Michael Young, an editor of the Beirut Daily Star and a well-known analyst on Lebanese-Syrian relations, says he hopes that the UN Security Council meeting due to take up the Mehlis Report on the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, will keep up pressure on Syria to get more specific evidence to prove Syria’s involvement in Hariri’s killing.
Young says he hopes the Council will approve the extension of the Mehlis investigation beyond its current December 15 cutoff, and allow for such measures as interviewing Syrian officials outside the borders of Syria.
As to economic sanctions, he indicates he thinks it would only unite the Syrian people who would suffer the most.
“In terms of sanctions, let’s be honest: Economic sanctions in Syria are not going to do anything except consolidate the regime’s power and make the average Syrian feel worse off, as has happened in Iraq….I think the best thing is to continue with the judicial inquiry process, to get more information on what happened, on how Hariri was killed, and to continue to function within the parameters of international law. This gives everyone more legitimacy and I think there is a consensus on that within the Security Council.”
Young was interviewed from Beirut by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on October 24, 2005.
The Mehlis Report has now been out for several days and, of course, everyone in Lebanon who wants to know about it has had a chance to read it in your newspaperand elsewhere. What is the general sense in the streets of Beirut these days? Is there a general unanimity on this, or are there still many Syrian supporters who find this hogwash?
I think, by and large, most Lebanese are not surprised by the results of the investigation. I think many Lebanese always believed the Syrians were responsible. Now, there have been no polls to show how many—early on there were a few, there was one by Zogby International. But the fact of the matter is that by and large, at least from my impression, a majority of Lebanese believed Syria was behind this. That said, Syria does have some old allies it can rely on, particularly [the Lebanese Shiite militant group] Hezbollah and a portion of the Shiite community, and there is indeed, among several people I’ve spoken to, the impression that this is a political report. The effort is to put the onus on Syria and in a way, indirectly, to tighten the screws on Hezbollah in the future through implementation of [UN] Resolution 1559. So, they see this as the first step in an effort by the Americans particularly to go after Hezbollah.
There were staged demonstrations today in Damascus and Aleppo, in which—according to the wire services—thousands of people including school children carried banners, etc., linking the report to the United States and Zionism. Do you think the report suffers from lacking specific accusations?
Well, I’m not sure that’s correct. I think people have over-interpreted this report as being essentially an open and shut accusation. I mean, what [UN Lead Investigator] Detlev Mehlis made clear in his report was that he was given five months to uncover a massive conspiracy. And he said that was just not enough time to get to the bottom of all the details. I think the second thing we have to understand is that Mehlis is there to help the Lebanese judiciary, at least this is according to the [U.N.] Resolution 1595, which set up the inquiry commission. He’s there to help the Lebanese. In other words, this is not a trial document. This is the backbone of what will eventually become acts of accusations against subjects. I think we should be realistic. What he’s done up to now is that he’s confident enough to say that all the evidence indicates high-level Syrian and Lebanese participation in this crime. He does have a lot of specifics; we know a lot about the Lebanese effort to cover up and to tamper with the crime scene; he does have evidence of phone conversations and phone communications between suspects. We do have quite a few witnesses, saying by and large convergent things—not that there aren’t some contradictions, but that’s to be expected—on those involved and who might have been involved.
Now the names of the witnesses have not been made public because of fears for their lives, but presumably at some point, they will be known. I think that for a five-month investigation, he’s got quite a lot, aside from the details of the actual explosion and so forth. I think that those who are saying we don’t have everything here, well, indeed not everything is there. In fact, the Lebanese government and the security forces tampered with a lot of evidence in the months before Mehlis began his inquiry. But, Mehlis is a serious guy. He would not have accused the Syrians and the Lebanese had he not had very compelling evidence that they were involved in Hariri’s assassination, not least of which, because of the threats that have been issued by the Syrians; including by President Assad himself against Hariri, but as well as other Syrian officials. I think it’s quite compelling, but I do also agree that if you’re going to take this to court, there is going to have to be more and he did make that clear.
Can you talk a bit about the domestic scene in Lebanon? I think to Americans who are not familiar with the situation, it seems bizarre that you have a president who supports the Syrians on this, where as on the whole, the public seems to hold the Syrians responsible for the assassination.
