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27 October 2005Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Making Syria sorry
The UN report blaming Syria for the assassination of a Lebanese politician is a piece of political theatre.

by Nicholas Frayn

Despite casting himself in the role of an international district attorney, Detlev Mehlis is fortunate that his UN-commissioned investigation into the assassination of Lebanese politician Rafik Hariri has not come under the scrutiny of a conventional criminal court (1).

The evidence by which he implicates Syrian intelligence, as cited in his report issued last Friday, is circumstantial at best. Many of his key witnesses are significant political figures in the region, whose credibility must surely be in question (2). And in the end he only puts an official seal on what everyone thought was the case anyway: that members of both Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services were probably involved in the assassination. There is no particular 'smoking gun' in this piece of political theatre, no direct link to the highest echelons of the Damascus regime.

But Mehlis can rest easy because the court in which the case will be tried is altogether less demanding about such minor details (3). And the court of international opinion has already decided who the bad guys are. An unholy coalition of the United Nations, the USA and France, encouraged by certain local actors, was gunning for Damascus long before this report was released. Once again the Middle East is to be the stage on which a tedious melodrama of Western politics is played out.

It is the perfect issue for some political grandstanding. The UN has found a way to rehabilitate itself in the region after being sidelined during the Iraq war. Now it represents the voice of an impartial search for truth, trying to see justice served against the machinations of an arcane and brutal bunch of Syrian goons. Opportunism brings France on to the bandwagon - it is exploiting the event to deepen its historic involvement with Lebanon (it initiated the early experiment in multiculturalism that is the desperately sectarian Lebanese political system), while hitching itself to a new US Middle East initiative after missing out on the Iraq war.

One could almost hear the relief in his voice when US president George Bush announced on Friday that the report was 'very disturbing', and that a special meeting of the Security Council would be summoned to 'respond accordingly' (4). What with the Valerie Plame affair, Katrina, and the ongoing debacle of Iraq, it has been a miserable two months in the White House. Here was an opportunity to regain the moral high ground, to dispel some of the endless sniping with a bold stand to uphold justice in the world.

Air strikes seem unlikely at this point. Even imposing sanctions will not be straightforward, as China and Russia would be likely to resist (5). But perhaps that suits everybody best - the West has become more sensitive to the law of unintended consequences when it comes to the Middle East. This does not mean, however, that the denouncements are without consequence for the region.

For the West there can be no nuance to the situation
Local voices have greeted the ongoing UN investigation with some optimism. As veteran Middle East correspondent for the Guardian, David Hirst, puts it, they believe that 'UN success in Lebanon could shatter the political dominance of the military in the Arab world' (6). This is naive in the extreme. As Hirst goes on to say: 'Although, technically, the Lebanese state was exercising its own sovereign authority, it could never have done so without the international support that Mehlis embodies.' (7) Just as with the trial of Saddam next door, the people of the Middle East will only ever be bystanders in this process, as Western powers serve up justice as they see fit (8).

The Lebanese and Syrian reformers can only lose when they invite outside intervention into their societies. For the West there can be no nuance to the situation - it is interested in local politics only to the extent that they can be represented as a black-and-white picture, with the West posing (to the audience back home) as the bringers of light to a region of darkness (9).

In fact, the situation between Lebanon and Syria is deeply complex and subtly balanced. For example, media reports often claim Hariri was 'an outspoken' critic of Syria when, in fact, for all but the last six months of his political career (as detailed in the Mehlis report), he was their stooge. Even the final break, extremely muted as it was, came because Syria favoured another puppet over him (10). Likewise, subsequent to the departure of Syrian troops earlier this year, Syria closed the border to Lebanese trucks. During an awkward two-week standoff, Lebanese politicians had to beg for it to be reopened so that their produce could reach Syrian markets (11).

Western politicians, acting according to a totally different agenda, are not interested in developing the deals and compromises that can make such a situation work. Their polarising influence can only destabilise existing arrangements, introducing a radical new element over which local people will have no control.

(1) Read the full report

(2) Likely to be a significant issue when the UN Security Council meet to question Mehlis. See: Ahead of Hariri Report, US Cautious Over Syria Sanctions, Shlomo Shamir, Haaretz, 24t October 2005

(3) In fact Mehlis is quite explicit about the political nature of his report. One of the final paragraphs (208) is a short homily on the need to overcome sectarianism in Lebanese politics.

(4) Bush seeks urgent UN meeting on Syria sanctions, Robin Wright, Washington Post, 22 October 2005

(5) 'Beirut Arrests Pro-Syrian After Hariri Report', Ferry Biedermann, Financial Times, 23 October 2005

(6) A mixture of excitement and fear stalks the land in Syria, David Hirst, Guardian, 28 September 2005

(7) A mixture of excitement and fear stalks the land in Syria, David Hirst, Guardian, 28 September 2005

(8) See Saddam trial: whose 'demons' are they anyway?, by David Chandler

(9) See, for instance, Iranian elections: no throwback to '79, by Nicholas Frayn

(10) See No Beirut Spring, by Nicholas Frayn

(11) Lorries roll across Syria border, BBC News, 1 August 2005

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