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SYRIA: UN resolution ratchets up more pressure on Damascus

DAMASCUS/BEIRUT, 2 November 2005 (IRIN) - Pressure on Syria escalated after the unanimous adoption by the UN Security Council of a resolution threatening Damascus with "further action" unless it arrests suspects in the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

With international criticism mounting, one leading Syrian opposition figure even called for the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad.

"I ask the president and the Syrian government to present their resignations," veteran politician Riad al-Turk, seen as the godfather of Syrian political opposition, said on October 31. "We need a transitional government to lead the country into democratic elections.”

He added, “This is the only way out or our current dilemma."

The demand represents the first time for the president's authority to be directly challenged in public since international pressure on Syria began mounting over its alleged role in the Hariri killing in February.

Meeting in New York on October 31, the 15-member Security Council adopted resolution 1636, which notes "with extreme concern" the conclusion of a report by UN investigators that "several Syrian officials tried to mislead the Commission by giving false or inaccurate information."

Speaking after the vote, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the Syrian government had "actively and consistently worked to break the will of the Lebanese people, and to thwart the will of the international community."

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the Security Council was "putting the government of Syria on notice that our patience has limits… Failure to co-operate fully and now will oblige us to consider further actions."

The resolution was adopted under the rubric of Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which gives the Council the power to impose punishment, including the use of economic sanctions and military force.

Both Russia and China had earlier indicated their opposition to the resolution’s original text, drawn up by the US, France and the UK. In this initial draft, Syria was threatened with sanctions if it failed to arrest suspects in the Hariri assassination.

To meet the concerns of the two council-members, a revised version was proposed, which substituted the explicit threat of economic sanctions with a warning of “further actions” in the event of non-cooperation from Syria.

The resolution also provides for a financial freeze and travel ban on any individuals – Syrian or Lebanese – designated as suspects by the UN commission or by the Lebanese government.

Speaking in New York, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara'a said the UN investigators’ preliminary report, released on October 20, contained "no evidence" to prove Syrian involvement in the assassination.

In that report, al-Shara'a himself was accused of lying to the commission, which ultimately concluded that the decision to kill Hariri "could not have been taken without the approval of top-ranked Syrian security officials.”

In comments that antagonised the British Foreign Secretary, Shara'a said that holding Syria responsible for Hariri's assassination was like holding the governments of America, Spain and Britain responsible for the terror attacks of September 11, the Madrid bombings and the July 7 London bombings.

Straw countered by saying that he "wholly rejected the comparison," which he called "grotesque and insensitive" and " absurd, at best."

In an effort at conciliation, President al-Assad pledged that Syrian nationals found "by concrete evidence" to have played a role in the killing could be brought to trial.

After meeting Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak over the weekend, the Syrian president also ordered a state-run investigation into the affair, which official sources promised would meet the demands of the UN inquiry.

Local analysts in Damascus, however, were deeply sceptical that a state-run inquiry could meet the demands of the international community.

“The Syrian investigation is too little, too late," said political analyst and author Sami Moubayed. "It lacks credibility, as all the judges will be appointed by the state. It would have been better to use independent judges or international advisors."

Meanwhile, reactions to the UN resolution amongst citizens in the capital were mixed.

Joining a sit-in outside the US embassy in Damascus on November 1, organised by the state-run student's union, 21-year-old Deima al-Sheikh, a student at the Institute of Banking, repeated the official line – namely, that the Mehlis report was based on "false accusations."

"We should strengthen national unity,” she said, “because even if Syria is innocent, America will find a thousand reasons to invade us."

Her fellow student, 24-year-old Louai Ghabra, in a rare criticism from a participant in a state-run rally, said the Syrian state should bear some responsibility. "The Syrian media didn’t deal seriously with the investigation until it had a knife at its throat,” he said. “And only now, eight months after the assassination, we launch an investigation."

Ghabra, echoing the demands of Riad al-Turk, opined that members of the government should resign. "If they respect themselves, they should resign if they’re responsible for what happened,” he said.

Both students agreed, though, that it was unlikely that a Syrian judicial inquiry would – or could – arrest and try senior security officials.

Reactions to the resolution in Lebanon, too, were mixed, albeit for different reasons.

In Beirut, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora thanked the Security Council for unanimously adopting resolution 1636, and called upon Syria to “fully cooperate with the investigation."

Some Lebanese citizens, however, felt the watered-down resolution had eased pressure on Damascus.

"The resolution contains less than expected," said Rabiah Kanaan, a 26-year-old Lebanese computer analyst. "The compromise resolution essentially offers Syria a second chance."

Ahmad Dirki, a 42-year-old teacher and member of the Lebanese Communist Party, said he saw the UN resolution as "the latest round in a big international game to gain political influence in the Middle East."

"Though the resolution puts pressure on Damascus, it’s a sort of victory for Syria, in that it doesn’t stipulate any sanctions," said Dirki.

On October 31, under tight security measures, German prosecutor and chief UN investigator Detlev Mehlis returned to Lebanon, where he will continue his enquiry into the Hariri assassination until his mandate expires on December 25.

Mehlis has also been mandated with determining whether Syrian cooperation with investigators is in line with the demands stipulated in resolution 1636.

Themes: (IRIN) Governance

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