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WHY THE U.N. CAN'T FIX SYRIA
by Amir Taheri
New York Post
October 26, 2005

October 26, 2005 -- THE U.N. Security Council has received the Mehlis report, which points to high-level Syrian involvement in the February assassination of former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri. What will it do about it? Let us imagine the best-case and the worst-case scenarios.

Best case: The council calls on Syria to cooperate with the investigation until those responsible are brought to justice — and Syria agrees, even allowing Detlev Mehlis, the U.N. investigator, to interrogate the suspects in circumstances of his choice.

Worst case: The council decides that there is enough evidence to prove Syrian guilt and decrees sanctions. Then, perhaps, Syria defies the council, and is punished.

Neither scenario is satisfactory — and the "best case" could be the more disastrous.

Remember, 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 practiced under the Ba'ath 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 unchanged, we cannot be sure that there will be no more political killings of this kind. (In fact, since Hariri's murder other prominent Lebanese have been killed under similar circumstances.)

Paradoxically, the custodians of the Syrian system may exploit the Hariri case as to get some brownie points and buy time for their regime. They could offer to "cooperate" with Mehlis, and even do a Moammar Khadafy by handing over a couple of security operatives as scapegoats. What matters to them, as it does to Khadafy, is hanging onto power, at any cost.

Even if Hariri's killers are brought to justice, the basic facts of the situation that led to his murder wouldn't 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 and (as the Mehlis report ominously hints) keep its borders open for terrorists to go to Iraq as they please.

Inside Syria, hundreds of dissidents would 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 would remain intact, with virtually no popular participation at significant levels of decision-making.

And 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 George W. Bush — and conflict in Iraq may knock Syria out of the headlines.

The Ba'athist 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.

Suppose instead that the United Nations imposes sanctions on Syria. That, too, need not unsettle the Damascus elite. As is always the case with sanctions, it would not be the ruling elite that suffers; it's the mass of the underprivileged who always get the roughest deal. And the ruling elite would be able to blame all hardship on the sanctions, as Saddam Hussein did for 13 years, and even claim a new legitimacy in the name of resisting foreign, "imperialistic" pressure.

The Islamic Republic in Iran has lived with sanctions since 1979, as has Cuba since 1960. Saddam wasn't toppled by sanctions but by a military juggernaut.

Conventional diplomacy, of which the U.N. is a fruit, is concerned mainly, if not solely, with the behavior of regimes, not their nature. It assumes that regimes can change their principal features, manifested in their domestic and foreign policies, without changing their nature.

That 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.

In 1991, Saddam Hussein signed a ceasefire with the U.N. forces, led by the United States. But he had no intention of honoring his signature; indeed, could not have done so, because the nature of his regime would not allow it.

A scorpion does not sting because it wishes to misbehave; it is programmed to do so. Like all living organisms, a political system has its DNA.

The Mehlis mission is a side-show that could help fudge the real issue — which is the urgent need for changes in the nature of the Syrian regime.

Such change may not be welcome to some.

Those in America 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 Khadafy-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.

Yet the truth is that Syria is ripe for change, and desperately needs it. This need not come via military action, though that shouldn't 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 United Nations 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 — who, echoing the Iranian mullahs, believe they can weather the current storm and wait Bush out.

If the U.N. wishes to take coercive action, it should direct it against the individuals 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 Ba'athist establishment.

Iranian author Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.

 

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