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Cook: UN Report Is Clear in Blaming Assad Regime for Hariri Assassination, but Probably Only ĎA Palace Coupí Will Bring Change in Damascus

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
October 21, 2005

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Likening the leadership in Damascus to The Sopranos, Steven A. Cook, an Arab affairs expert at the Council, says the UN report on the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is clear in holding high-level Syrian and Lebanese security and intelligence officials responsible. But he says it will be hard to bring about regime change in Damascus without “a palace coup.”

“What can we look for if there really is an unraveling or dramatic weakening of the Syrian regime?” asks Cook, the Council’s Douglas Dillon Fellow. “It would probably be a palace coup in effect in which members of the Alawite clique who run the government believe that President Bashar Assad has not played his hand very well and that these people have significantly sullied Syria’s reputation and put the regime in such jeopardy that they have to take action to put things back together again.”

He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on October 21, 2005.

The report of the Mehlis Commission is now out. It holds Syrian and Lebanese security and intelligence officials responsible for the assassination last February 14 of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. What struck you about the report?

Well, first it is a straightforward deconstruction of the events and it is very clear in its conclusions. It is very straightforward in suggesting that it was Syrian security and Lebanese officials who were responsible for the assassination. In fact, I am reading the unedited version of the report right now and the unedited version actually names top Syrian and Lebanese security officials who it says are responsible for the assassination.

Now the Lebanese authorities have arrested four of these high-ranking Lebanese security officials and presumably they will go on trial eventually inLebanon. I guess the main question is the extent ofSyria’s role in all this. Syria is a major player in this part of this world. The United States is at odds with Syria over many issues, including Syria’s role in allowing foreign insurgents into Iraq. How is this report going to play in Syria itself?

It is hoped here and in France that the trial of the four Lebanese security officials will lead to their implicating the Syrians. You have to look at Syria’s power structure as more like The Sopranos, than as a government. It will reveal that in fact, at the highest levels of the Syrian government, they were calling the shots and ordered the assassination of Hariri. It is hoped that this will be one of the factors that will lead to the unraveling of the Assad regime in Syria. The problem as I see it is that it may increase international pressure on the Syrians, but in terms of domestic political pressure, there is no coherent, unified, strong opposition in Syria. So if there is going to be any change in Syria, it’s going to have to come from within.

What can we look for if there really is an unraveling or dramatic weakening of the Syrian regime? It would probably be a palace coup in effect in which members of the Alawite clique who run the government believe that President Bashar Assad has not played his hand very well and that these people have significantly sullied Syria’s reputation and put the regime in such jeopardy that they have to take action to put things back together again.

In passing, the interior minister who supposedly committed suicide last week, General Ghazi Kanaan, was an Alawite, and I guess there might have been fears of his leading a coup. I guess it is hard to believe he voluntarily took his own life.

There are two theories about it: Either he was about to spill the beans—he was Syria’s proconsul in Lebanon for many years—or that he was going to lead a coup.

What I thought was extraordinary was that, even though a number of names were omitted from the final draft, the report nevertheless accused Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara and his deputy, Walid al-Mualem, of giving false information. You don’t normally accuse a foreign minister of lying in a UN document.

Basically, the report accused every Syrian official they interviewed of lying. What the report says is that the Syrian government cooperated in form but not in substance. It said that the statements of officials were meant to mislead the commission. It’s very clearly stated that the Syrians intended to mislead the commission and that other witnesses gave testimony that wasn’t directly relevant to the Hariri assassination. But, that information could lead to additional criminal investigations in Lebanon and would be forwarded to the appropriate Lebanese authorities. This meant, in my reading, that there was more evidence of what the Syrians were up to inLebanonover the last twenty-five years or so.

Let’s go back to the origins of this. It began on August 24, 2004, when President Bashar Assad met with Hariri in Damascus and told him, according to Hariri’s account, that Assad wanted Lebanese President Emile Lahoud’s term in office extended, even though this would require a change in the Lebanese constitution. Why was this such a big deal for Assad that he would in effect threaten Hariri if he tried to block it?

This is one of the Syrians’ great blunders in Lebanon. There was a whole host of characters in Lebanon who were willing to be a Syrian lackey. I don’t know why they were insisting that Lahoud’s term be extended. That event galvanized Lebanon’s fractious opposition and produced a unified front. There had been growing tensions in previous years about the Syrian presence, and increasingly, people were beginning to start to speak out. This heavy-handed approach to Lebanese politics really brought the disparate elements of the opposition in Lebanon together.

