Syrian President Bashar Assad ordered the creation of a judicial committee on Saturday to investigate the murder of a former Lebanese prime minister, as Damascus continued its scramble to ease intense and growing international pressure.
The U.N. investigation into the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri has linked top Syrian and Lebanese security officials to the killing and said that Damascus had been uncooperative in the probe.
Syria also said Saturday that the offices of Islamic Jihad, one of a number of militant anti-Israeli groups that formerly operated out of Damascus, had been closed years ago.
On Friday, the U.S., the European Union, the United Nations and Russia — also known as the Quartet — called for Syria to shut the Islamic Jihad office. The four countries have laid out a “road map” peace plan to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
An unidentified Syrian Foreign Ministry official was quoted by SANA, the official news agency, as saying that Islamic Jihad’s military activities were planned from the Palestinian territories and not in Syria. The group claimed responsibility for a bombing on Wednesday that killed five Israelis.
U.N.: ‘Fill in the gaps’
By issuing a decree to set up the special judicial committee to probe the bombing that killed Hariri and 20 others in Beirut, Assad appeared to be responding to Tuesday’s call by the chief U.N. investigator Detlev Mehlis for the Syrians to conduct their own investigation to “fill in the gaps” about who orchestrated the terrorist act.
SANA said the committee would be made up of Syria’s prosecutor-general, the military prosecutor and a judge to be named by the justice minister. They will be ordered to question Syrian “civilians and military personnel on all matters relating to the U.N. investigation commission’s mission.”
In announcing the Syrian probe of the Hariri murder, Assad said the commission would cooperate with the Mehlis investigation and Lebanese judicial authorities. The Lebanese have arrested and charged four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals in the Hariri assassination.
Russia called on Syria to cooperate with the investigators.
West could threaten sanctions
The United States, France and Britain are working on a Security Council resolution that will be unveiled on Monday and was expected to threaten the Syrians with sanctions if it failed to cooperate with the U.N. inquiry.
The resolution was believed to require that Syria arrest any official or civilian that U.N. investigators consider a suspect in the killing and allow the detainee to be questioned either outside Syria or without Syrian officials present.
The United States has said it wanted to include a requirement for Assad to submit to questioning, something he has rejected so far.
Russia, also a veto-empowered permanent member of the Security Council member, has voiced opposition to sanctions and could block their imposition.
Killing spurred troop withdrawal
While Syria has roundly rejected accusations of its involvement in Hariri’s killing, it did buckle under international pressure and withdrew its soldiers from Lebanon in April, ending a 29-year presence in its smaller neighbor.
In addition, Syria faces unrelenting charges from the United States and Iraq that it allows militant foreign fighters to cross its border into Iraq to join the Sunni-led insurgency.
While Damascus has always contended it was nearly impossible to control its 370-mile eastern frontier with Iraq, the authorities now say thousands of foreign fighters have been captured in recent months as they tried to slip into Iraq.
On Saturday, the Interior Ministry ordered border guards to pay special attention to men between the ages of 18 and 30 who arrive in the country to stop “suspects planning to carry terrorist acts inside the country,” SANA reported. Suspects were to be deported immediately.