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!"
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.
NEXT PAGE: "Unrestricted punishment of all the guilty"
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.
In early July another Syrian, Suheir al-Sadik, called the UN team from Saudi Arabia with an offer to provide information from the core of the conspiracy. The investigators met with the informant in Marbella, a Spanish seaside resort. Sadik, 42, seemed to have the missing piece in Mehlis' puzzle.
Sadik said he owned an apartment in Chalda, south of Beirut, which he claimed the conspirators used as their informal headquarters, where Sadik said they met several times after July 2004 to prepare for the assassination. The group, said Sadik, included four Lebanese, including one of the two generals later arrested, as well as seven Syrian intelligence agents, including those who later staked out the murder scene. "The decision to kill Hariri," Sadik conceded, "was made in Syria."
Since then Sadik has been Mehlis' most important witness, but also his most controversial.
Sadik comes from Al-Tadamun, a poor neighborhood of Damascus. The building where his family lives is a gray, three-story structure with unfinished walls and neon lights hanging from the ceiling. Sadik's brothers, Omar and Imad, sit on a shabby sofa, wearing jogging suits and black sandals. Imad disappears into another room and returns with a Polaroid.
It's a picture of Sadik on the Mediterranean with thick black hair. It's a wig, the brothers say. "Suheir has always been a swindler and a trickster," says Imad, laughing. Just after his 18th birthday, for example, says the brother, he joined and the army and then promptly deserted. He was also in prison once for embezzling the money of a wealthy Lebanese woman. Indeed, Sadik's criminal file includes several convictions for forgery and fraud.
A few years ago Sadik, who had dropped out of a training program to become a practitioner of alternative medicine and was working odd jobs, became acquainted with the family of a Lebanese politician. He married one of the politician's nieces and moved to Beirut.
To this day, Sadik's brother is convinced that Suheir was never in contact with Syrian intelligence. In contrast, Sadik told the commission that he worked as an informant, gathering information in Palestinian refugee camps. Indeed, his contacts there may explain why he may have been involved in the planning for the murder plot.
In early August, Sadik called his brother Imad from Paris. Suheir was almost beside himself with joy when he told his brother: "Imad, I'm a millionaire now. I'm becoming a famous man." Imad responded: "Enough of that. Come back home."
But Sadik stayed, hidden by the Mehlis commission, supported by the French intelligence service and supposedly paid with funds provided by associates of Hariri's family. The informant put the officials in contact with Rifaat Assad, the Syrian president's uncle, who has an interest in bringing down the Syrian government to pave his own way to power. The interrogation took place at Assad's apartment in Marbella.
As a defense strategy, the Syrian government has already assembled a file containing material about the witness, including court rulings and other incriminating details. The dossier, which the Syrians delivered to various European governments, has been making the rounds for weeks and is intended as proof that Mehlis was taken in by a notorious con artist. Even fellow members of the commission have gradually begun to voice their doubts about Sadik's credibility. But neither Mehlis nor the UN can afford a showdown with their star witness crumbling in court. On the other hand, Mehlis had the opportunity to verify many of Sadik's statements and undoubtedly has information that hasn't yet been revealed to the public.
Last Monday, Mehlis had Suheir al-Sadik arrested in Paris because he had changed his story. Contradicting previous testimony in which he said that he left Beirut shortly before the attack on Hariri, Sadik has now provided a written statement claiming that he was directly involved in the assassination as a driver. Sadik, no longer a witness, is now one of the accused in the case.
Another peculiarity is that the informant's confession includes no mention of Ghazali, the Syrian military intelligence chief who was apparently in close phone contact with the arrested Sayyid and who Mehlis questioned for hours at a resort on the Syrian-Lebanese border.
At the time, when Mehlis's motorcade was leaving Beirut on its way to Syria, crowds of Lebanese gathered near the city's main highway, and even children stayed away from school to see whether the German prosecutor would truly make the trip and challenge the powerful Syrians. They cheered as the convoy passed by.
The meeting point with the delegation from Damascus was selected carefully, with each side bringing along roughly a hundred security agents to the Monterosa Hotel, about halfway between Beirut and Damascus. Mehlis had tea and humus served to Ghazali and Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Muallim. The questioning began shortly after 9 a.m. in Room 323, the hotel's presidential suite. Muallim, who had been Syria's ambassador to the United States for five years, knew what Mehlis wanted. Muallim is widely viewed as the man with the "Lebanon dossier," a meticulous account of the Syrian regime's activities in Beirut.
