Syria: Old whine, new bottle By William Bowles

26 October 2005

The UN ‘report’ on the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese PM, bears all the hallmarks of yet another set-up, no doubt ‘inspired’ by US pressure as part of the build-up to yet another Middle Eastern ‘adventure’.

Even less remarkable is the uncritical, indeed blind acceptance by the Western media of the Report’s conclusions concerning those allegedly behind the assassination.

But before we dissect the abysmal failure of the Western media to accurately report the findings of the UN Report, let’s take a look at its conclusions.

First of all, the Report offers no concrete evidence that any of the people or institutions it claims were involved in Hariri’s assassination were indeed the culprits. Instead, its assertions rely largely on three elements:

  • The testimony of an unnamed witness, but who is undoubtedly Zuheir al-Siddiq, a convicted felon, whose testimony lacks any material basis aside from his assertions (see below).
  • Zuhir Ibn Mohamed Said Saddik, later charged with involvement in the assassination and again whose testimony lacks any material basis other than self-incrimination, which is used by the Report to add credibility to his testimony.
  • A lot of information on the use of cellphones but which reveal nothing about who was behind the assassination, merely that a lot of individuals phoned each other an awful lot.

To add insult to injury, at every critical juncture, the report admits that it actually lacks any substantiation for any of its claims, saying that “the investigation is not complete” and that “further investigation is needed”. Worse, early on it says that due to massive tampering with the scene of the explosion, on and after the day, accurate forensic investigation is all but impossible to carry out. The report relies largely on hearsay, that is, statements by people who claim to be have been told by a third party that such and such happened.

Yet in spite of this the Executive Summary tells us:

Building on the findings of the Commission and Lebanese investigations to date and on the basis of the material and documentary evidence collected, and the leads pursued until now, there is converging evidence pointing at both Lebanese and Syrian involvement in this terrorist act. It is a well known fact that Syrian Military Intelligence had a pervasive presence in Lebanon at the least until the withdrawal of the Syrian forces pursuant to resolution 1559.

Although the report says it “builds” on the Lebanese investigations, there is no mention of the fact that the Lebanese ‘investigation’ was roundly condemned as a whitewash and the fact that “Syrian Military Intelligence had a pervasive presence” in Lebanon, it presents no actual evidence of its involvement in the assassination aside from the assertions of Zuheir al-Siddiq, a convicted felon and swindler and the previously mentioned, Zuhir Ibn Mohamed Said Saddik. The Mehlis report contains the following, almost certainly referring to Siddiq’s testimony:

One witness of Syrian origin but resident in Lebanon, who claims to have worked for the Syrian intelligence services in Lebanon, has stated that approximately two weeks after the adoption of Security Council resolution 1559, senior Lebanese and Syrian officials decided to assassinate Rafik Hariri. He claimed that a senior Lebanese security official went several times to Syria to plan the crime, meeting once at the Meridian Hotel in Damascus and several times at the Presidential Place and the office of a senior Syrian security official. The last meeting was held in the house of the same senior Syrian security official approximately seven to 10 days before the assassination and included another senior Lebanese security official. The witness had close contact with high ranked Syrian officers posted in Lebanon. (p.35)

The UN had this to say about al-Siddiq’s testimony, as reported in Der Spiegel:

[T]he UN Commission which had submitted the Mehlis report to the UN Security Council yesterday, is raising serious doubts about the reliability and credibility of al-Siddiq’s declarations, since it was revealed that the alleged former officer of the Syrian secret services had in reality been convicted more than once for penal offences related to money subtraction. [Der Spiegel] reports that the UN investigating Commission is well aware that it had been lied [to] by Siddiq, who at first had affirmed to have left Beirut one month before the assault on al-Hariri, but then had to admit at the end of September his direct involvement in the implementation of the crime. It is quite evident by now that the witness had received money for his depositions, considering that his siblings reveal to have received a phone-call from him from Paris, in late summer, in which Siddiq announced “I have become a millionaire”. Doubts regarding the credibility of the man were further fuelled by the revelation that Siddiq had been recommended to Mehlis by the long-term Syrian renegate Rifaat al-Assad, an uncle of the Syrian President who more than once offered himself as “alternative President of Syria” … Siddiq is supposed to have declared that he had put his apartment in Beirut to the disposition of the conspirators to kill Hariri, among them several Syrian intelligence officials … But the Syrian government, revealed Der Spiegel, had sent weeks ago a documentation regarding the man to various Western governments, hoping that Detlev Mehlis would not get caught in the trap of a notorious imposter. – ‘Central witness to Mehlis report revealed as a paid swindler’, Hamburg, 22 October 2005

