Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A WikiLeaks Warning To Damascus

By Michael Young
This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 9/12/2010

A diplomatic cable obtained by WikiLeaks and released exclusively by The Daily Star earlier this week helps illustrate the precariousness of Syria’s position, as it instructs its allies to push the Lebanese government to discuss the matter of “false witnesses.”

In the cable, written in 2006, Jeffrey Feltman, the US ambassador to Lebanon, reported that the head of the United Nations International Independent Investigative Commission (UNIIIC), Serge Brammertz, had told him the following: “Syria has five different security apparatuses. I can’t imagine that an order came down from [President Bashar Assad] and worked its way through all the security services and until they killed Hariri.” Brammertz then clarified that thought: “If anything, you probably had one security service involved, and the order came from on high and, how high, we’ll have to figure out.”

What Brammertz appeared to be saying was fairly straightforward, for those who recall the security hierarchy at the time in Damascus. Aside from admitting that he was focusing on Syrian involvement in the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the commissioner was making an operational observation: It was likely one Syrian security service that had taken part in the crime, by which Brammertz probably meant military intelligence, at the time headed by Assad’s brother in law. The commissioner was merely declaring it unlikely that the entire gamut of Syrian intelligence services were in on the killing of the former Lebanese prime minister; and he was uncertain how far up the chain of command the order to eliminate Hariri had come from.

Far from being a declaration of Syrian innocence, the cable confirms that in 2006 UNIIIC was still convinced that Syria had participated in the Hariri assassination. Sources in UNIIIC have since corroborated this, as did, implicitly, Brammertz’s first report issued in March 2006. The commissioner wrote in the document that investigators believed “there is a layer of perpetrators between those who initially commissioned the crime and the actual perpetrators on the day of the crime, namely those who enabled the crime to occur.”

If we assume, as we must, that the perpetrator was a suicide bomber; and if the prosecutor of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, Daniel Bellemare, indicts Hizbullah members for having enabled the crime, that still does not answer who commissioned the crime. It was precisely on that question that Brammertz was exchanging views with Feltman, and his remarks, if we are to believe the cable leaked by WikiLeaks, shows in what direction he hoped to point the finger.

But then he never did. However, the Syrians are not reassured. They realize that although Bellemare’s initial indictments might not touch them, there are no guarantees that subsequent indictments will not do so if the trial opens up new investigative avenues. No one in Damascus can be certain of what lies ahead. There is much testimony in Bellemare’s files collected by the first UNIIIC commissioner, Detlev Mehlis, pointing in the direction of Syria, even if the relative lack of progress during Brammertz’s term creates serious doubts about whether Bellemare would have enough to draft solid indictments.

The Syrians appear to be pursuing two simultaneous objectives with the aim of reviving their supremacy in Lebanon: acceptance by the Lebanese government of measures casting doubt on the credibility of the tribunal for the period after indictments are issued; and avoidance of a debilitating Lebanese confrontation over the tribunal before the legal accusations come out, because Damascus grasps that the indictments would allow it to play Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Hizbullah off against each other, to Syria’s own advantage.

That appears to be one reason why the Syrians have instructed the speaker of Parliament, Nabih Berri, to undermine efforts by President Michel Sleiman to deal with the “false witnesses” file in the national dialogue sessions. The president wants to buy time, but the Syrian gambit doesn’t allow for much time. And the last thing Bashar Assad wants is for his Lebanese counterpart to act as an effective mediator between the Lebanese, because he covets that role for himself.

Syrian intentions continue to be a matter of debate. Recently, the Syrian deputy foreign minister, Faysal Mekdad, told a Kuwaiti newspaper that Syria had no intention of returning to Lebanon militarily, “no matter how difficult the situation becomes.” There seemed more than a hint of sour grapes and menace in that phrase, against the backdrop of Walid Jumblatt’s statements that if there is instability in Lebanon, the return of the Syrian army would be desirable. Syria would relish the opportunity to bring its soldiers back. The problem is that virtually everyone opposes this, including in all probability Iran and Hizbullah, who have extensive control over the commanding heights of Lebanon’s major security institutions.

Sleiman’s performance is another Syrian preoccupation. Because of the polarization in Lebanon, room has been created for the president to fill the vacuum. However, his leading ministers have taken hits lately. Interior Minister Ziad Baroud has been criticized by pro-Hariri politicians, while Elias Murr has had to fend off criticism for indirectly offering advice to Israel in the event it attacked Lebanon – information contained in a US cable leaked to the pro-Hizbullah Al-Akhbar. Sleiman is the vulnerable man in the middle, and everyone is trying to shove the president in one direction or the other, reminding him that his share in any new government might be reduced.  

It’s an upward climb for Syria in Lebanon. The Feltman cable, though it tells us nothing we didn’t know, will concentrate minds in Damascus, where the urge to both undermine the tribunal and use it as a lever to enhance Syrian influence in Beirut has imposed a subtle balancing act. Mekdad stated that Syria didn’t seek a military return to Lebanon, but he omitted any mention of a political return. Michel Sleiman’s isolation underscores the significance of that exclusion.   

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR and author of “The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle” (Simon & Schuster).

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