But instead of handing over the dossier, Muallim served up a story about the supposed harmony and friendship between Hariri and the Syrians. Mehlis, who had heard Hariri's tape and knew what had been said, asked the Syrian about the controversial meeting in Damascus on Feb. 1. Muallim responded that the two parties had come together for a "friendly and constructive" discussion of all issues. Did he have a dossier on Hariri? Non-existent and clearly a rumor, Muallim said.
Next up was Ghazali, a man with an enormous moustache, a high forehead and the face of a mastiff. He is known for his brutal interrogation techniques and his lack of regard for both Lebanese and Syrian critics. Ghazali described the relationship with Hariri in even more gushing terms than Muallim, saying that there were no disagreements whatsoever. The same, he said, applied to the entire Syrian government -- yet another blatant lie.
Mehlis uncovered other evidence pointing toward the military intelligence service headed by Ghazali. Take, for example, the Mitsubishi pickup truck used to hide the explosives. British divers recovered parts of the engine from the Mediterranean in front of the Hotel St. Georges, and the Japanese reported that the vehicle had been stolen in Japan in October 2004 and shipped to Syria. A witness claims to have seen the pickup truck at Syria's Hammana military base, where it was allegedly being prepared for use in the assassination.
Mehlis' men say that the truck was likely driven by a suicide bomber. Another witness has said that an Islamist named Abu Adas, who confessed to the act in a martyr's video, was seen in Anjar, the headquarters of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon.
Mehlis knows that although he has a chain of clues at his disposal, it still doesn't amount to the kind of evidence likely to hold up in court. One of the reasons his investigation has not progressed as far as he would like it to is that he's been stonewalled by various international intelligence services. The CIA, the French DGSG, which maintains a strong presence in the Middle East, and Israel's Mossad -- in other words, the intelligence agencies of those countries that view the Syrians as being responsible for the murder -- have been of little to no help. According to the report, it was "regrettable that no member state provided useful information." Indeed, when Mehlis asked the Americans for satellite images from the date of the murder, his request was denied.
The central issue remains whether the conspiracy extended into the presidential palace in Damascus. One of Assad's closest associates, Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan, committed suicide at his desk last Wednesday -- allegedly. Kanaan spent 20 years as Syria's regent in Beirut, until he was replaced by the current principal suspect in the Hariri assassination, Ghazali. Mehlis was able to question the interior minister in September. In his report, he makes a point of mentioning that both political motives and corruption may have been behind the murder -- and that many questions remain unanswered.
Some members of the Bush administration are already calling for "regime change" -- forcibly removing Assad from office. But the Pentagon's involvement in Iraq has tied up its resources, effectively precluding another military campaign. Moreover, a war-torn Syria could easily turn into a new magnet for terrorists.
The only remaining options for the US would be to "instigate" a coup from within or to apply international pressure to weaken the regime and force it to comply with US demands. Experts at the State Department expect the administration to enter into a Faustian pact of sorts. An internationally isolated Assad would be given one last opportunity to reform, "cleanse" his regime and democratize and, more importantly, to cooperate with Washington and make an about-face toward the West: the same approach that was applied successfully to Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi.
Among the veto powers in the UN Security Council, long-term ally Russia is likely to support Assad. But everyone knows that Russian President Vladimir Putin's positions are constantly in flux. Syria has few friends among Arab states. And, for obvious reasons, Syria cannot expect any help from Lebanon. Indeed, Saad Hariri, the son of the assassinated former prime minister and the leader of the biggest political bloc in the Lebanese parliament, said in an interview with SPIEGEL that he favors the "unrestricted punishment of all the guilty and their political backers."
In other words, Assad has his back up against the wall. Washington refuses to surrender "interpretative sovereignty" over the Mehlis report and will likely launch a diplomatic campaign. Sources say that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plans to force a UN resolution to freeze the international accounts of Syrian politicians by the middle of the week.
Damascus could soon see what experts have predicted as a "season of suicides," to which essentially anyone could fall victim and be posthumously turned into a scapegoat. Another possibility is a wave of arrests of "traitors," as the Syrian ambassador to Germany, Hussein Omran, suggested last week when asked about Rustum Ghazali. "We have access to him at any time, should it become necessary," he said.
Whether the top man in Damascus will survive such a witch hunt or whether the affair will cost Assad his own head remains open.
German investigator Detlev Mehlis, for his part, will only be experiencing the finale from afar. Irrespective of the Security Council's decision, he plans to give up his post in December. The justifiable concern of becoming the target of an attack himself has taken its toll on Mehlis. The curtains in his Beirut office remain drawn day and night, and he has been instructed to stay away from the windows. Jund Al-Sham, an Islamist underground group affiliated with Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi, publicized threats against Mehlis in early October, branding him a lackey of Israel and America. The UN has since heightened its security measures even further.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan