Getting Away With Murder?

The investigation into the 2005 assassination of the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri is nearing its end—and a trial in international court looms. Insiders say the trail of evidence leads, ultimately, to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But having spent three years fearing for their lives, the investigators are now grappling with a different fear: that Western concerns about regional stability will prevent the naming of the biggest names. Inside the investigation that could blow up the Middle East
Saad al-Hariri, Rafiq's son and political heir, sits in his mansion. He rarely leaves it, for fear of assassination.

One afternoon last July, I walked uphill through the Hamra neighborhood of West Beirut, passing through several checkpoints manned by private security guards. I stopped before a 10-story Italianate sandstone mansion set high above the Mediterranean—Rafiq al-Hariri’s former residence, now the headquarters of his son and political heir, Saad. Ushered inside, I walked down marble-floored hallways, past black-marble columns, gilded wall sconces, and life-size hagiographic photos of the murdered billionaire. Hariri’s media director, Hani Hammoud, took me on a tour of the building. We stepped into Hariri’s small private library, frozen exactly as it had been on the day he was killed, except for the framed memorial photos on every chair and a single red rose in a vase on Hariri’s desk (“His widow brings a new one every day,” Hammoud said). We walked into a cavernous reception hall, decorated in typically extravagant Arab style, with crystal chandeliers and dozens of gilt-trimmed wing-back chairs and sofas. “Mr. Hariri was a big man, and he liked to live large,” Hammoud told me.

Hariri was born in 1944, in the port city of Sidon, the son of a poor orange farmer, and he moved to the Saudi Arabian city of Jiddah in the 1960s, working initially as an accountant and math teacher. He got to know members of the House of Saud and eventually amassed a fortune building hotels and apartment complexes for the royal family. When the Lebanese civil war ended, in 1990, Hariri returned home a billionaire and financed the reconstruction of much of downtown Beirut—then largely rubble—and began a massive development program.

Elected prime minister in 1992, Hariri pursued accommodation with Syria’s then-President Hafez al-Assad—Bashar’s father—who, under the so-called Pax Syriana, maintained tens of thousands of troops in postwar Lebanon. The occupation enriched Syrian generals and other insiders who controlled real-estate and import-export businesses, and enabled Syrian intelligence agents to watch for Sunni extremism brewing inside Palestinian refugee camps. It also allowed Syria to pursue a proxy war against Israel along Lebanon’s southern border, through Hezbollah—a source of leverage against the Jewish state as Syria presses for the eventual return of the Golan Heights. Hariri conceded control of Lebanon’s security to Assad, allowing a heavy troop presence and the penetration of Syrian intelligence agents into every sector of Lebanese life; in turn, Assad gave Hariri wide rein over the country’s economic development and postwar reconstruction.

With the death of Assad, at age 69, in June 2000, and the ascension to the presidency of his son, Bashar, a British-educated ophthalmology student, accommodation became more difficult. When Bashar al-Assad came to power, he was initially hailed as a young reformer, eager to reach out to the West, but America’s invasion of Iraq—and the accompanying rumblings about the democratic transformation of the Middle East—heightened his regime’s sense of vulnerability. Assad railed against the invasion, cracked down on domestic opposition to his rule, and strengthened economic and military ties to Iran.

As tensions between Syria and the U.S. increased, Hariri—along with Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druze chieftain and one of Lebanon’s most powerful figures—allied himself with France and the United States, gambling successfully that the West would turn sharply against the Syrian regime and enable Lebanon to make a break. The Security Council resolution demanding Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon was an enormous blow to Assad. In Damascus, members of Assad’s inner circle began to worry not only about Hariri’s new course for Lebanon but about his reach inside Syria itself. “These guys saw Hariri as an immensely rich and powerful Sunni, and it exacerbated the paranoia of the minority regime,” says Nicholas Blanford, a Beirut-based British journalist and the author of Killing Mr. Lebanon, a book about Hariri’s murder.

In June, in his airless office at the Berlin Supreme Court, I met Detlev Mehlis, the first head of the UN Security Council’s International Independent Investigation Commission, who’d fled Beirut in early 2006. A veteran terror prosecutor, he had previously spent a decade investigating the 1983 bombing of the French Consulate in West Berlin—the trail ultimately had led to Carlos the Jackal. The investigation Mehlis had supervised in Beirut was one of the most ambitious criminal inquiries in history: UN investigators from 17 countries fanned out across the Middle East and Europe, took 244 witness statements, seized 453 pieces of evidence, and gathered 16,711 pages of documents. Bashar al-Assad, who according to Mehlis “stonewalled” the commission for five months, was eventually forced to capitulate to a Security Council resolution, passed in October 2005, that subjected the Syrian regime to sanctions if it didn’t produce key witnesses.

When Mehlis launched his probe, Assad’s Syria was a full-fledged pariah state, accused by the Bush administration of backing Hezbollah and arming the Sunni-led insurgency in Iraq. (Despite the regime’s inherent hostility toward Sunni extremists, Assad perceived a shared interest with them in inflicting pain on the United States.) At that time, the United States, France, and Saudi Arabia viewed the investigation commission and tribunal as a means to press for the downfall of Assad, whose regime the leaders of all three countries regarded as a force for radicalization.

Several leaders who backed the tribunal’s formation had had personal ties to Hariri: the French president, Jacques Chirac, had been a close friend since his time as mayor of Paris, and had been one of the few Western leaders to attend Hariri’s funeral, in Beirut. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah also was close to Hariri, a fellow Sunni. “That assassination remains a major sticking point between Saudi Arabia and Syria,” says Salem, the head of the Carnegie center in Beirut. “It has stirred up personal animosity, and Abdullah still holds Assad responsible for it.”

The Mehlis report to the United Nations, a preliminary assessment submitted in October 2005, deeply implicated the Assad regime. It chronicled the rising antipathy between Hariri and high-ranking Syrian officials, including Assad himself, as Hariri followed an increasingly independent course for Lebanon. According to a Syrian source inside Lebanon, identified in the report as a former Syrian intelligence agent, antipathy coalesced into a murder plan two weeks after the adoption of the Security Council resolution that demanded Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. The agent claimed that “senior Lebanese and Syrian officials” met at the Meridien Hotel in Damascus, at the presidential palace, and at the office and home of a senior Syrian intelligence official to plot the crime. In January 2005, a high-ranking officer had told the source that “an earthquake” would soon “rewrite the history of Lebanon”; the same witness said he had visited a Syrian military base repeatedly in the days before the killing, and had observed a white Mitsubishi Canter truck—the same type used as the bomb carrier—with a white tarpaulin over the flatbed. He told investigators that he had driven a Syrian officer on a reconnaissance mission to the St. George Hotel area in Beirut on the day before the bombing, and he implicated four Lebanese generals in providing the killers with “money, telephones, cars, walkie-talkies, pagers, weapons, ID cards,” in collaboration with General Rustam Ghazali, the head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon. (The four Lebanese generals were later arrested by Lebanese security forces and remain in prison.)

The report quoted another witness, who said General Mustafa Hamdan, one of the Lebanese officials later arrested, had implied a few months before the assassination that Hariri’s days were numbered: “We are going to send him on a trip; bye-bye, Hariri.” And a third witness, a low-ranking Syrian intelligence agent named Zuhir Ibn Mohamed Said Saddik, described the assassination as a plot hatched in Syria between July and December of 2004, and involving seven Syrian officials and four senior Lebanese officials. The driver of the explosives-laden truck, he said, was an Iraqi named Ahmad Abu Adass, who had been misled to believe that his target was Ayad Allawi, Iraq’s prime minister at the time; special explosives had been ordered, to “direct suspicions towards extremist Islamic groups.” Saddik, who was interviewed in September 2005, was later arrested for his alleged role in the crime; subsequently released, he vanished in March 2008 from a Paris suburb.

