As the United Nations Security Council ponders what to do with Syria in the aftermath of the Detlev Mehlis report, let us imagine the best case and the worst case scenarios.
Under the best case scenario the council calls on Syria to cooperate with the investigation into the assassination last February of former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri until those responsible are brought to justice. Syria would agree and, as a sign of goodwill, allows the UN investigator to interrogate the suspects in circumstances of his choice.
Under the worst case scenario the council decides there is enough evidence to prove Syrian guilt and decrees sanctions. The same scenario could unfold in a different version: Syria defies the council and is punished.
An examination of both scenarios would show that neither is satisfactory. The best case scenario outlined above could have even more disastrous consequences.
This becomes clear when we remember that Hariri's murder was the inevitable consequence of a political model that has dominated Syria, and much of the Middle East, for half a century. The Syrians may or may not have been responsible for Hariri's assassination and the Mehlis report does not provide conclusive evidence. But one thing is certain: political murder has been routinely practised under the Baath regime since its inception in the 1960s.
Thus the trouble with Syria is not this single case of political assassination but a whole edifice built on violence, terror and repression. As long as that edifice is not changed we cannot be sure there will be no more political murders of the kind that Mehlis is investigating.
Paradoxically, the custodians of the Syrian system may exploit the Hariri case as an opportunity to obtain some brownies and buy time for their regime. They might decide to "cooperate" with Mehlis, whatever that means and even do a Muammar Gaddafi by handing over a couple of security operatives as scapegoats.
What matters to them, as does to Gaddafi, is to hang on to power at any cost.
Even if Hariri's killers are brought to justice the basic facts of a situation that led to his murder would not change. The man appointed president of Lebanon by Damascus will remain in place for another 30 months. The thousands of Syrian secret agents in Lebanon, along with dozens of Lebanese politicians who have worked for Syria, sometimes for generations, would stick around until things cool down.
Syria would continue ferrying guns to Hezbollah while, as the Mehlis report ominously hints, keep its borders open for terrorists to go to Iraq as they please. Inside Syria, hundreds of dissidents will continue to languish in prison while normal political and cultural activity remains severely restricted.
An economic system in which the nation's trade is dominated by Mafia-style groups will remain intact with virtually no popular participation at significant levels of decision-making.
The Mehlis enterprise may take years to reach any court-pleasing conclusion. In the meantime, there would be a new president in Washington who may not be as determined as US President George W. Bush, while conflict in Iraq may knock Syria out of the headlines. The Baathist rulers in Damascus may decide that eating a bit of humble pie on a murder case may be the price worth paying for prolonging their hold on power.
The Syrian message would be simple: we admit our sin over Hariri provided you forget all our other sins, past, present and future!
Now, suppose none of that happens and the UN decides to impose sanctions on Syria. That, too, need not unsettle the Damascus elite. As is always the case when sanctions are imposed it is the underprivileged who always get the roughest deal. The ruling elite would be able to blame all hardship on the sanctions, as Saddam Hussain did for 13 years and even claim a new legitimacy in the name of resisting foreign, "imperialistic", pressure.
All societies, like the human body, can develop mechanisms to deal with most new situations, including the most dire. The Islamic Republic of Iran has lived with sanctions since 1979 as has Cuba since 1960. Saddam was not toppled by sanctions but by a military juggernaut that reached Baghdad in a week.
Conventional diplomacy, of which the UN is a fruit, is concerned mainly, if not solely, with the behaviour rather than the nature of regimes. It assumes that regimes can change their principal features, manifested in their domestic and foreign policies, without changing their nature.
That, however, is a dangerous illusion. Regimes, like individuals, cannot act against their character for any appreciable length of time. A serial killer may act as a responsible and law-abiding citizen for a while. But he is sure to kill again.
The Mehlis mission is a side-show that could help fudge the real issue which is the urgent need for changes in the nature and not only the behaviour of the Syrian regime.
Such change may not be welcome to some.
Those in the United States and Europe, who opposed the liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq, might shudder at the thought of another high-risk "regime change" in the Middle East. The French and the British might welcome a Gaddafi-like deal with President Bashar Al Assad. And many in Israel seem anxious to prevent regime change in Syria, on the "the devil you know" basis.
The truth, however, is that Syria is ripe for change and desperately needs it. This need not come through military action, although that should not be ruled out. A substantial segment of the Syrian regime, probably including Assad himself, is conscious that change is not only possible but inevitable.
Any attempt by the UN to impose sanctions on Syria because of the Hariri case could, paradoxically, freeze the energies unleashed for change and strengthen the most reactionary segments of the regime that, echoing the Iranian mullahs, believe they can weather the current storm and wait Bush out.
If the UN wishes to take coercive action it should direct it against the individuals who are suspected of having ordered and planned the murder. There is no sense in punishing the whole of the Syrian nation in a move that would only strengthen the most anti-change elements within the Baathist establishment.
Iranian author Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.