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Syria to Investigate Alleged Role in Assassination

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This weekend Syria's president ordered an investigation into the alleged involvement of Syrian officials in the killing of a Lebanese politician. The probe is in response to a United Nations report implicating top Syrian officials in the killing. NPR's Deborah Amos has been reporting on this story in Damascus and speaks with us now from London.

Hi, Deb.

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

Hi, Deb.

ELLIOTT: Syria has rejected the findings of the US investigator and denied having anything to do with the assassination of Rafik Hariri. Why has the Syrian government now agreed to look into the allegations?

AMOS: We are I guess two days away from a UN vote, so the threat of unified international pressure has really made a difference. Syria thought at least the Russians and the Chinese on the UN Security Council might soften a resolution expected next week. Then, over the weekend, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak made a surprise visit to the Damascus, and according to Syrian sources, he warned the Syria president, Bashar Al-Assad, that he had to take all this pressure seriously. So somewhere behind closed doors, they came up with this policy, the Syrian president and his closest advisers. And what they announced was a committee to do their own probe. They pledged to cooperate not only with the UN but with Lebanese investigators. But it's very carefully worded, this presidential decree. So it's not clear if Syria intends full cooperation or this is a diplomatic ploy.

ELLIOTT: Often we see solidarity among Arab nations. Where are Syria's neighbors now?

AMOS: You know, some of this is personal. Rafik Hariri, the Lebanese politician who was murdered back in February--he was a very charismatic guy. He was a Sunni Arab who made his fortune in Saudi Arabia before he came home to Lebanon to run for office. He was a close, personal friend of members of the Saudi royal family, including the king, Abdullah. A Western diplomat told me that he'd heard Egyptian and Saudi leaders saying the young Syrian president is `feckless and ineffective.' He's certainly not his father. Hafez Al-Assad ran Syria with an iron hand for decades but he was an astute practitioner of foreign policy. So many people I interviewed in Damascus say they don't think Bashar Al-Assad is up to the job of handling this crisis, and it's making Syrian officials look more guilty than the evidence suggests.

ELLIOTT: With so much international pressure on the Syrian president now and possible sanctions, what would happen if his government collapses?

AMOS: Well, it's what journalists, writers, opposition figures talk about non-stop over coffee in Damascus. It's the `what if' scenario. There's no doubt that Assad has been weakened, but nobody knows what comes next if this government collapses. So it's the nightmare scenario for Syrians. Are they going to be another Iraq, a de-stabilized, chaotic state in the region? See, there's no alternative to the Assad family at the moment because they've never allowed strong opposition figures to come up. Earlier this year in Damascus, there was an impression that the Bush administration did want regime change and seemed to be pushing hard for it. But this time when I was there, it appears the consensus in Damascus is they would like a weakened Syria, not a chaotic Syria and not to push the regime too far.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Deborah Amos. Thanks, Deb.

AMOS: Thanks, Deb.

ELLIOTT: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.