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Sunday, November 27, 2005

The five Syrians and the myth of guarantees

Much has been said about a so called agreement between Mehlis and the Syrian regime on the fate of the five Syrian suspects, with many claiming that Russia stepped in and offered “guarantees” that the five would return to Syria.

Mouallem on Friday (25 November) said that the UN gave Syria "guarantees concerning the rights of the individuals" to be questioned and "reassurances" that its sovereignty would be respected. He added that they will travel to Vienna with their lawyers and “they will return to Syria,” as part of the guarantees that Syria received from a Security Council member state.

Lebanon’s As-Safir on Saturday made the anticipated return part of its first page headline:

ضمان لدمشق بعودتهم إليها وواشنطن وأنان يرحبان والأسد يتلقى اتصالاً من بوتين تسوية مع ميليس: استجواب 5 مسؤولين سوريين في فيينا

In English:

Damascus receives guarantee for their return…. A compromise with Mehlis: 5 Syrian officials to be interrogated in Vienna
Here is an excerpt from the article in Arabic:

وأوضح المعلم أن هذه الموافقة جاءت <<في ضوء التطمينات التي تم نقلها إلى سوريا والتي جاءت متفقة مع ما سعت إليه سوريا من ضمانات تحترم السيادة الوطنية وحقوق الأفراد وبعدما درست القيادة نتائج اجتماع المستشار القانوني لوزارة الخارجية مع السيد ميليس في برشلونة في 18 الحالي واطلعت على النقاط التي تم الاتفاق عليها بينه وبين السيد ميليس وخاصة في ما يتعلق بضمانات حقوق الأفراد>>. وأضاف <<بعد حصولنا على التطمينات اللازمة التي تتفق مع ما طالبت به سوريا لم يعد هناك سوى أن نتعاون>>. وأشار المعلم إلى أن محامياً سيذهب مع كل شخص من الأشخاص الخمسة إلى فيينا وأنهم سيعودون إلى دمشق بعد الانتهاء من المقابلات كجزء من الضمانات التي حصلت عليها سوريا من ميليس نفسه ومن <<مصدر دولي هام>> عضو في مجلس الأمن الدولي. لكنه رفض الإجابة عن سؤال حول موقف سوريا في حالة إصدار مذكرات توقيف بحقهم. وقال إن <<الإجابة الافتراضية عن سؤال افتراضي ستكون خطأ>>.

In addition to what was mentioned above regarding their promised return, Mouallem here is asked about Syria’s position if arrest warrants were issued against the suspects. Syria's deputy foreign minister refuses to answer, arguing that a “hypothetical question” will lead to a wrong “hypothetical answer”. He also rules out an arrest on grounds that Mehlis has no authority to order anybody’s arrest.

Now, can a UNSC member state (identified as Russia) really promise the return of five murder suspects? Let me ask this differently, do such guarantees exist? Look at this Cham Press article:

لكن مصدرا مطلعا في الأمم المتحدة قال إن ميليس رفض التوقيع على بروتوكول التعاون المقترح مع اللجنة القضائية السورية، مضيفا أن الضمانات التي يتحدث السوريون عنها «لا معنى» لها، لأنه ليس من صلاحيات ميليس اصدار مذكرات توقيف بالمشتبه فيهم، في جريمة اغتيال الحريري. وقال المصدر: «بما أن ميليس أو لجنة التحقيق لا يتمتعان بصلاحية اعتقال أي شخص، فلا حاجة لإعطاء أي ضمانات» للسلطات السورية في هذا الاطار. ولفت المسؤول في الأمم المتحدة، الذي اشترط عدم ذكر اسمه، الى أن «المسألة المهمة في هذا الموضوع، هو أن السوريين تلقوا ضمانات من عضو بارز في مجلس الأمن»، يُعتقد أنها روسيا، وأن «الضمانات التي تلقاها السوريون، هي نفس الضمانات التي قدمها هذا العضو البارز في المجلس». وأضاف المصدر أن «المسألة لم تعد موضع نقاش بعدما أعلن السوريون عن تعاونهم، ووافقوا على اجراء الاستجواب في فيينا»، مشيراً الى أن «الأمور باتت تسير قدماً».

