No Absence of Mehlis

Syria faces the music over Rafik Hariri’s assassination.

BEIRUT—In 2003, I was invited to a dinner at which Basil Fuleihan was present. I asked Fuleihan, a former minister and close ally of then-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, whether he expected the term of Lebanon’s president, Emile Lahoud, to be unconstitutionally extended in 2004—by which I meant would Syria keep Lahoud on against the wishes of his archrival, Hariri. Fuleihan said he didn’t think so. Who could have guessed that the Syrians would indeed impose Lahoud for three more years and that the ensuing rift with Hariri would apparently lead to a Syrian decision to have him killed in a bomb attack on Feb. 14? Fuleihan was sitting next to Hariri in the car that day and would succumb, after surviving for two agonizing months in a Paris hospital with burns over 95 percent of his body.

Last Thursday, there was some payback, when Detlev Mehlis, the German prosecutor appointed to investigate the assassination for the United Nations, released his preliminary conclusions. Mehlis stressed that an investigation like his required more than the five months, and he admitted his that work was “not complete.” However, he felt confident enough to affirm that “there is converging evidence pointing at both Lebanese and Syrian involvement in this terrorist act.” He described former security officials in Lebanon as “appointees” of the Syrian Military Intelligence service that ran the country and underlined that “given the infiltration of Lebanese institutions and society by the Syrian and Lebanese services working in tandem, it would be difficult to envisage a scenario whereby such a complex assassination plot could have been carried out without their knowledge.”

This was hardly news to many Lebanese, who had long assumed Syria was behind Hariri’s murder. But Mehlis did more than just point a finger: His investigation, created by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1595, was designed to buttress a Lebanese judicial inquiry into the assassination, culminating in a trial. That’s why an important aspect of the report was Mehlis’ call for a “sustained effort on the part of the international community to establish an assistance and cooperation platform together with the Lebanese authorities in the field of security and justice.”

Mehlis’ deadline was extended until mid-December, but he made it clear in his report that even more time was needed, in particular to question Syrian officials outside Syria, away from the intimidating eye of the intelligence services. Effectively, Mehlis sought to institutionalize a more long-term judicial effort that, in theory, could last for years.

The report is divided into six parts, but it is the background and the section on the commission’s own investigation that make for the most disturbing reading. Mehlis describes a period before the crime where Syria and its Lebanese allies were caught in a spiteful standoff with Hariri, who stepped down as prime minister after Lebanon’s Parliament, under Syrian duress, approved the extension of Lahoud’s mandate in September 2004. Several witnesses, including Hariri’s son, told the inquiry that just prior to this, Syrian President Bashar Assad personally threatened Hariri at a tense 15-minute meeting in Damascus, telling him he would “break Lebanon over [his] head” if he opposed Lahoud’s staying on. One Syrian witness said that it was three weeks after the episode that the Syrians decided to kill Hariri, though another dated the decision earlier.

The commission’s investigation involved interviewing more than 400 witnesses * and 22 suspects, as well as overseeing several forensic examinations of the bomb site—despite attempts by the pro-Syrian Lebanese authorities to tamper with evidence in the weeks after Hariri’s death. The leads are many, but what the report essentially exposes is a conspiracy of enormous magnitude, involving Lebanese and Syrian security personnel, politicians, and others. It becomes obvious that the Syrian strategy was one of imposing omertà, or the law of silence, by implicating as many people as possible. This might have worked, if the United Nations had not established the Mehlis team with broad authority to get to the bottom of what happened.

It is virtually impossible to believe, in reading the report, that Assad and Lahoud could not have known about the plans for Hariri’s murder. Indeed, one of the suspects in the crime, a member of an Islamist group with close ties to Syrian intelligence, called Lahoud on his personal cell phone minutes before the blast. The president denied taking such a call, but the strongest part of the Mehlis report is its tracing of the plotters’ mobile communications. What it reveals is a network of calls among suspects, not all of them identified by investigators yet, with Syrian intelligence officers and, among others, Lahoud’s right-hand man, Mustapha Hamdan, who headed the Republican Guard, before his subsequent arrest. Mehlis also discovered the store where a number of the prepaid cell-phone calling cards were sold (the phones were used to transmit details of Hariri’s whereabouts) and found that it belongs to an active member of the pro-Syrian Islamist group of which Lahoud’s caller is also a member.

Syria quickly dismissed the Mehlis report, with Information Minister Mehdi Dakhlallah calling it “100 percent politicized.” Syria’s ambassador to the United States scoffed that it was based on the testimony of “shady characters,” a bizarre assertion since prosecution cases often rely on less than upstanding citizens. What really disturbed the Syrians was that the names of senior officials, including President Bashar Assad’s brother Maher, who heads the Republican Guard, and his brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, who heads Syria’s military intelligence, were visible in an initial release of the report, thanks to the “Track Changes” function of Microsoft Word, though they were deleted in the final version. (The Word document can be found here.)

The incident provoked confusion, with Mehlis telling a press conference he had removed names from the final version because the men were identified by a single source and he wanted to maintain the presumption of innocence. That was nonsense: In other parts of the report, suspects who are also identified by single sources are named. Moreover, Shawkat reappears elsewhere in the document on the basis of a single source, who says he forced the apparent scapegoat of the assassination to tape a bogus statement claiming responsibility. It may well be that Mehlis and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan agreed to release the report with the track changes visible as a warning to Syria that suspicion has reached the highest levels of the regime, so, Assad had better cooperate.

The thing is, Assad has no such leeway. His brother and brother-in-law are arguably more powerful than he is, and neither will voluntarily become a fall guy. On Tuesday, the U.N. Security Council meets to decide how to respond to the Mehlis findings. It is unclear if the Security Council will agree to sanctions, but it seems almost certain it will demand that Syria allow its officials to be interviewed outside the country. That would put Assad in a bind, by compelling him to cooperate with an inquiry his officials have already condemned. Or he could refuse and suffer the consequences. Assad knows that his regime can either stand, and eventually collapse, united; or it can collapse much sooner if a family rift develops over addressing the Mehlis inquiry.

Correction, Oct. 26, 2005: This piece originally and incorrectly stated that the commission interviewed 244 witnesses. The figure of 244 refers to “witness statements,” not the total number of witnesses, which was greater than 400. (Return to the corrected sentence.)