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Sun 6 Nov 2005 04:00 AM

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Piling on the pressure

Massoud A. Derhally speaks to leading players in the Syrian political game, including deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Dardari and opposition leader Riad Al Turk.

Piling on the pressure|~|Lebanon-200.jpg|~|PROBE: Syria's president Assad is facing difficult times after the UN report into the killing of former Lebanon PM Rafik Hariri.|~|Massoud A. Derhally speaks to leading players in the Syrian political game, including deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Dardari and opposition leader Riad Al Turk.

It was always a foregone conclusion that UN Security Council Resolution 1636 (adopted by a 15 to 0 vote) would pass. In the end America, France and the UK toned down the rhetoric and threat of sanctions to assuage Russian, Chinese and Arab concerns. And in the end, as much as America would have liked to widen the spectrum of issues, it has to settle for a resolution limited to the confines of Lebanese-Syrian affairs.

Still the words “further action” provide a window of opportunity for sanctions to be implemented against Syria, in the case of non-compliance, and no doubt will linger in the background as Damascus exhausts all efforts in its quest to prove its innocence.

“Syria’s continued lack of cooperation to the inquiry would constitute a serious violation of its obligations under relevant resolutions,” the Council said, insisting that Syria “not interfere in Lebanese domestic affairs, either directly or indirectly, refrain from any attempt aimed at destabilising Lebanon, and respect scrupulously the sovereignty, territorial integrity, unity and political independence of this country”.

Also troubling for the Syrian regime is the clause that requires not only that travel bans or the freezing of assets be imposed on anyone suspected of involvement in the February 14 killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and 22 others, but also the detainment of suspects and agreeing to allow individuals to be witnessed outside of Syria alone.

This means in all likelihood questioning, turning over or trying Maher Al Assad, the brother of the Syrian president, Assef Shawkat, the brother-in-law of Assad, Hassan Khalil a former Syrian interior minister and Bahjat Suleyman, the Syrian Internal Security Forces chief in the General Intelligence Department. It also implies the interviewing of president Bashar Al Assad of Syria — something the present regime is vehemently against.

“I consider that the UN Security Council resolution is a warning to Syria to cooperate with the investigation committee and this means that if Syria insists on not cooperating or stalls … then sanctions can be rationalised,” Riad Al Turk, a veteran politician and Syrian opposition activist jailed for 18 years by the Baathist regime, told Arabian Business.

The pattern of events that have come to bear on Syria at the UN Security Council on October 31, in the form of Resolution 1636, are rooted in the extension of president Emile Lahoud’s term as president of Lebanon. Amending the Lebanese constitution to achieve this, along with the assassination of Hariri, which Syria allegedly had a hand in, have all but placed Damascus at a point of no return.

“The resolution puts the Syrian government in a bind, either to surrender to the Mehlis process, as Lebanon has done sometime in April, or remain under a political ban, which is likely to grow,” says Chibli Mallat, an international law professor currently a fellow at Yale University.

But in an interview with Arabian Business last week, Abdullah Dardari, the deputy prime minister says: “The original draft of the resolution was very harsh.
It was toned down. Toning it down and taking out the threat of specific sanctions is an indicator that there are countries on the security council who see at least partially, or fully, the Syrian point of view.

“One maybe has to adopt new tactics or new approach to ensure that full cooperation is reflected in the next report.”

To some extent the prevailing anxiousness surrounding Resolution 1636 is reminiscent of Resolution 1441 and the mounting pressure on Baghdad in the run up to the Iraq war.

“The resolution is bad news, buts its good news that America didn’t get its main terrorism article,” says Joshua Landis, a professor at the University of Oklahoma and an expert on Syria who is currently in Damascus. “But,” he adds, “they stuck it in the back door,” in reference to the number of times the word terrorism was used in the resolution.

“The people, who wanted the maximum pressure on Syria got their way. They had to sacrifice on the terrorism stuff, but they got the majors. They are going to manage to destabilise Syria this way. The fear [in Syria] is that the West doesn’t know what it wants; it doesn’t have an endgame,” Landis explained.

The fact remains that president Assad has not been implicated in the Hariri investigation, but there are clauses in the resolution which suggest that it could go up to the president. “If they decide he’s responsible or in the know then he would be swept in this whole thing. Now if you change Bashar, Maher and Assef Shawkat then that is regime change,” says Landis. “You can’t really separate this investigation and the let the chips fall where they may on the Mehlis report and not call this regime change in this situation. That’s what has this government in complete chaos right now.”

But Dardari is entirely dismissive of such scenarios. “Regime change or no regime change, this is a question for the Syrian people to decide,” says the deputy premier.

“Syrians are realising that Syria is targeted; its role in the region is targeted. The language that we hear sometimes in Lebanon that we don’t want sanctions on the Syrian people and we want good relations with the Syrian people, but the Syrian regime is a different story. Not many people are buying that in Syria,” he adds.

