Syrians protest over U.N. Rafik Hariri assassination probe

The regime of beleaguered President Bashar Assad, given a last chance to cooperate with the United Nations in the Rafik Hariri assassination probe, weighed its next moves Tuesday as the chief U.N. investigator returned to the Middle East armed with new powers and was expected to demand that the Syrian boss and some of his closest relatives submit to questioning.

Significantly, the increasingly isolated regime ordered no big street demonstration in support of Assad's rule and the state-run media reacted with moderation to Monday's tough and unanimous U.N. resolution that demands Damascus cooperate fully with an investigation into former Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri's Feb. 14 murder in Beirut.

Syria will "cooperate to the utmost limit with the international organization and its various committees," said Tishrin paper, which like other newspapers, reflects government thinking.

That was the hope of many Syrians, who worry that punitive U.N. measures and further isolation would have a direct impact on their lives.

"What does this all mean?" said one bewildered Syrian who did not give his name for fear of retribution. "How will it affect our jobs? Will real estate go up? Should I pack my bags and leave? I'm so confused."

Firas Tlass, a businessman and son of former Defense Minister Mustapha Tlass, said Syria must work with the international community and must introduce domestic reforms to deflect pressure.

"This is no longer an Israeli-U.S. attack," said Tlass. "This is an international attack."

The resolution came less than two weeks after lead U.N. investigator Detlev Mehlis released his report concluding it was not likely Hariri could have been killed without senior Syrian approval. Syria dominated Lebanon for 29 years. It was forced to withdraw its military in April under international pressure.

Mehlis, whose mandate has been extended to Dec. 15, has been given new authority by the council, and could seek to use it immediately. He is likely to seek to question Assad's brother-in-law and chief of military intelligence Assef Shawkat, who has been implicated in the killing as well as the president's brother Maher Assad, who is also under suspicion. Before the U.N. action on Monday, Assad had refused Mehlis' requests to question him.

Mehlis returned to Beirut late Monday and has not spoken publicly about his agenda, the AP reports.

Assad has said Syria is innocent and would consider any Syrian who may have participated in the crime as a traitor. What is not clear is whether Assad would seek to protect his relatives and other senior security officers whose names appeared in the Mehlis report. Cutting them lose could lead to an internal power struggle that would threaten his presidency and lead to his relatives being jailed should the be indicted as a result of a deeper U.N. inquiry.


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