I think we should be careful. [President] Emile Lahoud has not come out officially in support of the Syrians on this. In fact, one of the paradoxes of this situation is that in reading the Mehlis Report, it is very difficult to believe Lahoud could not have known about the Hariri assassination. But the fact is that Lahoud, early on, agreed to the Mehlis investigation. He probably did it to cover himself and to cover his acolytes. But the fact is that he did agree. And he hasn’t officially taken the position that he supports the Syrians. What he’s done is that, officially, he’s supported the Mehlis commission.
Now, essentially, Lahoud comes out of this report not looking good. In one passage, one of the suspects apparently called him on his personal cell phone minutes before the explosion. The fact is that many of those allegedly implicated and who are now under arrest in Lebanon were in fact close collaborators with the president. In any system, the president would have long ago resigned, but unfortunately this is Lebanon and two things are essentially preserving Emile Lahoud. First of all, there is the fact that the Mehlis report was not released until last week so that in a sense he managed to stay in power until the report came out because everyone was waiting to see what the report would say. I suspect in the coming weeks we’ll see an escalation in the demands for him to resign.
Secondly, the reason Lahoud has managed to stay on is that there is little agreement among the politicians about who should succeed him. The president in Lebanon, while constitutionally lost a lot of power with the Taif Agreement of 1989, the fact is that the constitution is fairly imprecise when it comes to the president’s mandate and getting rid of him. So Lahoud has been able to hide himself behind this constitutional ambiguity to stay in power. He’s at the same time been able to take advantage of the fact that because there is no agreement on his successor, the political class is divided and consequently he’s been able to ride this through. Now, the key question obviously is will the political class unite in the coming weeks over his successor? I’m not convinced that we will soon have an answer.
I’d just like to add that I don’t think he’ll serve another two years in office, in other words, until the formal end of his extended mandate.
The role of the prime minister of Lebanon right now is what? He’s clean on this, I take it.
The prime minister, who is Fouad Siniora, is certainly clean. He was one of Hariri’s closest collaborators. He was his favorite finance minister and he’s squarely in the Hariri camp. He’s prime minister because he has experience, in contrast to Hariri’s son, Saad, who is the leader of the Hariri movement today and also because Saad is not in the country. He fears for his life so he goes between Paris and Saudi Arabia. He doesn’t dare live in Lebanon these days. So yes, the prime minister has actually brought a certain amount of stability to the Hariri movement in the wake of Rafik Hariri’s assassination. As I said, he has experience; he’s a fairly cool guy. He’s not someone who seeks confrontation and he’s diplomatic. And I think, for the moment, he’s probably the best guy who could be prime minister. Having said that, he will soon probably be called upon to enter into political confrontation with Lahoud because I think that’s where the Mehlis report is leading. I can’t imagine that Lahoud will not, in the very near future, be facing escalating demands for his resignation.
But there has to be a Christian as president according to the Taif Agreement, right?
That’s right, and perhaps that’s where the nub of the problem lies. The most popular Christian politician today is Michel Aoun, the former army commander and head of the interim government. Aoun did very well in parliamentary elections this summer. He is without a doubt the most popular Maronite Christian politician. The only thing is that most of the political class doesn’t want Aoun. He’s a strong figure; he’s someone who has said that he wants to clean the system of corruption. He’s also someone who has a strong personality. And I think that’s something that bothers a lot of people in the political class. It disturbs a lot of Hariri’s supporters and it also disturbs a lot of members of the Christian opposition. So that in a sense, you have a situation where the parliamentary majority led by the Hariris will probably not vote for Michel Aoun because in Lebanon it is the parliament that elects the president; it’s not a direct vote from the people.
So the parliamentary majority indeed does not favor Aoun. But the Christian community likes Aoun. So if the majority decides to bring in a man other than Aoun, he’s someone who legitimately might be questioned among Christians. So it would be very important to see which Christian the parliamentary majority brings in. They have to bring in someone whose legitimacy can compete with that of Michel Aoun and who can rather quickly convince his Christian comrades that he, in a way, is worthy of their trust. I think it will be difficult if Aoun has presidential ambitions.
Let’s go back to last summer, August 2004, when Hariri had this now-famous meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Why did Assad want to alter the constitution to keep Lahoud in office? Couldn’t he have found another puppet to serve his purposes just as well?