US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice “was talking about things that have nothing to do with the Mehlis report”, Dardari said in reference to Rice’s speech at the UN. “She was talking about regional issues; Iraq, Palestine and terrorism. The politicisation is there,” he adds.

Asked what he would tell Rice if he had the opportunity to meet with her, Dardari says: “I would tell her there are so many interests in common between Syria and the US, if the US puts American interests first rather than Israel’s interest. Dialogue between the two countries is the best means for dealing with the issues that maybe still problematic between them.”||**|||~||~||~|Palpably clear is Syria’s recognition it is gradually being cornered and that the case against it is mounting. And while it proclaims its innocence, it has nonetheless begun or announced its intension to adopt a number of measures as part and parcel of what it says is its cooperation with the UN International Independent Investigation Commission (UNIIIC) of German judge Detlev Mehlis leading the probe into Hariri’s assassination.

“We have to define what is cooperation and make sure that whatever we provide is agreed upon and approved by the commission because last time we had a gentleman agreement with Mr. Mehlis; with very good intentions we thought that we did provide the necessary cooperation,” Dardari explains.

“We don’t count on a radical change in the American position. But one can say that there are countries that are willing to help. They believe in Syria’s innocence and it’s our job to give them more evidence,” he added.

The French don’t have the same agenda as the Americans, said the deputy premier who has been touted as possibly the next prime minister in Syria. “If we can demonstrate that our cooperation is full, candid and transparent, this would influence the French position to our favour and would definitely strengthen the position of Russia and China who are trying to defuse the crisis.”

Hours and days before the Security Council convened, Damascus signalled it would be looking into expediting the naturalisation of 80,000 Kurds residing in the country, in addition to forming its own investigative committee to look into suspects that may be implicated in the Hariri assassination. President Assad has also indicated he would push forward a new party law, which he promised at the Baath conference last June.

There are also rumours spreading in the Syrian capital that prisoners referred to as the three of the Damascus Spring; Riad Saif, a 55-year-old MP, Aref Dalilah, a university professor, and Maamoun Al Homsi, a Damascus MP, will be released.

“Assad is clearly making some gestures towards the opposition and towards society in an attempt to win their backing in what is going to be a big a fight with the West,” said Landis.

The opposition, which has largely been fragmented, clearly sees this as an opportunity. The Damascus Declaration for Democratic and National Change, a document signed by several Syrian parties and individuals days before the Mehlis report was released on October 21 is testimony, according to observers, of the closing of ranks of the all the different splinter groups.

But the disunity of the opposition in the past stems from two reasons, according to Riad Al Turk, the godfather of the Syrian opposition. It’s because of “the terror of the regime who imprisoned, killed and exiled and so forth, the constraint of political activism, and the main reason which is that this regime has been in power for three or four decades. The world has changed and it is imperative that political parties change,” Turk explains.

The great fear of the government is that Riad Saif will emerge as the leader of a united opposition party. For many in and outside of Syria he has been the great martyr of the Damascus Spring. A Sunni, a successful businessman, and a member of parliament who can speak for the Sunni merchants — Saif certainly represents more than a thorn in the side of the present regime.

“The question is whether the opposition can brand him as a spokesperson and turn him into a Nelson Mandela,” says Landis. “They have been very bad at this because they are all jealous of each other, they all have different interests and they don’t want any one person to become the man. That’s their great weakness.”

But while some in Syria hope for Saif’s release, others are pessimistic. Anwar Al Buni, a major human rights lawyer who is defending Saif, believes talk of his client’s release is a result of conjecture by people who wish to sway government behaviour.

“I don’t foresee the release of Riad Saif because the situation does not permit it, given that the authorities are not allowing any kind of gathering, no matter how small it is. If there is a will to release Riad Saif it will part of a wide release of [people],” Buni told Arabian Business.

“If there is a release it has to be inclusive of everyone in prison and without any exceptions allowing political expression of everyone. The human rights situation is in a state of deterioration and there are a lot pressures on activists.”

Riad Al Turk, the veteran politician and Syrian opposition activist, was unequivocal in his condemnation of the Assad regime in an interview with Arabian Business, calling on the president to resign as part of his plan to transform the embattled country into a democracy.

He has devised and presented (on television) a detailed plan for change: it begins with the resignation of president Assad; the head of parliament then assumes power in accordance with the constitution, and the army is responsible for maintaining security and all security services are frozen. The heads of these services are removed and brought under the control of the military headquarters.

Under Turk's plan, the interim leader will then cooperate with the Security Council and agree to hand over suspects and those accused. Then an interim government is formed and arranges for elections to take place to form a new parliament. This will be done under democratic principles.

Turk tells Arabian Business: “I embrace anyone who is able to rid me of this regime.”

Time will tell whether he succeeds.||**||

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