The telephone calls
The other key element in the report are the references to innumerable telephone calls made by a variety of individuals before and on the day of the assassination, yet it fails to show any connection between the phone calls and the actual assassination, it’s no more than innuendo, based in large measure on the video tape that contains a statement by a Mr. Abu Adass (who has disappeared) that claims that a Lebanese-based organization that nobody had ever heard of, al nasra wal-jihad fee bilad Al-Sham, was responsible. The reason why the cellphone calls figure so highly is that Mr. Adass, amongst other named individuals, made the calls. But the report itself says:

There is no evidence that Mr. Abu Adass belonged to the group al nasra wal-jihad fee bilad Al-Sham as claimed in the Al-Jazeera videotape, nor even that such a group has ever existed or does exist now. There are no indications (other than the videotape) that he drove a truck containing the bomb that killed Hariri. The evidence does show that it is likely that Mr. Abu Adass left his home on 16 January 2005 and was taken, voluntarily or not, to Syria, where he has since disappeared. (p. 50)

The report doesn’t explain why so much of its investigations focused on the innumerable cellphone calls other than the fact that the two key witnesses unsubstantiated claims implicate them, nor does it establish any link between the bombing, the phone calls and the Syrian government.

The alleged links, especially between (the unnamed) Siddiq and the various named individuals bears all the hallmarks of a classical set-up, with the one key witness, indeed the only one to actually directly implicate leading figures in the Lebanese and Syrian governments in the assassination, a discredited and suspect individual that the Syrian government itself had, weeks before the release of Report, “sent … documentation regarding the man to various Western governments, hoping that Detlev Mehlis would not get caught in the trap of a notorious imposter.”

The truck
In spite of the fact that the report offers no actual forensic evidence that it was a truck (stolen in Japan no less) packed with it claims, 1000kgs of TNT, the report nevertheless asserts that it was used as a suicide bomb. No trace of the driver of the truck has been found, nor does it offer any evidence that it was the truck other than the fact that it was parked outside the hotel, admitting that because all the relevant evidence was moved on the day of the bombing, made it impossible to carry out a thorough forensic examination of the scene.

Based on the testimony of Siddiq and one other, named witness, Zuhir Ibn Mohamed Said Saddik, who later was implicated in the assassination (mainly on his own admission rather than evidence), the report says:

There is probable cause to believe that the decision to assassinate former Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, could not have been taken without the approval of top- ranked Syrian security official [sic] and could not have been further organized without the collusion of their counterparts in the Lebanese security services.

Thus the report’s conclusions are based essentially on the testimony of just two people, who provide no concrete evidence whatsoever to support their assertions and furthermore, the fact that the report asserts that “top-ranked Syrian security official” (should this be plural?) were involved, it fails to prove that the Syrian government was involved and in fact doesn’t state this. Yet the Western media have reported as fact, that the report implicates the Syrian government. What the media reports don’t quote is what the Report has to say on the impossibility of actually collecting real, hard evidence:

At the outset, the time factor affecting the Commission has to be emphasized. UNIIIC was declared operational four months after the actual crime, which means that the perpetrators and their accomplices have had plenty of time to destroy evidence and/or to collude with each other, the ability to recall of potential witnesses has been diminished, and previous omissions and inadvertent or deliberate loss and destruction of evidence could not be undone. (p.32)

Not so surprising is the fact that aside from the Der Spiegel story, not a single Western media outlet has mentioned the centrality of Siddiq and Saddik to the report’s conclusions, nor has there been any mention of the UN Commission’s own doubts about the report’s conclusions. And in fact the report itself says this of Saddik’s testimony:

At the present stage of investigation, a certain amount of information given by Mr. Saddik cannot be confirmed through other evidence. (p.37)

Neither does the report question the reliability of Siddiq’s testimony, accepting at face value his assertions that he had direct contact with Syrian government officials. All in all, the Report is an extremely amateurish attempt to frame the Syrian government.

The Media
The Western media, for its part, has accepted the Report as fact and as the final word on the subject, even though the Report itself says several times, that further investigation is needed and that it is “incomplete” and in fact the UN has given Mehlis a further two months to complete it.

