UN Hariri court raises stakes for Syria

DAMASCUS — Syria is digging its heels in for a long confrontation with the United Nations after the Security Council voted to set up a special court to try suspects in the assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri.
The Security Council passed the resolution on Wednesday, invoking Chapter 7 of the UN Charter to enforce the court’s establishment, this despite Syrian warnings the tribunal could destabilise Lebanon further and violate Syrian sovereignty if it indicted Syrian officials.
“Syria has made clear it would not hand over any suspects.
We are looking at a clash that could result in the United Nations seeking to deprive Syria of legitimacy, just like Iraq,” Ayman Abdul-Nour, publisher of the All4Syria newsletter, said.
“There is one view that a political deal between Syria and America over the court is still possible, but I doubt it,” he told Reuters. “This court will have international judges who won’t risk their reputation.
“Once the court starts, no one can predict an ending.” The United States, which was behind the resolution along with Britain and France, has long demanded that Syria abandon its support for the Lebanese Hizbollah and Palestinian Hamas groups and do more to help stabilise Iraq.
Iraq’s refusal to cooperate unconditionally with the Security Council over its alleged arsenal of weapons of mass destruction led to 13 years of sanctions that contributed to economic collapse and isolated the Baghdad government.
Syrian officials had criticised Saddam Hussein for letting relations with the United Nations reach that pass, but they face a similar dilemma with Chapter 7 opening the way for possible sanctions against Syria. However, Russia and China are likely to oppose such an approach with Damascus.
A UN investigation, now led by Belgian prosecutor Serge Brammertz, has implicated senior Lebanese and Syrian security officials in the 2005 killing of Hariri in Beirut. Syria denies involvement.
“Let us wait to see the final Brammertz report and any indictments before we sound the alarm bells on Syria,” Syrian journalist Thabet Salem said.
“There is no doubt that the Chapter 7 and the threat of sanctions is a big stick against the Syrian people that could put us among the ranks of Sudan and Iraq,” he added.
As news of the UN resolution spread, fireworks were going up in Damascus celebrating a second term for President Bashar Assad, who has signalled that Syria will not cooperate with the court if it indicted Syrian officials and that any Syrian suspects would be tried at home under Syrian law.
Politically, the 41-year-old president has played the long game, refusing to bend to Western demands over what he sees as issues of Arab rights in the confrontation with Israel, but the court is the biggest challenge to his rule.
The security apparatus is the nerve centre of Assad’s rule and he would face difficult decisions if the court indicted Syrian security officials. “Do not underestimate how strong Bashar is. He has no problem in dealing with any officials if they are indicted. The president will not let this crisis reach Iraq-like proportions,” a Baath Party member with connections to the ruling class said.
A Western diplomat said the court could prompt Assad to review Syria’s policy towards the Palestinian issue and its role in Lebanon and Iraq.
“There will be no deal on the court as such, but a change of Syria’s positions will go a long way towards improving its standing with the West,” the diplomat said.
Syria is already under US sanctions, imposed in 2004, mainly for Damascus’ support for Hizbollah and Hamas.
“Businesses in Syria have already factored in the Security Council resolution,” said Jihad Yazigi, editor of the Syria Report economic newsletter. “But we’re looking at a different ball game if the confrontation escalates.”

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