In English:
An informed source at the UN said Mehlis refused to sign the cooperation protocol, adding that these guarantees that the Syrians talk about are meaningless since Mehlis does not have the authority to issue arrest warrants… there is no need then to give any guarantees.
The unnamed UN official is quoted as saying "the guarantees presented to the Syrians are the same ones presented in the security council. " Conclude from this that the guarantees have nothing to do with the return of the officials. In fact they are assurances and not guarantees. Russia probably reassured Bashar that there won’t be economic sanctions.

The Saudis seem to confirm that such guarantees do not exist:

One diplomat said last week Saudi Arabia was playing an "active and constructive" role in finding a face-saving formula for Syria to allow the questioning to take place, without meeting its demand for a prior legal deal. "Abdullah was very clear that those who were responsible must be brought to justice, and that that is non-negotiable," the diplomat said.
So the request for such guarantees was actually dropped after it turned out it was nothing but a delay tactic. (With Mouallem himself confirming that Mehlis has no authority to arrest anyone, why was Syria asking Mehlis for something they knew he cannot deliver? Now, if Syria really wanted guarantees, it should have asked not Mehlis, but the Lebanese authorities, who actually CAN issue arrest warrants. As far as I know, nobody has requested this from the Lebanese authorities.)

In conclusion, there are no such guarantees and there were never any that could be offered. Syria has finally caved in to international pressure. With the Syrian pound already suffering, Bashar really had no other choice but to agree to hand over the suspects for questioning.

Kuwait's al-Seyassah on Monday claimed (article continues here) something along those lines. It said that Bahjat Suleiman, who is identified as one of the five, is prepared to tell all if asked about the regime’s role in orchestrating the killing of Hariri. Bahjat, it is believed, is bitter about his marginalization by Assef Shawkat, who might not accompany the lot. Al-Seyassah adds that the Syrian regime did not receive any guarantees from anyone and that what happened is forced compliance with Mehlis’s demands after the latter's ultimatum. Although the Kuwaiti paper said Mehlis could ask Interpol to arrest whomever he deems suspect, I think Mehlis will leave it to the Lebanese judiciary to issue such a warrant, which is likely considering that the role of the UN commission, may I remind everyone, is to assist the Lebanese investigation.

So the Syrian claim of victory is nonsense. I mean when was the last time the Syrian regime willingly offered 5 of its security and military intelligence officials for questioning in a murder case that occurred outside its territory? Syria has just admitted its guilt because it has no other choice. The failure of Hizbullah’s operation’s last week meant the crumbling regime could no longer rely on playing its Lebanese cards (read al-Seyassah's Sunday edition on this. Here and here.). The regime is constantly being outsmarted by the Lebanese government and the international community.

The Syrian regime is gradually losing its own guarantees for survival. Not even a "confession" by a "false witness" can save it now (Syrian television on Sunday aired the "confession" of one the witnesses mentioned in the Mehlis interim report. The witness recanted his testimony, according to Cham Press. I have not seen the confession but I am sure we will read about it soon.)

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Its very clear that there was no compromise on the part of Detliv Mehlis with the Syrian regime. Its true that the investigations will not be held in Lebanon but will instead take place in Vienna. The venue in this case is not crucial to the process. The Syrian regime will have to comply by sending five people to be interogated and then if the results warrant some more might be called. If that is the case then it would be very difficult for the Syrian regime to refuse to comply. As the previous post makes it very clear the question of arrest warrants could always be issued either by the Un or the Lebanese through the Interpol and in that eventuality no one will be in a position to evade detention.
It appears that the current Syrian leadership insists on playing the same sort of game played by the Iraqi Information Minister during the invasion of Baghdad. No one except the gullible paid any attention to the official Iraqi pronouncements then and I believe that no one bothers to even read the current Syrian press releases.
The damage that has been inflicted to the Syrian regime is major and structural. Although the regime will not be able to survive the current crisis yet compounding the mistakes by continuously alienating more people will not make the day of reckoning any easier.
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