Syria Agrees to Questioning Officials
Confirming the quiet deadline referenced yesterday, Syria and the Mehlis Commission have today agreed to use the UN headquarters in Vienna, Switzerland, as the site for holding interviews of at least five Syrian officials implicated by the Mehlis Commission Report on the murder of former Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri. (The full text of the report can be read here or here.)
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Walid Moallem broke the news in a press conference in Damascus. Syria had claimed previously that it feared for the safety of Syrian ‘civil servants’ were they to be questioned in Beirut, Lebanon. But the real concern for Syria has almost certainly the fear of the potential (and possibly likely) arrest of these officials by the Mehlis Commission after their questioning. This is indicated by the language used in the Syrian press conference today in Damascus.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Walid Moallem told a news conference that the breakthrough in negotiations with the United Nations came after Syria received “reassurances” about respect for its sovereignty and “guarantees concerning the rights of the individuals” to be questioned. He did not elaborate.
Although the use of the word ‘sovereignty’ is not directly attributed to Moallem in this particular instance, it has been used frequently by Syrian spokesmen in the past and is precisely what he is addressing, meaning they cannot be compelled to turn over the officials to outside control. The “guarantees concerning the rights of the individuals” speaks directly to Syria’s fear of arrests without using the word.
It is not coincidental that no date for the interviews in Vienna were included with the news of the agreement. It is in Syria’s best interest to forestall any action by the UN Security Council for as long as possible. Mehlis is under order to report progress in the investigation, specifically the level of Syrian cooperation, to the UN Security Council no later than December 15, barely three weeks away.
Syria is certainly not out of the woods. The BBC’s John Leyne correctly points out an inconsistency that has long plagued the issue of the investigation.
The UN originally said it wanted to speak to six Syrian officials, but Syria is talking of five officials travelling to Vienna, he says.
As with any game of chess, there is certainly more than meets the eye. (The initial Mehlis report had several key names deleted from the ‘official’ version. An analysis on the discrepancy here.)
Furthermore, agreeing to a compromise on the location of the interviews may be a step forward. However, the true measure of ‘full cooperation’ will be determined within the interviews themselves by the nature of the answers provided by those interviewed. Evasive, non-specific and contradictory testimony – already experienced by the investigation – will not bode well for Syria.
The discrepancy in the number of officials to be interviewed seems to already set the tone for the expected level of cooperation.