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Syrians Consider Response to Hariri Tribunal

The imminent creation of a special tribunal to try suspects in the 2005 assassination of one-time Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri has left Syrian analysts divided about how their government will respond to accusations that it was implicated in the attack.

Hariri, a vocal critic of Syria’s influence on Lebanese affairs, died in a suicide truck bombing that killed 22 other people in Beirut on February 14, 2005.

The assassination sparked massive Lebanese protests, and while Damascus has vehemently denied any involvement, the outcry forced the withdrawal of Syrian troops that had been deployed in the country for close to three decades.

No one has yet been charged, but four Lebanese generals have been held for the last three years on suspicion of involvement.

An early report from United Nations investigators found that the complexity of the plot pointed to the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services being involved.

Earlier this week, the UN's International Independent Investigation Commission announced that it had uncovered new evidence which could lead to more arrests.

“The commission reports that it has acquired new information that may allow it to link additional individuals to the network that carried out the assassination,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement to the Security Council.

A report from the commission which Ban submitted to the council did not reveal what the new evidence was, but requested that the investigators’ mandate be extended through February so they can continue their work.

The report also suggested that the Hariri tribunal could start work on March 1.

With three months to go, Syrian analysts believe there is still time for the government to take action to mitigate the consequences of being identified as a culprit in the assassination, should that happen.

“If the Syrian government really was involved in the assassination, there’s still time to deal with the issue,” said an analyst based in Damascus who asked to remain anonymous. “The regime could seek to strike a deal with a major western country, agreeing to concessions such as curbing its relationship with Iran and Islamic extremist groups.”

The analyst drew an analogy with Libya, which has managed to repair a relationship with the international community which hit a low after the 1988 bombing of an aircraft over Scotland. The United Nations lifted sanctions against Libya in 2003 and the United States resumed full diplomatic relations in 2004, after the country delivered a letter to the United Nations accepting responsibility for the bombing and agreeing to compensate the families of victims.

“We should be sure that the West wants to change the behaviour of the Syrian regime rather than change the regime itself,” the analyst said. “If a deal could be reached, perhaps justice would be forgotten.”

Many of those who believe the Syrian regime was involved in the assassination expressed fears that a deal would only strengthen the government.

Others are not so sure that such a deal could be struck at all, pointing out that it would not be easy for Syria to end its relationship with Iran or abandon other interests in the Middle East.

“If the regime is able to do that, it could have done so before things escalated to this point,” said one analyst. “It’s too difficult to expect the regime to behave now. Is it going to provoke chaos and violence in Lebanon again…? Or does it still have cards left to play? I guess the latter is most likely.”

Ordinary Syrians remain divided about whether the Hariri tribunal is needed at all, some see it as merely part of a US-led conspiracy.

“They are against the resistance [by regional militant groups], and the only thing they care about is beating Hezbollah,” said a 23-year-old university student in Damascus.

One likely scenario, according to the analyst, turns on the parliamentary election in Lebanon next spring.

“The government is working with pro-Syrian forces to win the Lebanese parliamentary election next May,” he said. “If they are successful, the Lebanese government will not cooperate with the tribunal and will not deliver Lebanese suspects who are arrested. That would cause the trial process to break down for a while at least.”

One way or another, he predicts that the next few months will be tense for the Syrian authorities.

“The regime will remain nervous and uncomfortable until the nightmare of the tribunal goes away,” he said. “Meanwhile, it will be played out through nervous domestic policies, strengthened security, and more pressure on opponents and independent reform movements.”

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)

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