On February 14, 2005, the former Prime Minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri, was assassinated in Nejmeh Square in Beirut, in an explosion that took the lives of 22 other individuals. The U.S. promptly blamed Syria, while most Middle Eastern sources and certain important western websites (including the World Social Web Site) pointed to Israel as the more likely beneficiary of the murder. The United Nations subsequently launched an investigation which was headed by Detlev Mehlis, who is usually referred to simply as a ‘German prosecutor.’
The results of the Mehlis investigation were released this week, and its conclusions were widely reported by most major news outlets. It became known almost immediately that the Mehlis report reiterated U.S. allegations of Syrian involvement. As far as I can determine from the preliminary character of the report, the case against Syria rests on four pieces of information which are represented as incriminating:
1. The existence of tension between Hariri and ‘senior Syrian officials, including Syrian President Bashar Assad’ over the extension of President Emile Lahoud’s term which allegedly culminated at a meeting held on August 26, 2004.
2. The claim that, due to extensive Syrian intelligence capabilities in Lebanon, a ‘complex assassination plot’ could not have taken place in Beirut without Syrian involvement.
3. Allegations from persons claiming inside knowledge of Syrian involvement, above all, one Zuhir Ibn Mohamed Said Saddik, who claims to have been extensively involved in the assassination plot himself.
4. The claim that Syrian authorities refused to cooperate with the U.N. investigation. As an example of non-cooperation, the report states that ‘The letter addressed to the Commission by the Foreign Minister of the Syrian Arab Republic proved to contain false information.’
The problem is that not one of the four pieces of information is necessarily incriminating:
1. There is nothing inherently suspicious about strong disagreement between Hariri and the Syrians over the extension of Lahoud’s term. According to Hariri himself – in a conversation recorded on February 1, 2005 – he was extremely disturbed when he learned during a 15-minute meeting with President Assad that Assad planned to extend Lahoud’s term. However, the fragment of the conversation included in the Mehlis report implies that Hariri had no actual say in the decision – it was, apparently, a decision Assad alone had the right to make. While Hariri describes himself as ‘pale-faced’ after his meeting with Assad, he does not indicate that he forcefully objected. The only incriminating aspect of the matter is the claim made on June 22, 2005, by (anti-Syrian) Beirut newspaper editor Jubran Tueni that Hariri had told him that Assad had said that if he voted against Lahoud’s extension he would ‘blow him up.’ However, this remark seems ex post facto and no other individual cited in the report, including Hariri’s son Saad, mentions Assad threatening to blow him up. What’s more, on September 3, 2004, ‘the Hariri bloc’ approved of Lahoud’s extension. So what was Syria’s motive for killing Hariri? Assad had gotten what he wanted. Nor should we forget that by February 2005 Hariri was a former prime minister. What would Syria have stood to gain from assassinating a former prime minister? And in any case, why not get rid of Hariri by less conspicuous means? Scarcely anyone would have noticed if the former prime minister of Lebanon had died of apparent food poisoning. Yet the method chosen only ensured the attention of the world.
2. This point is sheer supposition and of no value whatsoever. The same claims could be made of Israeli and U.S. intelligence, which maintain as pervasive a presence in Lebanon as Syrian intelligence. In short, if the Syrians did plan to blow up Hariri, then Israeli and U.S. intelligence knew about it and did nothing to stop it. They are therefore culpable along with the Syrians.
3. Claims of inside knowledge of the Syrian plot – such as the witness who claims that the Mitsubishi Canter van used in the attack was driven from a Syrian military base in Hamma to Beirut by a Syrian Army Colonel from the Army Tenth Division – defy belief. I know of no political assassination in which so many people professing inside knowledge have revealed what they knew so soon afterwards. (Remember, for example, that twenty years later we still have no idea who assassinated Swedish prime minister Olaf Palme.) Unfortunately, most of the persons professing to possess inside knowledge go unidentified. Not only are anonymous sources inherently suspect, they could even be fictional. What guarantees do we have that these witnesses exist, let alone that they are telling the truth?
4. There may be good reasons why the Syrians refused to cooperate with the Mehlis investigation team (if indeed they did refuse to cooperate). The Syrians may have realized early on that the investigation is a hostile one whose mission is to blame Syria at all costs. (The use of the Saddik material shows clearly enough that this is in fact the case.) They would have good reason from the outset to be leery of a Commission headed by Detlev Mehlis, who since 1981 has had a history of investigating crimes in which the blame has invariably been placed upon countries hostile to Israel (Palestine, Libya, Iran and Syria). In particular, Mehlis was responsible for blaming Libya for the bombing of the La Belle Disco in West Berlin on April 5, 1986, an event which is suspected by many to have actually been perpetrated by the Mossad as a means of providing the U.S. with a motive to bomb Libya. In short, Mehlis’s motives are not above scrutiny; indeed, he seems to be a covert Mossad operative who specializes in blaming Arabs for Israeli crimes.
In respect of alleged Syrian non-cooperation, one of the puzzling aspects of the Mehlis report is that investigators apparently placed pressure on Syrian personnel to be questioned in an unnamed ‘third country’ instead of Syria or Lebanon. If this country was Israel, it is obvious why Syrians would have refused to be interrogated there. (If the unnamed country was not Israel, it is hard to see why its name would not be given in the report.) As for the letter containing ‘false information’ which the Syrian foreign minister sent the Mehlis Commission, the report does not tell us what the false information was. If the investigators knew the information was false, they should have at least indicated in what way the Syrian foreign minister had been attempting to deceive them. The fact that the details go unsupplied implies that the false information concerned nothing pertinent to the investigation.
In conclusion, the Mehlis report must be viewed with great suspicion. While it establishes that the explosion was caused by TNT detonated inside a Mitsubishi Canter van, it contains no information of a forensic kind which would permit the assassination to be attributed specifically to the Syrians (or anyone else, for that matter). Its stock in trade is innuendo supported by improbable revelations from persons purporting to possess inside knowledge, including a con man who was paid handsomely for his revelations. Interestingly, the latter individual, Mr Saddik, does not seem to have furnished investigators with information sufficient to determine how the plot was actually carried out – whether, for example, a suicide bomber was used, or whether the explosion was set off remotely, a matter which the Mehlis report fails to resolve. Since Saddik says some of the planning meetings were held in his own apartment, you’d think he’d know something about the crucial logistical details, wouldn’t you?
What’s more, the report suffers from the fact that it only discusses the question of Syrian involvement. The involvement of Israel, which is widely seen in the Middle East as most likely responsible, is never even mentioned, let alone investigated. No investigation which does not consider alternative candidates – in particular, the main alternative candidate – can be taken seriously. The report also neglects the issue of context, above all, the fact the U.S. and Israel would dearly love to invade Syria, and have at present a strong motive to fabricate a pretext. The Hariri assassination may be part of a complex intrigue by which the Americans are trying to take effective control of Lebanon. A motive may be in order to use Lebanon – a future government may well cede the U.S. a base in the country – as a location from which to launch an invasion of Syria. This would be in keeping with Israel’s 1996 “Clean Break” strategy, which involves the invasion first of Iraq (accomplished) followed by that of Syria (stay tuned).