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SYRIA: Damascus tightens screws on Lebanon with arrest warrants in Hariri inquiry

October 5, 2010 |  8:21 am


Syria is on the move and throwing its weight around in the Middle East and beyond. 

On Sunday, a Damascus court issued more than 30 arrest warrants against high-ranking Lebanese and international political and judicial officials in connection with alleged false testimony given in the United Nations-backed inquiry into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, killed in a 2005 car bomb attack at the Beirut seaside, along with 21 others.

Among those named were German prosecutor Detrev Melis, who led the initial stages of the investigation, and his aide, Gerhard Lehmann; Lebanese police chief Ashraf Rifi; top Lebanese prosecutor Saeed Mirza and Syria's exiled former vice president, Abdel Halim Khaddam.

The Syrian arrest warrants triggered new tensions in Lebanon's volatile political arena and upped the rhetoric between rival political factions. Politicians from the pro-Syria, Hezbollah-led March 8 bloc came out hailing the move, while the current Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, the son of the slain premier, and his supporters are chafing as they feel Syria and its local allies breathing down their necks.

Hariri's Sunni Arab allies, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, came out stressing their support for the U.N.-backed tribunal on Monday, but Arab analysts suggest that they are losing the battle to Iran, Syria and their ally, the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah.

"Lebanon is once again going through a highly tense period of uncertainty as a result of what appears to be a well-coordinated Syrian-Iranian offensive to torpedo the international tribunal," wrote Riad Kahwaji, head of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, in a paper.

"Senior members of the U.S.-backed Lebanese political bloc known as March 14 Forces feel strong frustration and vulnerability as they see their regional allies, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, stand helpless in front of a multi-front onslaught by Syria and Iran and their allies in Lebanon."

Syria's latest move follows a string of diplomatic and political initiatives, including a meeting between Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in New York last week and Syrian President Bashar Assad's high-level visit to Tehran over the weekend for meetings with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and a number of other high-ranking officials in a bid to strengthen ties and economic cooperation with the Islamic Republic, its closest ally.

As for Sunday's arrest warrants, they may be widely perceived as an attempt by Syria to up the pressure on the Hariri government to officially dismiss the U.N.-tribunal, which was set up to investigate Rafik Hariri's killing and is expected to indict members of Hezbollah in the case.

But Syria's ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdel Karim Ali, insisted that the arrest warrants were "purely judicial" in nature and not intended to hamper ties between Syria and Lebanon, which had recently improved after Saad Hariri last month retracted his accusation against Syria in his father's assassination.

ALeqM5icDFP_g3nAODUnwoo82RxKjUNBYAAfter a late-night Cabinet meeting on Monday, Lebanese Information Minister Tareq Mitri said that Hariri "regretted that arrest warrants have been issued, and would have preferred that Lebanon-Syria ties continue without such developments," reported Agence-France Presse.

Others weren't so polite. Samir Geagea, leader of the Christian Lebanese Forces party, described the arrest warrants as a "Syrian attack" on Lebanese institutions.

The Syrian court issued the arrest warrants in the case of Gen. Jamil Sayyed, the former head of Lebanese General Security, according to his lawyer, Fasih al-Ashi. Sayyed was one of four pro-Syrian officers arrested in the aftermath of the Hariri killing on suspicion of involvement in the assassination. 

Political leaders from the March 8 bloc, including Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, expressed delight over the arrest warrants.

"Finally, the judiciary is handling the case of false witnesses," Lebanese media reports quoted him as saying after meeting with the Syrian ambassador on Monday. "The guilty should be punished and the innocent should be declared so. What happened is very good."

The U.N., for its part, called for calm and urged regional players to help create a more stable atmosphere in Lebanon.

"The United Nations has called on all sides in Lebanon to refrain from any rhetoric that could further inflame the situation and to resort to dialogue in order to resolve even the most difficult issues," United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon Michael Williams said in a statement after meeting with the Lebanese parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, on Tuesday.

"What is important in the current circumstances is that people try to work together to address the difficult issues confronting the country, and that they do so in a calm and rational manner," Williams' statement said. 

-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Upper photo: Gen. Jamil Sayyed. Credit: EPA.

Lower photo: An image of slain Lebanese Prime Ministerr Rafik Hariri. Credit: Agence-France Presse