Eye of the storm: 'Expose the Jew!' [pg. 14]

'Death to the Jewish plotter," shouts the excited teenager in the microphone provoking a standing ovation from a full-capacity audience of dignitaries at a government concert hall in Damascus. "Burn the Jew!" a few dignitaries shout as Syria's President Bashar Assad, flanked by his British-born wife, nods approvingly from his VIP box. The scene is one of countless occasions organized by the Syrian regime as part of a campaign against the United Nations' mission to establish who killed Lebanon's former prime minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut last February. The "Jew" in question is Detlev Mehlis, the German judge appointed by the UN to find the culprits and bring them to justice. Although Mehlis has stepped down from his post, he remains at the center of the "Great Jewish Conspiracy" extravaganza playing out in Syria. The campaign started late last year after a brief visit to Teheran by President Assad during which he met Iran's "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei and the newly-elected President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. According to Teheran sources, Ahmadinejad told Assad "not to lose heart and to stand firm" for "another battle between Islam and Unbelief led by the American Great Satan." The task of organizing the campaign against Mehlis was assigned to Farouk Shara, Syria's veteran foreign minister and the last major figure from the old guard of the Ba'ath Party in power in Damascus since the mid-1960s. Both Assad and Shara have since been "invited" by the UN to submit to questioning with regard to their alleged roles in the Hariri case. The Shara task force quickly produced stories tracing Mehlis's "Jewish genealogy." ACCORDING TO a "document" planted by Shara in Syrian newspapers, Mehlis's mother was "a Zionist" who served as a nurse in the Israeli army and was killed and buried in the Golan Heights in 1973. According to the same "document," Mehlis's father was "a key figure of the CIA in post-War West Germany." "What we are facing is not a UN investigation but a Zionist-CIA plot," Shara claims. The task force commissioned a number of government-employed poets and musicians to compose songs lampooning Mehlis and warning the Syrians of "the dark schemes of the Jew." These songs are now performed at schools and official concerts of the kind Assad attended, and aired by the state-owned media. Colorful characters described as "political scientists" or "strategic experts" are interviewed on the state-owned media about the "extent of the Zionist-CIA conspiracy" and urge Syrians to "prepare to fight to the last man." A number of schools have organized composition and drawing competitions aimed at "exposing the Jew," while rent-a-mob crowds appear daily in front of state-owned television cameras to express "rage against the CIA-Zionist plot." DURING the past couple of weeks the Assad-Shara extravaganza has added a new hate figure to its dramatis personae. He is Abdul-Halim Khaddam, who resigned as vice president of Syria last autumn and fled to exile in Paris. Syrian propaganda now presents Khaddam as "a Mossad plant" at the heart of the Ba'athist regime which has ruled Damascus since the 1960s. Khaddam has retaliated by calling on Syrians to rise and overthrow "this despicable regime," forgetting the fact that for more than three decades he himself was the regime. The Syrian propaganda campaign includes a more sinister aspect: a string of assassinations, after the Hariri murder, of prominent Lebanese figures. To spread the fear further senior Syrian officials are working the telephones to warn Lebanese leaders not to "cross the red lines." At times this is done on air, as was the case last Friday when Behjat Sulemian, Assad's brother-in-law and principal security arm, phoned the Lebanese al-Mustaqbal (The Future) TV station to issue a warning to its editors live on air. "Be careful," the Syrian warned. "We know how to deal with our enemies." THIS IS not the first time Syria has tried to work its way out of a tight corner by trying to foment xenophobia and anti-Semitism to cover its murderous practices. For more than half a century, whenever the Syrian regime was in trouble it came out with stories about a new "Jewish plot." This time, however, it seems unlikely that the old tactic of fomenting a synthetic hysteria will work. Many Syrians have read Mehlis's report in full or in part and know that the German judge has done a good job of fixing the contours of what is, after all, a complex murder investigation. The Syrians also know that had Hariri not been assassinated there would have been no UN investigation. At the same time the fact that the Lebanese government has endorsed the UN report and put under arrest several senior intelligence officers suspected of collusion with the Syrians in the murder plot shows that Mehlis is something more than "the plotting Jew" portrayed by Damascus. The UN mission also enjoys support from the Arab League and, more specifically, its most influential members, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. What the UN investigation has found is that senior Syrian officials, including a brother and a brother-in-law of Assad and the Syrian-installed President of Lebanon Emil Lahoud, had at least some knowledge of the plot to kill Hariri. And now we have Khaddam, who insists that no one could have made a move against Hariri without express orders from President Assad. Until last autumn the British still hoped that Assad, whom they received with pomp and ceremony and a dinner with the queen in London not so long ago, would break with the Ba'ath and end Syria's status as a rogue state. Now, however, even London understands that the Assad regime is beyond redemption. Assad is casting Syria in the role of a glacis in the Islamic Republic's "wipe Israel off the map" strategy, as spelled out by Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. At home Assad seems to have chosen a return to the suffocating Ba'athist cocoon rather than the opening many Syrians had hoped for. His choice has pushed the issue of regime change in Damascus to the top of the agenda in the Middle East. The writer, an Iranian author and journalist, is editor of the Paris-based Politique Internationale.