Well, that was precisely what many people have been saying; that this was a reflection of his inexperience. My personal view of this is that we have to understand that Assad, leading up to August 2004, had not made up his mind whether he wanted to extend Lahoud’s mandate or not [under the Lebanese constitution at that time, Lahoud’s term could not be extended]. I think that, as pressure began building up in June, July, and August of 2004—as I recall the United States had imposed sanctions under the  Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act (PDF)—plus he was coming under increasing pressure from Washington. I think Assad felt that he had to show that he could take a stand and be tough. I believe that’s the reason why he took this position. Also, I think that at the time—I can’t quite remember all the details—but my understanding is that he was expecting the United States to be more flexible with Syria over a variety of things including Iraq and Lebanon.
The United States, however, was taking an increasingly strong position on the Lebanese constitution saying there should be a new president. I think Assad felt that he had to show that he could be tough. Remember, this is someone who was trying to send messages domestically, as well as to the international community; domestically, because he had to prove himself inside Syria. So he took this position and indeed, in the months after he imposed Lahoud’s extended mandate, he thought—and the mood in Damscus was—that this was a great success.
If you recall, Assad followed that up with a change of government in Syria—it wasn’t a complete change, it was a cabinet reshuffle—and in a sense he felt confident that keeping Lahoud on in Lebanon had consolidated his hold in Lebanon. He felt that it was a good time to consolidate his hold in Syria and indeed his anticipation was that by the first quarter of 2005, he would be in a position to substantially enforce his authority in Syria. This would culminate with the Baath Party congress, as in fact happened, in which he managed to place his own people in the senior positions. So this was all a process. But he completely miscalculated American and French seriousness when it came to Resolution 1559, which effectively called on the Syrians to leave Lebanon, but also to respect the Lebanese constitution and bring in a new president. He miscalculated and he’s paid the price.
What would the Lebanese like to see come out of the Security Council, realistically?
I’m not sure that there’s really a consensus.
What would you like to see?
What I would like to see, I think, are a couple of things. First of all, I think a key ingredient in Mehlis’ report was his asking for this investigation process to continue. I think ideally this must continue, and to my mind, it must continue beyond the December 15 deadline, which it now is. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Mehlis should continue to conduct his investigation in exactly the same way, but certainly some kind of mechanism to continue the investigation—like calling on Syrian officials to be interviewed outside Syria—there must be a mechanism to continue this process.
My suspicion is that they may actually reach a consensus on this. In terms of sanctions, let’s be honest: Economic sanctions in Syria are not going to do anything except consolidate the regime’s power and make the average Syrian feel worse off, as has happened in Iraq. However, you can impose selective sanctions on members of the Syrian regime. That may be something also worth looking into at the United Nations. Beyond that, as I said, I think the best thing is to continue with the judicial inquiry process, to get more information on what happened, on how Hariri was killed, and to continue to function within the parameters of international law. This gives everyone more legitimacy and I think there is a consensus on that within the Security Council. The worst thing that could happen is that the consensus breaks down in the Security Council.
How is the United States viewed in Lebanon these days?
Schizophrenically. I think that the political leadership is trying strenuously to say that they’re not doing America’s bidding and that they’re not siding with America against Syria. A few will, a few don’t care, but most want to stay away from that, largely because they are afraid of a confrontation with Hezbollah. But at the same time, at the popular level, I think many people simply understand, at least those who at the start liked the United States—obviously not everybody does—that in effect the United States has been essential to the entire process. Not only the United States, but France as well. But I think that there is an understanding that, had the United States and France not taken the tack they did at the United Nations, this entire process—the Mehlis investigation, the Syrian departure from Lebanon—all this would not have gone anywhere and I think that understanding is widespread.
Why did [French President Jacques] Chirac come on board with the United States, since obviously France and the United States have not agreed on much lately?
I think it’s actually the other way around. I think it’s the United States that last June—June 2004—went on board with Chirac. It was actually the French who had been leading this process before the Americans, and I think the Americans saw a good thing. What motivated Chirac, I’m not sure. I think it was a number of things: His relationship with Hariri was an important factor, but more importantly, his understanding that more of Emile Lahoud—an extended term for Emile Lahoud—was not good not only for Hariri, but was not good for Lebanon’s future; all that, duck-tailed with the fact that Chirac by the summer of 2004 had lost all confidence in Bashar al Assad.
I think from the French side there was a feeling that this was a time to act in Lebanon and with Syria. From the American side it was Iraq and the fact that people were still coming through the Syrian border. I think they both saw parallel interests and perhaps Chirac saw, as did Bush, that this was a good occasion for the two countries to get over the rift created by the war in Iraq. So they’ve been in collaboration, but the French, I think, took an interest before the Americans.