Threat of Economic Sanctions Worries Syrians

A U.N. report links Syrian officials to the death of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. And a threat of economic sanctions unless Syria cooperates in a further probe has many in Damascus concerned.

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Syria's President Bashar Assad is facing the toughest crisis of his five years in power. A UN investigation has uncovered evidence of Syrian involvement in the assassination last February of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. A draft UN Security Council resolution calls on Syria to cooperate with the investigation or face economic sanctions. The Council is scheduled to vote on the resolution next week. NPR's Deborah Amos is in the Syrian capital, Damascus.

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

The demonstration was small. Thousands turned out for protests organized by the government earlier this week, but this gathering appeared to be spontaneous, just a couple of dozen college students in front of a United Nations office in Damascus. Even the security police, who mingled in the crowd, could be heard asking, `Who organized this?'

Mr. YASIR FATOUM(ph) (Law Student): We are here for showing four points. The first point is saying no for any economic sanctions against Syria.

AMOS: They also came to protest the UN investigation that links Syrian officials to the Hariri murder, but their anger was directed at possible economic sanctions and the hardships for average Syrians. Law student Yasir Fatoum addressed the crowd. `I'm not here to defend the government,' he says. `I want to know why Syrians have to pay for the regime's mistakes.'

Mr. FATOUM: I don't want to pay for other mistakes. I don't want to pay for Hariri's crime. I have never met Hariri and I didn't kill him. I swear that, you know. But what I want to say, I mean, why Syrians has to pay for that?

AMOS: American student Matthew Bolbey(ph), studying Arabic at Damascus University, asked what can be done.

Mr. MATTHEW BOLBEY (College Student): What can of things can Syria do to make sure that their government holds the guilty parties responsible, if there are any, and make sure that we have a positive solution?

AMOS: Yasir Fatoum gave the only answer he could, in a country ruled by one powerful family for more than three decades.

Mr. FATOUM: It's really, really hard to talk about what can Syrians do. And Syrians can do nothing. I mean, just to pay.

AMOS: It was a remarkable, frank and public exchange, a glimpse into the anguish of Syrians over the crisis the country is facing. Josh Landis, an American professor who lives in Damascus, says he often hears these sentiments behind closed doors.

Professor JOSH LANDIS: It's the sanctions that worry them. The Syrians were not paying attention to this issue at all, until the question of sanctions began to really rise up, and that was only last week. And then when they began to think, `Jeez, we could be like Iraq,' they didn't like it.

AMOS: Iraq suffered more than decade of devastating United Nations sanctions when Saddam Hussein defied the international community. For Syria, the proposed UN resolution offers a way out. Damascus can cooperate, allow access to key witnesses in the Hariri investigation, as well as top members of President Assad's regime. Investigator Detlev Mehlis wants to question them outside of Syria. But those named in the UN report include the president's bother, Maher Al-Assad, and his brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, family members and powerful men who head Syria's security agencies. It's a crucial test for the Syrian president, says Marwan Kabalan, a political science professor at Damascus University, because there is no good choice.

Professor MARWAN KABALAN (Damascus University): So how would you expect somebody to be happy by handing over two key guys, who are really important to the regime? On the other hand, if they don't cooperate, that is also bad, and that will bring more actually international pressure and perhaps economic sanctions. They don't have good choice among these two.

AMOS: Syrian officials have said Damascus will cooperate with the UN, but the scale of the cooperation and the details are far from clear. Meanwhile, Syria is lobbying Security Council members to try to soften the final UN resolution. As for public opinion, it is shifting, says Yassin Haj Saleh, an opposition activist who spent 17 years in jail. The Syrian government mobilized large demonstrations of support when the UN report was released earlier this week, says Saleh, but sanctions could provoke Syrians to turn against the government.

Mr. YASSIN HAJ SALEH (Opposition Activist): I say it cannot be very surprising now that the doors of the country are open to the unknown. So you cannot expect what will happen in a week.

AMOS: Events are moving quickly. A vote on the United Nations resolution is expected early next week, as Syria weighs the options. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Damascus.

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