Damascus Rejects U.N. Report on Hariri Death

Syria vehemently denounces the United Nations' report on that country's role in the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Anthony Shadid, Middle East correspondent for The Washington Post, has details of Damascus' response.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Now to Damascus. For reaction there, we're joined by Washington Post correspondent Anthony Shadid.

Welcome back to the program

Mr. ANTHONY SHADID (The Washington Post): Thank you.

BLOCK: You write today, Anthony, about an orchestrated protest in the Syrian capital. What's the general mood on the street in light of this report?

Mr. SHADID: Well, until the report came out last week, I don't think there was a lot of awareness in Damascus over the report itself and, also, probably over the depth of the crisis going on. That's changed in recent days as the state media has covered it more aggressively, as Arab satellite channels have dealt with it. And I think, you know, there's a certain sense of fear of being unfairly accused. I think you'd hear that; that this is a US or Israeli ploy to put pressure on Syria.

And then I think there's also a lot of anxiety and a lot of fear. You often heard that voiced at the protest yesterday. It wasn't a menacing protest by any means. But I think what you often did hear mentioned was the sense that--you know, one person said to me, `Iraq yesterday is Syria today.' And I think there is fear of what sanctions might mean; of what, say, a US intervention might mean in the country. And there's a deep unease about the prospect of instability. When people talk about, you know, an alternative to the government--they don't talk about it often, but when it does come up, often people make the remark there is no alternative that they see; that the alternative to it might be chaos or it might be instability. And that scares a lot of people here, I think.

BLOCK: When you talk to figures within the Syrian opposition, splintered as they may be, do they see this as a moment of opportunity, or is this more a moment when people will tend to galvanize around the government, around the power structure?

Mr. SHADID: You know, here, I think you hear a few different currents of thought within the opposition. There is a sense that the pressure being exerted on Syria right now has emboldened the opposition to a certain degree. They feel a little bit more willing to speak out, a little bit freer to talk. And I think they feel that the pressure, in a way, is protecting them; that Syrian, the government, wouldn't take a step to crack down on them in a moment of crisis like this. It would just be too politically costly to start arresting dissidents.

I think there's also a reluctance on the part of the Syrian opposition, though, to be seen as benefiting too directly from US or European pressure. I think they look to the example of Iraq and how close the Iraqi opposition worked with foreign governments before the invasion in 2003, and I think they don't want to repeat that example. They want to maintain a certain independence.

BLOCK: How do you see the Syrian government itself responding to this pressure? You've got now France and the United States and the German investigator, Mr. Mehlis, saying, `Syrian government, stop obstructing; start cooperating.' Does the government cooperate? Do they reject the findings, or do they try to figure out some way to go along with this?

Mr. SHADID: What you hear most often right now is that there is a degree of confusion within the government on how to respond, a y fear that whatever they do, they're still going to find themselves in this crisis. They don't see a way out necessarily. You know, what the Syrian government has done for decades--it was a policy that was articulated by the current president's father--was this idea of giving a little bit but not giving everything. You try to give something that will appease, let's say, the Americans in this instance and that'll allow us to weather the crisis, but then we'll hold our trump card. And I think most people that I talk to in Damascus think there's no doubt that the government is going to try to cooperate, at least in part; that if they try to cooperate to a certain degree, they can defy the Security Council, they can hopefully garner Arab support and they can avoid sanctions.

BLOCK: Well, how destabilizing could this be then for the government of Bashar al-Assad?

Mr. SHADID: Well, there's definitely a sense here that this is the greatest crisis that Bashar al-Assad has faced in his five years in power. And what I've heard recently is that it may be the greatest crisis the country's faced since the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. And people say this for a very specific reason. They don't necessarily see a way out of the crisis. If the government does do everything that's being asked of it, it may weaken itself so much that it's no longer the same government, and there's definitely that sense out there right now.

People really aren't talking about a coup. That's been floating around a little bit after the announced suicide of the interior minister. But it's probably being talked about more abroad than it is in Syria. But there is a sense that the government is far weaker than it's been at any time in recent years. They'll perhaps endure this crisis, but it is far weaker than it's been at any time. And, you know, given that there's no dialogue with the United States, the Europeans have drastically scaled back that contact, I think a lot of people have trouble, you know, predicting an end to this crisis with any certainty.

BLOCK: Anthony Shadid of The Washington Post speaking with us from Damascus. Anthony, thanks very much.

Mr. SHADID: My pleasure.

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