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Amb. Marc Ginsberg

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Syria's Assad & America's Decaying Credibility

Posted: 07/06/11 08:23 PM ET

Now that we know who "allegedly" did the actual killing of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who then ordered the hit job? Was it Hezbollah -- the Iranian-backed terrorist organization's whose chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah despised Hariri and his Sunni compatriots? Syria's President Bashar al Assad, or one of his family members? The Iranian President or the Ayatollah... all of the above?

Let's recall that in February, 2005, the prime minister was killed along with six bodyguards and 16 innocent Lebanese pedestrians when Hariri's car was blown up by a huge bomb along Beirut's beachfront corniche. Originally, suspicion fell on Syria's Assad as the man behind the trigger man. After all, Hariri had dared to defy the Syrians by orchestrating efforts to reduce Syria's unwelcomed meddling in Lebanon, and in return, Hariri had been threatened repeatedly by Assad, according to independent media accounts.

This was no contract killing by rogue elements of Hezbollah. When the names leaked from the so-called sealed indictments issued by the special UN Tribunal investigating the hit job, it was the worst kept secret in the Middle East that senior Hezbollah leaders were going to be fingered. Although until a few days ago the actual perpetrators' names remained sequestered.

The indictments named Moustapha Badreddine, and Salim Ayyash -- each of whom held senior officer positions in Nasrallah's secret Hezbollah military intelligence unit. Badreddine is a Hezbollah deputy military commander and brother-in-law of the late Hezbollah master terrorist and murderer of Americans Imad Mughniyeh. The other two named culprits: Hassan Anaissy and Assad Sabra have as yet uncorroborated affiliations with any organization.

Well, let's dispose of the easy stuff first. Given the vagaries of Hezbollah, there is little doubt that Nasrallah himself directly ordered the assassination. For a man who denies culpability for any role Hezbollah may have played in the murder plot, Nasrallah has devoted the better part of the past six years trying to deflect guilt away from himself or Hezbollah by sabotaging the UN Tribunal. Like a broken record, Nasrallah has denounced anyone or anything associated with it, masterfully orchestrating a deceitful propaganda campaign against the tribunal in order to shield himself from the International Criminal Court.

It is inconceivable that Nasrallah would not have been privy to the plot given the fact that two of his faithful senior lieutenants have now been indicted after a painstaking, exhaustive and IMPARTIAL investigation. To think otherwise is to believe that Nasrallah is not the master of his entire shadowy Hezbollah domain... an absurd proposition given his absolute dictatorial power Nasrallah wields over Hezbollah. His methods to subvert justice have included threats, intimidation, and blackmail. Not normally the conduct of an innocent bystander crying foul at an internationally recognized judicial inquiry under the direct supervision of the United Nations.

The details of the plot remain under seal, but surely will leak out once the arrest warrants are issued by the Lebanese government prosecutors -- not a sure bet given the internal political crisis the long-awaited indictments provoked in Lebanon.

Would Nasrallah have acted alone? Unlikely.

Here is where the plot thickens.

Just after the indictments were handed down, the former head of the UN Tribunal Detlev Mehlis from Germany broke his silence and declared that Syria's embattled President Assad ordered and approved the plot, although Mehlis did not substantiate his assertion with any evidence. Why would a distinguished jurist with access to the investigation files make this assertion at the time the indictments were handed down against the actual perpetrators? Probably because he knows a lot more than we know about Assad's likely role.

Moreover, subsequent information that has leaked out since then reveals that Syrian Interior Minister General Ghazi Kana'an -- Assad's enforcer in Lebanon, mysteriously committed suicide in October, 2005 (probably with someone holding the gun to his head) because the UN Tribunal was onto the fact that Kana'an and Nasrallah conspired to execute Assad's orders.

Which gets to Syria's role in the conspiracy -- let alone the consequences to Lebanon of the dragnet closing in on Hezbollah.

By any corroborated account, Assad had real motive to get rid of Hariri. Hariri was a real thorn in Syria's side. Hariri not only had an independent power base and a lot of money, but was also close to the Saudis, who reviled Assad and his Shi'ia Alouite minority regime. According to several sources, Assad knew that the Saudis were funneling secret money and arms to Hariri's Lebanese Army to thwart Hezbollah's ascendancy and checkmate Iran's increasing meddling in Lebanon -- all of which were anathema to Assad.

