They've always known the killer: The 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri
May 20, 2007 -- TALK to anyone familiar with the United Nations' investigation into the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Pre mier Rafik Hariri, and you'll hear the same message: It's an open-and-shut case.
Serge Brammertz, the European judge who heads the investigation, says he has more than enough evidence to initiate prosecution against those he has identified as suspects. Endorsing that position is the democratically elected Lebanese government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora - backed, if opinion polls are right, by more than 65 percent of the nation's people.
Yet the U.N. Security Council, which ordered the investigation soon after Hariri's murder in February 2005, still can't decide whether or not to bring the perpetrators to justice.
LIKE any murder inquiry, the investigation into Hariri's assassination had to establish three facts: motive, ability and opportunity.
Detlev Mehlis, Brammertz' predecessor, established the motive for the murder as early as the autumn of 2005. He came out with evidence that showed the Syrian leadership, possibly at the highest level, had at one point decided that Hariri was the only Lebanese leader capable of challenging their old ambitions in Lebanon. At the start of 2005, none of the other players in the Lebanese political scene had any particular interest in wishing Hariri out of the way.
Mehlis' interim report was copiously leaked - and he was forced out of his job under heavy pressure from Syria. (Pointing to the fact that he was of Jewish extraction, the Syrians claimed that the judge was acting on behalf of "the Zionist-Crusader conspiracy.")
Mehlis was less successful in providing evidence showing that Syria and its allies in the Lebanese secret services had both the ability and the opportunity to carry out the murder. It was clear that those who ordered the murder wanted to cover their tracks by injecting into what was a military operation elements of an amateurish exercise.
HARIRI'S murder had unin tended consequences. The Lebanese were so outraged that, setting aside the differences between their communities, they turned out en masse to demand that Syria end its 30-year-long occupation of their country. In the general election that followed, the pro-Hariri bloc and its allies won a majority in the parliament and formed a government dedicated to bringing the murderers to justice.
Unable to stop the investigation, Syria (backed by the Islamic Republic in Iran) tried to put Lebanese politics on a trajectory that would marginalize the Hariri case. The Syrians deployed Emile Lahoud - the president they had imposed on the Lebanese for a further three years - to paralyze the Siniora government.
Under Lebanon's Constitution, laws passed by the parliament and senior appointments made by the government must receive presidential assent to take effect. Prompted by the Syrians, Lahoud has been withholding his assent, effectively preventing the government from implementing the program for which it was elected.
Lahoud's extended term will end later this year, depriving the Syrians of their veto within the Lebanese political system. But they have another card to play: Hezbollah and its ally, Maronite ex-Gen. Michel Aoun.
Last summer, Hezbollah tried to relieve pressure on Syria by triggering a war with Israel. It wound up losing its bases in southern Lebanon and left hundreds of its fighters on the battlefield. The war did earn Syria some respite - but at a cost that Hezbollah won't be able to recover from anytime soon.
ONCE it had become clear that even a war with Israel wouldn't stop the Hariri investigation, Syria and its allies in Tehran launched what amounted to an attempt at staging a coup through street politics. For months, Hezbollah and its Aounite allies besieged the seat of the government, managing to bring work to a halt in a number of ministries. In the meantime, political assassinations continued unabated.
Having failed to kill the Hariri investigation through war, street action and targeted killings, those who do not want the truth to be fully established have now switched to diplomacy.
The encounter between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Syrian counterpart, Wahid Muallem, in Egypt earlier this month was the first of many moves by Damascus to prevent the convening of the international tribunal on the Hariri murder.
The carrot that Syria is dangling is the prospect of revived peace talks with Israel. Syrian leaders laid out this prospect for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi when she visited Damascus last spring. It is supposed to be so attractive as to trump all other considerations, including the Hariri murder investigation.
SYRIA believes that the Ha riri investigation was a pet project of the Bush administration and French ex-President Jacques Chirac. With Chirac retired and Bush's time in the White House winding down, all that Syria needs is to buy time - which it's trying to do by courting Pelosi and wooing beleaguered Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Allowing such dilatory tactics to succeed, however, would have a deadly effect on the politics of the Middle East far beyond the Hariri case. It would endorse state-sanctioned murder as a legitimate tool of politics, and deal a further blow to the United Nations' already shaky authority.
It could also kill the democratic aspirations of the Lebanese people and expose the Western democracies as opportunistic powers less interested in their declared values than in securing concessions from the despotic regimes.
The Security Council has the moral and political duty to positively respond to the Lebanese government's demand and formally set up the tribunal that it promised more than two years ago.
Iranian-born journalist Amir Taheri is based in Europe.