Though only preliminary, the report found “probable cause to believe that the decision to assassinate [Hariri] could not have been taken without the approval of top-ranked Syrian security officials.” The highest-ranking officials implicated were Asef Shawkhat (Assad’s brother-in-law and the head of Syria’s military intelligence department) and Maher al-Assad (Assad’s younger brother and the head of the presidential guard). Assad has continued to deny any Syrian role in Hariri’s killing.

When Mehlis was forced to leave Lebanon, he believed the commission’s work was at least “50 percent” finished, and that it could be wrapped up—under another commissioner—within a year. “The United Nations told me that for security reasons I could not stay in Beirut any longer,” he told me. “There were specific threats, submitted to me by the UN, the French, the Americans, so they wouldn’t accept responsibility if I would stay there. They offered to set up offices for me wherever I wanted to, but I felt you cannot handle an investigation by remote control.” Mehlis had established a motive; he had named suspects; he had compiled a vast amount of forensic evidence, from phone records to bomb residue. What was left, he told me, was analyzing the voluminous telephone traffic that had been intercepted by Lebanese security forces and identifying the half-dozen spotters who had tracked Hariri’s motorcade.

Mehlis’s successor was Serge Brammertz, then 43, an ambitious Belgian lawyer who had served as deputy prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Brammertz won the job thanks in part to Mehlis’s recommendation, but there was little love lost between the two UN commissioners. “The UN has a culture of destroying your predecessor and starting from scratch, and Brammertz succumbed to that,” I was told by the UN insider who’d left the investigation earlier this year. He said Brammertz believed that Mehlis had been carried away by anti-Syrian sentiment: “Mehlis conveyed a sense that he had raced ahead under international pressure to implicate Syria, without checking the admissibility of the sources.” One of Mehlis’s principal sources, the low-ranking Syrian intelligence official Saddik, was “a bit of a nut case,” he said. “He couldn’t be trusted.”

As Brammertz took control of the investigation, in 2006, Western attitudes toward Syria were shifting. Iraq’s collapse into a bloody sectarian war made the prospect of regime change in Syria look less desirable. Western experts warned that if Assad fell, plausible scenarios would include the collapse of the state, armed conflict between Sunnis and Alawites, and the emergence of a Sunni radical fundamentalist movement along the lines of Hamas, or Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood—or al-Qaeda. Syria began to change its behavior as well. It signed a defense pact with Iran in June 2006; but that same summer, Israel’s highly destructive war with Hezbollah created an opening in the Middle East peace process. Assad had been pushing for negotiations over the Golan Heights for years, only to be shunned by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his successor, Ehud Olmert. But in 2007, when Assad made overtures to Olmert about initiating peace talks, Olmert was receptive. Indirect discussions about swapping the Golan in return for recognition of Israel and curbs on Hezbollah have continued intermittently since then.

Brammertz established a style different from his outspoken predecessor’s. Where Mehlis had been open with the media, Brammertz cut off all contact. He released opaque, highly technical reports that described some of those implicated by Mehlis only as “persons of interest.” This sober approach backfired politically: as the investigation dragged on, with little apparent progress and almost no revelations, Hariri’s supporters in Lebanon accused the UN of trying to whitewash the final report. “Brammertz was so absent from the public eye that he projected the sense that nothing was happening,” the Western diplomat told me.

Mehlis himself has fanned those suspicions. When I suggested that, at least based on the published UN reports, Brammertz’s two years of investigation (he stepped down in January 2008) did not add much to Mehlis’s own report, he responded, “From the reports—and that’s all I know—I would say you are right. I have no idea what they have been doing.”

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Joshua Hammer is a freelance foreign correspondent based in Europe. He is a former Newsweek bureau chief in Africa and the Middle East and the author of three books.

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