Hariri Prosecution May Threaten Syria-US Rapprochement

If tribunal finds Syria guilty of assassination, it could drive country closer to Iran, warns analyst.

Hariri Prosecution May Threaten Syria-US Rapprochement

If tribunal finds Syria guilty of assassination, it could drive country closer to Iran, warns analyst.

Friday, 6 March, 2009
Syria’s apparently improving relations with the United States may be tested following the opening of a tribunal to try suspects for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime minister Rafik Hariri, say observers.

A Damascus-based political analyst, who asked to remain anonymous, said Syrian officials hope the US will seek some sort of immunity for Syria to avert a possible deterioration of relations with Washington.

It remains unclear, however, whether the American leadership would – or could – have any influence over the United Nations-backed special court in The Hague, which may decide to prosecute high-ranking Syrians for the Harari murder.

“The regime views these charges of wrongdoing [against its officials] as inevitable,” said the analyst.

“If they can strike a deal to escape this fate then they will make concessions regarding their regional relations. Otherwise, they will likely move even closer to Iran and stir up more trouble with Israel and Lebanon.”

Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, a vocal critic of Syria, died in a suicide truck bombing that killed 22 other people in Beirut on February 14, 2005.

The assassination sparked massive protests in Lebanon, and the outcry forced the withdrawal of Syrian troops that had been deployed in the country for close to three decades.

A UN report published later that year accused top Syrian officials of responsibility for Hariri’s assassination – an accusation which Damascus has vehemently denied.

Lebanese authorities are reportedly holding four pro-Syrian generals accused of involvement in the assassination.

UN investigators, meanwhile, have not yet named any suspects and an investigation into the killing continues.

In May 2007, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad appeared to take an uncompromising stance towards the planned court.

“Any cooperation [with the tribunal] requested from Syria that compromises national sovereignty is totally rejected,” he said.

But since relations with the US have slowly begun to improve since President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, the Syrian regime has adopted a more accommodating stance. It has noted that it will cooperate with the tribunal, which opened on March 1, although insists that Syrian suspects be tried in the country’s courts, rather than in The Hague.

The US administration has voiced strong support for the special tribunal.

President Obama marked the anniversary of Hariri’s assassination by reaffirming US commitment to the prosecution of those responsible for “this horrific crime”, and by pledging an additional 6 million US dollars in funding for the court.

But the work of the tribunal may come at a bad time for US officials, who view the possibility of a better relationship with Damascus as part of a strategic realignment in the region, according to the analyst.

The Obama administration has indicated its desire to bolster ties with Syria by authorising a series of high-profile congressional visits, as well as a meeting on February 26 between Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman and Syria’s ambassador to the US Imad Moustapha.

On March 3, the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton announced while meeting with Israeli leaders in Jerusalem that Washington would dispatch two envoys to Syria for “preliminary conversations” with the government. During an international conference to raise aid for Palestinians, held in the Egyptian city of Sharm el-Sheikh the day before, Clinton met briefly with the Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Muallem.

According to the analyst, drawing Damascus closer to Washington – and away from Tehran – could weaken militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, help bring stability to Iraq as the US continues to pull out troops there, and also pave the way for a renewed Middle-East peace process.

“If the United States and others really want our country to sever its ties with Iran [and] Iranian-backed Hezbollah and Hamas, they will need to protect Syria from liability at the tribunal,” said the analyst.

“The regime is still looking for some kind of assurance from the US that it will consider striking a deal.”

Other observers say that Syria is also trying to negotiate with Saudi Arabia about the tribunal.

Muallem visited the kingdom on February 24 and delivered a letter from Assad to Saudi king Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz.

The visit was described as a sign of improved relations between the two countries, and officials on both sides said that more high-profile talks would take place between them.

Bilateral relations had deteriorated significantly following the assassination of Hariri, who enjoyed strong ties with the Saudi royal family.

Muallem denied that the tribunal was discussed during his talks with King Abdullah.

But a Syrian political writer who asked to remain anonymous said that in his letter, Assad had asked whether the Saudis believed prosecutors at the special court were planning to accuse any of Syria’s leaders.

“This shows that the regime is well-aware of potential prosecution and is ready to start bargaining,” said the writer.

He said he thought the US could potentially intervene to support Syria in a number of ways, “Even if the US, Saudi Arabia and others won’t back outright immunity for the regime, there are other ways to help.

“If Syrian leaders are indicted and refuse to comply, the tribunal [would] have to seek a new UN resolution [to pressure the country to deliver them to The Hague]. This would be another different opportunity for the US to intervene [by vetoing the resolution].”

A couple of days after Muallem’s visit to Saudi Arabia, Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal said in Paris that his country would continue to support the tribunal irrespective of its rapprochement with Damascus.

Following talks with Faisal in Paris, French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner told reporters that France would also support the special court regardless of its improving ties with Syria.

But in spite of these high-profile statements backing the tribunal, all three countries have a strong interest in driving a wedge between Syria and Iran, according to the Damascus-based political analyst.

“Of course, the only way such a scenario would be possible is if the United States goes to the United Nations and gets a guarantee that the ‘main heads of state’ will not face prosecution at this tribunal,” he said.

“First and foremost, the United States cares about its own interests. It will help the United States to have one of Iran’s allies in its corner.”

The writer suggested that the US wouldn’t decide what do about Syria until after the Iranian presidential poll is held in June this year.

“The US is waiting for the Iranian election to decide how to proceed with Tehran,” he said.

“If one of the pro-reform candidates wins, the US will be more likely to engage Tehran in direct talks. At this point, Syria will either be an ally to the US or a burden.”
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