Analysis: US may ignore Syrian interference in Hariri tribunal in return for regional concessions

The dispatching of 2 senior US officials to Damascus is seen by the regime as the latest sign that it is being welcomed in from the cold.

Hariri pictures 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Hariri pictures 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
This week, an international tribunal to try the suspected killers of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri was formally opened in The Hague. The Special Tribunal was described by chief prosecutor Daniel Bellemare as the "first international anti-terrorist tribunal." The current international push for rapprochement with the Syrian regime, however, is leading to fears that the tribunal may be sacrificed in return for Syrian promises of future improved behavior. The tribunal was established in May 2007 by UN Security Council Resolution 1757, following initial investigative work by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis. Mehlis subsequently resigned from his position after reportedly receiving death threats. His investigations uncovered links in the Hariri murder potentially leading to the highest levels of the Syrian regime. President Bashar Assad's brother, Maher, was among the officials potentially implicated by the investigation, as was the powerful Military Intelligence chief Assef Shawkat. The Special Tribunal is headed by 11 judges (including four Lebanese). Its powers according to Resolution 1757 are considerable; they include the ability to try anyone who "contributed in any way to the commission of the crime" - up to and including senior officials and heads of state. In Lebanon, there is little doubt among pro-Western elements as to who was responsible for the murder. Sa'ad Hariri, son of the former prime minister and leader of the March 14 coalition, linked his father's killing with a string of unexplained murders of anti-Syrian figures that took place in Lebanon over the following three years. After the killing of Antoine Ghanem, an anti-Syrian member of parliament, Hariri told reporters, "I have no doubt that the Syrian regime is after all of us: They killed my father, Gibran Tueni, Pierre Gemayel, Walid Eido and Antoine Ghanem... This is their way. They have never stopped. They will never stop." The Syrian regime, however, has made clear that it will not turn over suspects to the tribunal. Recently it confirmed that Syrian citizens suspected of involvement in the murder would be tried in the Assad regime's own courts. An independent judiciary in Syria remains a distant dream. It may therefore be safely predicted that any such trials will find no proof of senior Syrian involvement in the killing. There have already been credible reports suggesting that the regime is systematically destroying evidence linking its officials to the Hariri murder. No supreme authority exists to force states to comply with the demands of international law and international norms. Rather, the presence or absence of pressure in this regard is a function of international diplomacy, politics and strategy. Given this, the current prospects for justice to be served in The Hague are less than bright. The Bush policy of isolating Syria has been abandoned. Following on from a series of congressional delegations, two senior US officials - Jeffrey Feltman, acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, and Daniel Shapiro, the senior official for the Middle East on the National Security Council - are currently on their way to Damascus. The Assad regime reviles Feltman, who served as US ambassador to Beirut during former US president George W. Bush's second term. At one time, there were real concerns in the State Department that the Syrians had ordered his assassination. This notwithstanding, the dispatching of two such senior officials to the Syrian capital is seen by the regime as the latest sign that it is being welcomed in from the cold. The administration apparently believes that securing Syrian cooperation is essential in its plans for advancing diplomatic progress in the region. There is therefore a growing prospect that, as Lebanese Druse leader Walid Jumblatt put it in a recent interview, "the tribunal could be regarded as a bargaining chip with the Syrians." This means that Syria would offer a quid pro quo - an American blind eye to Syria's undermining of the tribunal, in return for Syrian cooperation in areas important to the administration. The bargaining and haggling between the US and Syria over the precise terms of the quid pro quo still lie ahead. But any result is likely to fall short of a Syrian break with Iran, or a complete abandonment of support for Hizbullah, Hamas and other terror groups. Less than that will be offered, and less than that may well end up being accepted. Sounding serious about US-mediated talks with Israel, for example, might be enough to do the trick. In return, this or that pro-Syrian Lebanese officer may be abandoned by his patrons to the custody of the Hague judges. Or perhaps, in the time-honored Syrian fashion, a mid-level security official will remember his own central role in planning the killing of Hariri and, stricken by conscience, take his own life. Mehlis's initial investigations pointed to the likely involvement of senior Syrian figures in the Hariri murder. The bottom line is that in spite of the 11 judges and 300 additional personnel currently beginning work in the Hague suburb of Leidschendam, Hariri's murderers will probably never face trial. The desire to accommodate Syria in the name of Middle East peace will ensure this. This desire is itself based on a misreading of the Syrian regime's nature and intentions. The likely result: no justice, and no peace. Jonathan Spyer is a senior researcher at the Global Research in International Affairs Center, IDC, Herzliya.