International pressure was mounting on Syria this week with the release of an interim report by the United Nations tying Damascus to the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and another U.N. report charging that Syria was maintaining indirect military control of Lebanon despite withdrawing its troops last spring.
The latter report, prepared by U.N. special envoy Terje Roed-Larsen, said Syria was using its agents in the army, intelligence organizations and Lebanese administration.
It cited continuing Syrian shipments of arms to Hezbollah terrorists perched along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
The report said Syria also sends weapons to armed Palestinian militias and most end up in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. And it noted that members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard have a base of operations in Lebanon from which they trained Hezbollah to fly drones on two occasions over northern Israel.
The reports came as the United States, Britain and France prepared Security Council resolutions critical of Syria. France was even said to be considering a call for economic sanctions. But Romania, which holds the rotating presidency of the council, suggested that such action is not now on the agenda.
All of this has the Arab world in a "quandary," according to an editorial in the Saudi Gazette.
"The worst-case scenario is the well-founded fear among Arabs that the U.N. report will be exploited by the U.S. and Israel to further their agenda in the region, similar to what the infamous U.N.-led investigation into Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction has done," the editorial said.
As the Security Council prepared to meet this week on what action if any to take against Syria, most analysts believed Syria would be given more time to comply with requests of the chief U.N. investigator probing the Hariri killing, German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis. The investigation has been extended until Dec. 15.
Syria has denied any complicity in the killing. Riyad Dawoodi, a Syrian Foreign Ministry adviser, even suggested at a news conference that Israel was responsible for the murder.
His reasoning was the assassination of Hariri by a suicide car bomb "could not have happened without a very sophisticated means that belongs to a highly equipped security organ. And just look around you, who is very well equipped?"
Richard Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia, said Israel was similarly blamed for the 9-11 attack in New York.
"They said no Arab is bright enough to have organized 9-11, it had to be the Israelis working with the CIA," he told The Jewish Week.
Murphy said he believes Syrian statements last weekend that Damascus will comply with requests of U.N. investigators.
"They have to be asking themselves what could happen to us if we stonewall," he said.Murphy said he believes the U.S. could get Security Council agreement on a statement of condemnation of Syria, but that Russia and China "would be reluctant to go down the sanctions road."
"While the German investigator has turned up a lot of leads to be followed, the international view is that America’s reputation was damaged over the Iraq war and the justifications that we produced for that war," Murphy said. "There is going to be regrettably some spillover from the negatives about Iraq into this affair.
"Not that anyone says that Syria is totally innocent, but they can say the investigators have said [Syrian complicity] is not proven, so let’s not rush into any action. That to me would be a very likely possibility." Israel has remained silent officially about the Mehlis report, although it is anxious to see Syria stop acting as Iran’s conduit supplying weapons for Hezbollah.
David Newton, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute and former U.S. deputy chief of mission in Syria, said putting an end to Hezbollah arms shipments is not on the top of America’s grievance list against Syria.
But he said these reports and threatened Security Council action "are a blow to Syria, and it is to Israel’s advantage if Syria is in trouble."
Murphy pointed out that America’s "longstanding frustration with Syria rose to anger" over the infiltration across the Syrian border of foreign jihadists into Iraq to attack American troops, gun running into Iraq through Syria before the Iraq war, and the financial refuge Washington says Syria has provided to those who control large amounts of Baath money from Iraq so they can keep funding the insurgency.
But the reports on the Hariri assassination and Syria’s continued domination of Lebanon are providing the United States with ammunition for an international crackdown on Syrian President Bashar Assad.
That has led Moshe Maoz, an Israeli Syrian expert, to wonder what might happen if Assad "comes to an agreement or understanding with the U.S." over the matters in dispute and then demands something in return, like the Golan Heights that Israel captured from Syria in 1967.
"It seems farfetched, but I’m thinking about the different options," said Maoz, a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Whether Israel would be willing to play ball over the Golan Heights is also questionable, according to Maoz.
"Israelis want peace, but the majority would not want to give back the Golan Heights, including [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon," he said. "But there are some ministers and senior officials who say let’s negotiate now because [Assad] is weak and we can squeeze more concessions from him. So it is not black and white; there are many shades here."
Some in the Bush administration want to squeeze Syria with the kind of pressure exerted on Libyan strongman Moammar Khaddafy after Libyan agents were linked to the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. But it took a decade for Khaddafy to surrender: time American officials are said not to believe they have with Syria.
Another difference is that the international community could totally isolate Libya, but Syria has ties with Iran, Russia and China, as well as some European countries, Maoz noted. Europe’s trade with Syria is more than $7 billion; it is only about $300 million a year with the United States.
Asked about the possibility of Syria retaliating against the U.S. by unleashing its proxy, Hezbollah, against Israel, Maoz said it was possible but unlikely.
"It would be a very dangerous game because Syria is so weak and Israel can really smash Syria in no time," he said. "If [Assad] gets desperate, he could unleash Hezbollah against even American targets together with Iran, but I’m not sure that this is going to be his decision.
"It depends on the inner circle in Syria, the clique around Bashar," Maoz said. "What will it decide: to back him or replace him? If they replace him, you don’t know what you will get."
Although Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has not ruled out pushing for regime change in Syria, Newton said the U.S. must decide exactly what it wants to do.
"Does it want to drive them into a corner and get rid of [the current government] and then try to deal with the consequences?" he asked. "Or does it just want to put pressure on them to make them do certain things to make life for the U.S. easier?"