Is that what led France and the United States to put forward Resolution 1559 in the Security Council in September 2004, which called on Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon?

The extension of Lahoud’s term was certainly a justification to ratchet up the pressure. There were a whole series of other things that the United States and France were upset with, however.

President Lahoud, of course, is now left out there hanging. He looks like a complete lackey of the Syrians, which everyone in Lebanon apparently believes he is, but will not resign.

He won’t resign and there is no institutional mechanism to remove him from office. What the Lebanese government is doing now is to basically ignore the Lebanese president.

Who is the prime minister?

Fouad Siniora, who is a minister from a previous government, but is not tainted by a close connection to the Syrians.

The Security Council is due to meet on Tuesday to discuss this report. Clearly, some action will be taken. And when Secretary of State Coldoleezza Rice was in Paris, she spoke to President Jacques Chirac about this and they both seem to be united in their determination. What do you think will happen?

Clearly, they will use the report to ratchet up the pressure on the Syrians. And United Nations Security Council sanctions are certainly a possibility. There are two options: One is more forceful—the use of sanctions; the other is to try to resolve the situation through negotiation and mediation. I don’t think, given the recent history of relations between the United States and Syria, we are going to opt for the lesser of the two. So I would expect that the United States and France would push for further economic and diplomatic isolation of Syria in the coming future.

The problem is what to do. Some might call for military action against Syria, regime change in Syria. Certainly regime change in Syria is desirable over the long term. The problem is: What comes after the Assad regime in Syria? And nobody quite knows. As I said before, there really isn’t a unified opposition in place that could take the reins of power. What you have are disparate groups within the orbit of the regime who would fight it out over control of Syria. We would add to the instability of the region by pushing this regime over, but certainly we need to take action against essentially an outlaw region that is sanctioning the assassination of leaders of other countries.

I assume that right now President Assad is meeting with his family and advisers to try to map out a strategy here. They have to come up with something by Tuesday, I would think, beyond just denial.

There is always the so-called “Libyan solution.” [This refers to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s decision to turn over some intelligence agents as responsible for a 1988 bombing on board a Pan Am plane over Lockerbie, Scotland, and agreement to pay compensation to families.] They can offer up a number of mid- to lower-high-level security officials as sacrificial lambs for state policy. They can say they did it, and it was not officially sanctioned. That is a way to try to wiggle out.

But this Mehlis report is so focused, and given the fact that the unedited version was leaked and that individuals at the highest levels of the Syrian government are named—Maher Assad, the brother of the president who is commanding general of the presidential guard, and Assad Shawkat, who is the president’s brother-in-law in charge of military intelligence. This is damning to say the least. I am not quite sure what the Syrians can do. Certainly, the Syrians are in for a period of international isolation. Previously, they were able to count on the French and others who would undermine American efforts to isolate them.

But now, the United States and France are together on this policy. This is a straightforward report pointing at the highest levels in Damascus, written by a nonpartisan investigator from Germany with a reputation for integrity. It’s going to be very difficult for the Syrians to wiggle out of this one.

Why do you think Chirac and the United States were able to get together on this, when they were so apart onIraq ?

I think there is a confluence of interests on the question of Lebanon and Syria, even though the United States and France do not always have the same goals in the Middle East. France is the former colonial power in Lebanon and Syria; there were close connections between Chirac and Hariri. This action by the Syrian government could not go unanswered given France’s belief in its historic responsibility to this area. The Bush administration, for the last several years, has been interested in isolating Syria and getting Syria to change its behavior and ultimately, it is hoped, to have a new beginning in Syria. So in this one instance in the Middle East, if you forget Iraq, if you forget the Arab-Israeli conflict, France and the United States are on the same page.

Would economic sanctions really hurt Syria ?

The issue with Syria is that, first of all economically, it is in a deplorable situation. Lebanon has essentially been Syria’s economic lifeboat. Further economic sanctions on Syria would further its isolation and its economic pain. The problem is that Syria is relatively isolated from the outside world anyway. The Assad regime has been able to withstand the pain applied by the international community and the Syrian people have not demonstrated their willingness to rise up against the regime in any significant kind of way. So if the theory behind these sanctions is that we will apply enough pain to galvanize the Syrian people to take down the regime, it will be a long time coming.

Could the Syrians make a “deal” by cutting off the Iraqi insurgents?

That’s one place the Syrians might look to ease the political pressure on them, by actually taking action against the insurgents or trying to shut down [the Shiite militant group] Hezbollah in Lebanon, which they have sponsored.

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