Blanford On How The STL Could Hurt Syria

Bashar, Maher and Shawkat

In the pile of items that I have been meaning to get to is the possible Syrian portfolio of indictments to be handed down by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) after its investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The Tribunal has already handed out indictments for four Lebanese men, all members of Hezbollah (though Nasrallah has said that none will be apprehended) and it has been reported that the STL will soon hand out indictments for several Syrian officials, specifically, Maher al-Assad (the President’s brother) and Assef Shawkat (the President’s brother-in-law, married to Bashar’s older sister Bushra).

It was long assumed that high-ranking Syrian officials were complicit in the assassination of Hariri, as the former Prime Minister was on the verge of openly opposing Syrian patronage in Lebanon (Hariri was generally saw Syrian involvement in Lebanon as a necessary setback to his nationalist agenda, but greatly clashed with Damascus over Assad’s support for the extension of President Emile Lahoud). Nicholas Blanford spoke about the probability of Syrian involvement in 2006 in his book Killing Mr. Lebanon. Blanford points to the initial investigation conducted by German investigator Detlev Mehlis who wrote in his first report (eight months after the assassination and one month after the start of the investigation) that:

Given the infiltration of Lebanese institutions by the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services working in tandem, it would be difficult to envision a scenario whereby such a complex assassination plot could have been carried out without their knowledge.

Apparently it was known at that time that the relatives of Assad were involved. Blanford wrote:

An unedited version of the report which found its way into the hands of journalists, the author included, carried the names of several senior Lebanese and Syrian officials allegedly involved in the Hariri assassination plot. They were Maher al-Assad, Bashar’s younger brother, Assef Shawkat, the president’s brother-in-law and at the time the deputy head of military intelligence, Hassan Khalil, the then head of Syrian military intelligence, Bahjat Suleiman, the then head of the internal affairs section of the General Security Directorate, and Jamil Sayyed [one of Syria’s most powerful Lebanese allies].

While Khalil, Suleiman and Sayyed may or may not escape without indictments, the possible delivery of indictments to such high level Syrian officials could cause trouble for the already beleaguered Syrian regime. Though it is unlikely that any type of indictment against the Syrian regime would lead to any arrest or trial, the alleged involvement of such high level Syrians would provide more ammo for the Syrian protesters. Currently, Maher al-Assad is the commander of the Republican Guard and the Forth Armored Division, which has been used to brutally suppress the uprising. The Turkish PM, Erdogan has said that Maher’s actions during the uprising was approaching ‘savagery’ and called for the President to remove his brother from command. Likewise, Shawkat is the deputy chief of staff of the armed forces and has consequently earned the ire of protesters for his role in the violence that has consumed the country.

Should the STL indict these two men, Bashar may be pressured to relieve the two – both believed to be in Bashar’s closest inner circle – of their posts. Blandford, again in 2006, wrote:

Lebanese and Syrian officials who know Bashar personally or have dealt with him professionally believe that today he is in charge in Syria and makes the final decisions. But those decisions are often heavily influenced by the opinions and advice he receives from the regime’s inner core, an Assad family ‘kitchen cabinet’, the ‘Alawite nucleus’, in the words of one former Arab diplomat, which represents the real source of power in Syria today. Among others, it includes his younger brother Maher, who heads the Republican Guard, Bushra, eldest and by reputation the most formidable of the Assad siblings, her husband, Assef Shawkat, the ambitious and shrewd head of the Syrian military intelligence, and the Makhlouf brothers, Rami and Ihab, Bashar’s maternal cousins [and prominent Syrian businessmen].

It remains to be seen if the STL will ever deliver the indictments for Maher al-Assad and Assef Shawkat and, if ever indicted, it is very unlikely that the two men would ever face trial for their alleged participation in the assassination of Hariri. However, considering their central role in the Syrian government and the contempt with which the Syrian protesters already hold the two men, an official indictment would represent a major blow to the stability of the Syrian government. More than anything, though, the possible indictment of these Syrian officials who have been accused of involvement in the assassination for over five years displays how the STL has been plagued by political infighting, inefficiency and corruption since it began.

Photo from Democracy in Syria

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