Thus we find the BBC and other major media outlets acting as mouthpieces for the US and UK governments, with story after story peddling the same Western propaganda line about the need for sanctions against Syria and even the need for ‘regime change’ in Syria.

Typical of media coverage is the following BBC story:

Evidence suggests both Syrian and Lebanese involvement in the murder of former Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri, a United Nations investigation has found. ‘Hariri investigation: Key figures’, 21 October 2005

But using the Report as its only source, it draws largely on the testimony of the two ‘witnesses’, Siddiq and Saddik, with no reference to the suspect nature of Siddiq’s assertions, nor the fact that there is not a single piece of actual evidence presented in the report that directly implicates the Syrian government or indeed anyone at all. Like all the other news reports, the BBC story makes no attempt to explain why the report lacks any actual hard evidence. The BBC, along with the rest of the mainstream media, assumes that the Report has got it right.

It quotes from the report that “Zuhir Ibn Mohamed Said Saddik asserts that the decision to kill Mr Hariri was taken in Syria by senior Lebanese and Syrian officers”, although, like the report, the BBC story states that his testimony cannot be supported by fact, adding that “but the fact that he implicates himself gives him added credibility,” though why the fact that he implicated himself adds credibility to his assertions, is not explained except that this is what the report states.

The BBC story also uses the testimony of Siddiq who claimed that Asef Shawkat, head of Syrian military intelligence:

… forced Ahmed Abu Adass, an Islamic militant, to make a video claiming responsibility for the bombing that killed Mr Hariri – two weeks before the explosion.

Pointedly, the Mehlis Report nowhere uses the term “Islamic militant” to describe Ahmed Abu Adass, this is something the BBC bunged in to ‘spice up’ the story.

Likewise, a report in Canada’s Globe and Mail states:

It’s suggested in the report that the video “confession” may have been personally ordered by General Assef Shawkat, the head of Syria’s intelligence apparatus and brother-in-law to President Bashar Assad. When investigators went to interview Mr. Abu Abass’s father about what happened, he too turned up dead.

The 60-page report handed down by chief investigator Detlev Mehlis is full of similarly damning details, all of which point to the conclusion that Mr. Hariri’s murder was conceived at highest levels of Mr. Assad’s regime, with significant help from senior Lebanese officials who served in a government that was effectively a Syrian client. ‘Abu Adass, the fall guy’, The Globe and Mail, October 22, 2005

Note that it is only a “suggestion” that Shawkat may have ordered the assassination as there is no proof offered. Another report in the Christian Science Monitor, with the loaded title, ‘Syria implicated in death of Hariri’, October 21, 2005, incorrectly states that the Report alleges that:

The BBC reports that one of the most damning accusations made by Mehlis is that Lebanese President Emile Lahood, a key ally of Syria, received a phone call from one of the key figures in the plot, warning that the assassination was about to take place. Mr. Lahood has denied the charge and said that parts of the report are an attempt to discredit him.

What the Mehlis Report actually says is that Lahood received a phone call but there is no mention of the subject of the call:

Abdel-Al has been in frequent contact with Mahmoud Abdel-Al, his brother, who is also active in Al-Ahbash. Mahmoud Abdel-Al’s telephone calls on 14 February are also interesting: he made a call minutes before the blast, at 1247 hrs, to the mobile phone of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud and at 1249 hrs had contact with Raymond Azar’s mobile telephone. (p. 58)

Nor does the BBC story state that the phone call was warning Lahood of an impending assassination. Instead it says:

The Lebanese presidency issued a statement denying that a suspect implicated in Hariri’s assassination had called President Emile Lahoud minutes before the truck bomb exploded.
UN Hariri probe implicates Syria

Due to the vague nature of the Report, the fact that it is incomplete and because of its unsubstantiated and politically loaded implications, it is possible for any and all conclusions to be drawn from it, which is precisely what the media and politicians have done and why it takes the form that it does. There could be no clearer example of the relationship between propaganda and the press than the Mehlis Report, serving as it does as a backdrop to USUK machinations in the region, partially to draw attention away from the disastrous situation in Iraq and also to ‘soften up’ the public for any potential moves against Syria.

What the report does is create the context for the inflammatory and threatening statements made by US secretary of state Condi Rice, US ambassador to the UN Bolton, Jack Straw, British foreign secretary and the Israeli government, all of whom have, in no uncertain terms used the UN Report as a justification for ‘regime change’ in Syria.

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