Will there be further indictments by the UN implicating anyone inside Assad's close-knit cabal? Hard to tell? But surely the Obama administration must know more than it is letting on about the indictments and Syria's probable role in the plot itself given the link between Ghazi Kana'an, his untimely "suicide" and Hezbollah.

The potential role that Assad may have directly played in Hariri's assassination is obviously being overshadowed by the revolt against his regime now taking place throughout Syria. But it points to the true nature of the Assad regime.

When coupled together with Assad's murderous rampage against his own people it provokes even more head scratching over the dubious behavior behind the Obama administration's attitude toward Assad.

On July 1, for the umpteenth time Secretary of State Clinton looped around again a tiresome refrain that the Syrian government is "running out of time." And that she was "just hurt by recent reports of continuing violence. Really? How hurt? Over 1,800 Syrians have been murdered by the Assad regime since March according to independent human rights organizations.

This is a rare moment in Mrs. Clinton's otherwise commendable stewardship of America's foreign policy where her credibility is fast eroding since her position on Syria defies logic and reason. It has raised troublesome questions by many in the Middle East who cannot fathom what is driving her to stay soft on Assad. Yes, comparatively soft given the atrocities he has committed against his own people over 5 months. Yet, paradoxically, Mrs. Clinton has shown no reluctance whatsoever to pile on other Middle East dictators who don't even merit an international criminal court investigation.

For good measure, this past Sunday National Security Advisor Donilon stepped right out onto breaking ice in a failed attempt to differentiate President Obama's lightning speed call for Mubarak to go against the President's refusal to do the same against Assad.

No one in the Obama administration has offered a logical explanation for this tongue-twisting policy -- either on record or on background. Either it is genuinely fearful that should Assad go Syria with break out into Iraqi-style civil war (a view widely discredited by knowledgeable Syrian observers) or the Saudis have threatened the White House not to toss Assad under the bus for fear that Iran and Hezbollah will further benefit from the upheaval (hard to figure how that could happen). Or maybe there is some other possibly credible explanation that remains cloistered? If so, the White House needs to better explain itself.

If all crooked roads lead to Assad, what is the better policy than that being served up by the Obama administration?

First, if anyone inside the administration needed further proof, Assad cannot crush the protesters with brute force -- witness the peaceful demonstration in Hama over the weekend which brought out over 100,000 Syrians into the streets there. That means it's about time to toss out the door the administration's increasingly shopworn view that Assad will prevail through the point of a gun in the long run.

Second, it's time to choke off Syria's oil exports by which it is earning desperately needed foreign currency to finance its crackdown. Syria is a net oil exporter and the U.S. has simply not done enough to contain its exports by jawboning Syria's customers.

Third, perhaps there are other ways to deal with Assad rather than succumbing to possible Saudi dictats without tossing Assad under the bus. Today, Amnesty International declared that Assad is engaged in crimes against humanity and that he and his regime should be referred to the International Criminal Court for atrocities against its own people. The allegations set forth by Amnesty include the use of torture, murder, mass detentions, and the firing on families fleeing over the border into Turkey. Amnesty's report paints a gruesome portrait of the Assad regime's rampage against anyone remotely associated with the protest movement.

In the face of these substantiated facts, the United States cannot in good conscience keep to its "sanctions and, oh by the way you still have time to reform" Syrian policy. Amnesty's report has now called into sharp relief the administration's folly of "Assad-lite" wishful thinking. In the face encirclement by human rights monitors and the UN's Tribunal, it really has no viable alternative left but to get behind European efforts to hold Assad accountable for human rights violations, and worse.

Fourth, the White House should do much more than it has to date to publicly and more forcefully support the increasingly well-organized and well-intentioned Syrian political protest movement and its leadership that recently met in Damascus. The protest movement has constructed a well formulated reform "roadmap" that is quietly circulating among attendees which would slowly but surely ease Assad out of power via a peaceful transition. The meeting and the document is the best evidence to date that despite the violence throughout Syria there are courageous and credible opposition leaders who are easily identifiable and accessible to American officials -- unlike the early days of the Libyan revolt.

The Obama administration is having a hard time finding any more sand to place its head in when it comes to evolving events in Syria. It's time to reconcile policy and values -- something the president promised to do in his speech to the Arab people a few weeks ago.