Syrian president Bashar Assad has tried every possible dodge to keep his six high officers away from Detlev Mehlis the UN investigator and his interrogation of the Rafiq Hariri assassination. Among the top suspects are his own brother-in-law Gen. Assef Shawqat, head of Syrian military intelligence and strongman of the Baath regime, and Gen. Rustum Ghazaleh, Syrian intelligence chief in Lebanon at the time of the murder and current overlord of all Syria’s intelligence agencies.
Assad refuses to let them out of Syria to face questioning and almost certain arrest and trial. But the UN investigator, whose final report must be in by December 15, is equally determined to get hold of them on his terms. Meanwhile he is methodically building up his case against the men in high places of the Assad regime.
An urgent request sent by Syrian foreign minister Farouk a-Shara Wednesday, Nov. 23, for the UN secretary-general Kofi Annan’s intercession, was not a genuine attempt to break out of the impasse over the six officers; it was yet another stratagem to play for time.
Shara did not specify what compromise he had in mind, or where Damascus stood on the issue. But DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources reveal that a more explicit presentation of the Syrian posture was made at a secret meeting that took place in Barcelona on Nov. 18 between Mehlis and the Syrian foreign ministry’s legal adviser Riad Daoudi.
The Syrian official presented the UN investigator with seven conditions for permission to interrogate the six officers. DEBKA-Net-Weekly has viewed the document he submitted and discloses for the first time the conditions posed by Damascus
1. Mehlis must publish an official disavowal of the testimony presented by one of the central witnesses in the investigation, Muhammad Zouhayr Asseddiq, a Syrian intelligence officer who fled to Saudi Arabia and then Paris. His defection was made possible and financed by president Assad’s exiled uncle, Rifat Assad. In his interim report to the UN Security Council on October 20, Mehlis termed Asseddiq as the key witness of his investigation. His credibility was accepted after he incriminated himself by confessing to taking part in the planning, preparations and execution of the Hariri murder.
Our sources note that the UN investigator would undermine his own report if he disowned this witness.
2. The UN investigators must undertake not to bring masked witnesses in the same room as the six Syrian officers.
Syria is aware that the UN team has Syrian and Lebanese witnesses in addition to Asseddiq and wants to avoid an incriminating confrontation with the six suspects.
New testimony tracks the explosives from Slovakia to Latakia
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources offer here some particulars of the UN inquiry’s surprise witnesses.
Two are new defectors from Syrian intelligence. They became available after Mehlis submitted his interim findings to the UN Security Council in October. We will call them for convenience, Agent A and Agent B. The third is a Lebanese militia agent.
Syrian Agent A: Questioned by the chief investigator Mehlils, he gave precise details of how and where in Syria the explosives were prepared for use in the blast that killed Hariri and 22 others in February 2005. He described the truck that carried the explosives to the crime scene and named the man responsible for torching the vehicle after its freight was transferred to the bomb car.
Lebanese Agent: An intelligence agent of one of the Lebanese militias, this witness testified that he knows Agent A and can corroborate his evidence. The pair were confronted and cross-questioned to authenticate their testimony.
Syrian Agent B: Mehlis’ interview with this witness took place at the British consulate in Duesseldorf, Germany, Saturday, Nov. 19 – after his meeting with Daoudi in Barcelona. It was set up five days earlier by the UN investigator and a go-between, the exiled Syrian journalist Nizar Nayoff. Nayoff came to their meeting on November 14 with two unidentified women involved in the affair.
From Agent B Mehlis obtained detailed information on the purchase Syrian military intelligence made in Slovakia of the explosive materials used for the assassination and how he arranged for it to be freighted to Latakia military port.
Mehlis has now collected the documented names of the people implicated in the transport of explosives from Europe to the scene of the assassination as well as the identities of those who took delivery of the cargo at Latakia.
The journalist Nayoff was approached and asked not to arrange the Duesseldorf interview. The request came in a phone call from Mohammed Said Bahtain, head of the Syrian Baath party’s intelligence apparatus. The call was recorded and the tape handed to the UN investigator.
Assad wants to be thanked for his “cooperation”
That Syrian intelligence is so well-informed of the UN investigators secret interviews and movements attests to its efficiency – or indicates that a larger intelligence agency is rendering assistance to keep Damascus au fait of the international probe.
But most of all, the close surveillance is a sinister reminder of the danger Mehlis and his team run at all times.
We now go back to Syria’s terms, of which we have so far detailed only two.
3. The UN inquiry must notify Damascus of any witnesses of the same type as Assediq.
This is a broad hint that the Syrian government knows about Agents A and B.
4. The UN Secretary must provide guarantees that no foreign intelligence service will be co-opted to the Hariri investigation or given access to the testimony given to the team.
This stipulation is unrealistic. In his interim report to the Security Council, Detlev Mehlis thanked the various intelligence services who assisted and are still assisting his inquiry.
5. Before starting to interrogate the six Syrian officers, the UN investigator must make a public statement praising Syria for fully cooperating with the inquiry team and affirming that it has no complaints against Damascus.
6. The UN and Mehlis in person must pledge not to stage any confrontation between the six Syrian officers and the four Lebanese officials in detention in Beirut as suspects in the Hariri murder.
7. Before getting down to questioning the Syrian officers, the UN investigator must take one of two steps: either bring absolute proofs that the two apartments rented in the Hamra district of Beirut as headquarters for the assassination operation were visited by Syrian officers – or, admit publicly that no such proofs exist and the charges against those officers are false.
Publication of either statement would gravely undermine the credibility of all parts of the Mehlis report.
President Assad is now demanding that the UN secretary treat Syria’s seven-point ultimatum as a compromise solution for the crisis over the six Syrian officers.
As we go to press, the UN investigator confronts Assad with an ultimatum of his own: By the end of Friday, Nov. 25, the Syrian ruler must state the location outside the country to which the six officers will be transferred to face UN interrogation. Failing this notice, the UN investigator will notify the UN Security of Damascus’ failure to cooperate with the Hariri inquiry.