, a former Syrian intelligence agent with a dubious reputation, told the investigators about several meetings in Damascus, some at the presidential palace, where the plot was allegedly fleshed out. According to the witness, the meetings were attended by Assad's brother Mahir, the head of the Syrian presidential guard, and Assad's brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, the chief of Syrian military intelligence. To this day Mehlis is uncertain about how much of this story is true, and he has only shared the details, including the names of those allegedly involved, with the Security Council.

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