Global Policy Forum

Bush Threatens Sanctions, Even Force, against Syria


By Maggie Farley

Los Angeles Times
October 26, 2005

International pressure on Syria mounted Tuesday as the United States, France and Britain introduced a Security Council resolution threatening to consider sanctions if the country does not cooperate with a probe into the assassination of former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri.

President Bush said he had not ruled out military action if Syria does not comply.

Bush told Dubai-based television network Al-Arabiya that he preferred a diplomatic solution to what he views as Syria's persistent efforts to destabilize the Middle East, including possible involvement in Hariri's assassination. But when asked what the United States would do if Syria did not change its policies, he said: ``We're going to use our military. It is the last, very last option. No commander in chief likes to commit the military, and I don't. But on the other hand, you know, I have worked hard for diplomacy and I will continue to work the diplomatic angle on this issue.''

Bush's comments were echoed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who said the United States had not eliminated any options regarding Syria. But the saber-rattling was seen by diplomats at the United Nations as an attempt to lend gravity to diplomatic efforts, rather than a brazen threat to send in troops. Those efforts intensified Tuesday, as the United States, France and Britain introduced their resolution, which also calls for freezing the assets of suspects in Hariri's slaying and banning their travel.

The United Nations has been investigating the Feb. 14 bombing that killed Hariri, and the chief of the probe, Detlev Mehlis, told the Security Council on Tuesday that evidence pointed to the involvement of senior Syrian officials and their Lebanese allies in a plot to kill Hariri. An early version of his report, which accidentally became public last week, said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's brother, brother-in-law and close friend carefully planned the assassination over several months, meeting in the house of the brother-in-law, Asef Shawkat.

A witness described the alleged plot in detail, telling U.N. investigators that Shawkat held a gun to a man's head and forced him to make a videotape claiming he was the suicide bomber to make it appear that an extremist group was behind the killing. A videotape surfaced after the slaying, although it was widely rejected as a fraud. Mehlis expunged the names from the report hours before it was released, saying they were meant for the Security Council's eyes only. The men have not been detained.

Mehlis said Syria had not been cooperative, stating that Assad refused to meet with his investigators, Foreign Minister Farouk Chara lied to them and the answers of other senior Syrian officials he interviewed were so uniform that they appeared to be coached. He asked for an extension of the investigation until Dec. 15 -- which was granted -- so he could interview Syrian officials privately, even taking them out of the country if necessary to protect them.

Syrian Ambassador Fayssal Mekdad called Mehlis' report inaccurate, a rush to judgment and a way for Washington to push its political agenda through the Security Council. ``Every paragraph in this report deserves comment to refute it,'' he said. But Mekdad pledged Syria's cooperation, and repeated Assad's promise to consider anyone found to be involved in the plot as a traitor and to put such people on trial.

The foreign ministers of the 15 Security Council countries, plus Syria, will meet at a special session in New York on Monday during which the council is expected to vote on the proposed resolution. The draft text is unusually stringent, demanding ``substantive cooperation'' from Syria in the investigation, including detaining the Syrian officials whom Mehlis' team considers suspicious and making them available for private questioning.

In preliminary negotiations, China, Russia and Algeria have resisted the idea of sanctions until Mehlis makes his final report Dec. 15. Russia's Foreign Ministry official Mikhail Kamynin warned in a statement Saturday that ``the settlement of this problem should in no way lead to the emergence of a new hotbed of tension and further destabilization in the Middle East.'' Chinese Ambassador Wang Guangya said Monday that China traditionally opposes sanctions as interference in a country's sovereignty.

``Not only in this case, but in many cases, when sanctions are mentioned, I am always frightened,'' he said. ``Syria indicated they have cooperated, and they want to cooperate. Let's wait and see.''

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