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Syria may not recognize assassination tribunal

/ Source: The Associated Press

President Bashar Assad said Thursday his country would not recognize a U.S.-mandated international tribunal on the assassination of the former prime minister of Lebanon if it infringes on Syrian sovereignty.

The comments indicated Damascus would not cooperate with the court if it indicts Syrian citizens for the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri — setting the stage for a possible confrontation with the U.N. if the tribunal is created.

Assad made the comments in a speech to parliament, where his ruling Baath Party nominated him for a second seven-year term in office. In the speech, Assad also said the Israeli government is too weak to negotiate peace with Syria.

A U.N. probe has implicated Syrian security officials and their allies in the Lebanese security services in the 2005 assassination of Hariri, although Damascus has denied any role.

Assad said national sovereignty and Syrian laws were paramount. “Any cooperation (with the tribunal) is totally rejected if it requires abandoning national sovereignty,” he told parliament.

Lebanon split on issue
A deep political crisis centering around the tribunal has paralyzed neighboring Lebanon, which is torn between the Western-backed government and the opposition led by Syria’s ally, Hezbollah. Approval of the tribunal has been deadlocked and the United States has warned the Security Council could impose it on its own, bypassing the divided legislature in Beirut.

Assad spoke at the opening session of a new parliament, formed in elections last month in which opposition parties were not allowed to take part. Under the constitution, the 250-member rubber-stamp parliament must be dominated by the Baath and allied parties, with the rest of the seats filled by independents.

The Baath Party announced to parliament in a letter that it had nominated Assad for a second term. It called the nomination an “expression of the Syrian people’s rallying around its leadership to strengthen the national policies of Syria.”

The parliament is to approve the nomination — a formality given the Baath Party’s domination of the body. The nomination then goes to a popular referendum, expected before Assad’s term expires July 17.

The nomination was rejected by a dissident who lives abroad. “This is an unconstitutional and illegal act because the legislature does not represent the Syrian people,” Maamoun Homsi, a former lawmaker who spent time in jail, told The Associated Press in Beirut, Lebanon.

Assad says Israel not prepared for peace
In his speech, Assad repeated previous policies on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Lebanon and Iraq.

On the Middle East peace process, he said the current Israeli government was weak and is not prepared for a just peace with the Arabs, but cautioned that it could still wage war.

Assad said peace “requires strong leadership that can take decisive decisions, in addition to a mature public opinion that can push their governments in that direction.”

“Both are not available now in Israel, particularly in the presence of a weak government which is unable of taking a strategic decision (for peace),” the Syrian leader said.

But, he cautioned, “we have to be careful” because “in the history of Israel, weak governments are able to wage war.”

Assad also denied direct or secret contacts with Israel and stressed the longstanding Syrian demand for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, seized by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, in return for peace.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been besieged by demands for his resignation after a government report sharply criticizing his government’s performance in last summer’s war against Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev rejected Assad’s criticism. “The leader in Damascus who chooses to ally himself with the most extreme enemies of peace — Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas — has a severe credibility gap when he talks about peace,” Regev said.