Lebanon's PM: Syria Is Threatening My Country

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Speaking from the Grand Serail, the seat of the Lebanese government in Beirut, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora had something dramatic to say in his interview with TIME. He had just gotten off the phone with Secretary of State Condeleezza Rice, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other world leaders to thank them for their help in establishing an international tribunal to bring plotters in the assassination of one of his predecessors to justice. Now, he says, Lebanese authorities have evidence that Syrian intelligence operatives are behind the ongoing violent clashes in a Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli as part of an effort to destabilize the country. Siniora also says that Syrian elements, pursuing what he calls "a clear determination to subjugate the country," could be responsible for political killings in Lebanon including the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Siniora accused the Syrian regime of trying to intimidate Lebanese from supporting the court and said that the pursuit of justice entailed risks, including "instability in the country... planting bombs here and there." But Siniora says that his government is determined to push forward with the tribunal as well as uproot the Islamist faction with alleged Syrian links at the center of the Tripoli fighting to prove Lebanon's independence. "Otherwise," he said, "everybody can dare to slap us on the face." The message "to all criminals or those who are against the state," he added, would be "that they can continue committing crimes and there is impunity." A major benefit of the tribunal, Siniora says, is that more witnesses may be willing to provide evidence of crimes in Lebanon to U.N. investigators knowing that it will be used in an international court.

TIME: What's the meaning of the U.N. vote to set up a tribunal?
SINIORA: The most important thing in the principle of having the tribunal is that, according to the investigation [officials], Mr. [Detlev] Mehlis and Mr. [Serge] Brammertz, is that some of the witnesses are really reluctant to make their statements if they are not sure that there will be a tribunal. A tribunal is important for the witnesses because it really gives assurance that they are protected.

Given that the first Mehlis report implicated some top Syrian officials, does the Syrian regime have reason to be worried about the tribunal?
The thing that really bothers me [is] why the Syrians have been taking this attitude of not cooperating with the investigation and with the establishment of the tribunal.

Shouldn't the Syrian regime feel targeted?
It might have been that certain groups within the regime were involved. I am in no position to say. But there are indications that certain people were involved in one way or another. But I am in no position to accuse. That will be for the tribunal to say. The problem is that those who have been behind this crime did not stop. How many malicious acts were made in order to destabilize the country? This process shows that there is a clear determination to subjugate the country. This is what really worries me.

Is it right to pursue justice even if it threatens the security of the Syrian regime. Is that simply the price to be paid?
To me, it is a matter of principle that I have to seek the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. This tribunal is not intended to be against any person or any state, and in particular I am speaking about Syria. Certain regimes try to find ways and means how to put an end to the situation, as [the Libyan regime] did in Lockerbie. They made an arrangement. But I have nothing to do with this. This country has suffered the assassinations of three prime ministers. I hope there will not be a fourth.

How does the tribunal help Lebanon?
This tribunal is so essential for democracy, for freedom, for the prevalence of the state, for law and order. Otherwise, [the message] sent to all criminals or those who are against the state [is] that they can continue committing crimes and there is impunity in this country, [that] it is the best place, the paradise, for criminals.

Syrian officials have predicted more violence because of the tribunal.
I think that this has the element of threat. They are threatening. They are intimidating. This is something the Lebanese do not accept. Continuously intimidating the country, intimidating the people, cannot really bring any results.

Why would Syria threaten?
To discourage the Lebanese from pursuing this process. Since day one, they have not been showing acceptance or willingness or support for the idea of an international tribunal.

Given the opposition of domestic groups like Hizballah, are you strong enough to move ahead without a solid national consensus?
I know that there are risks involved. But what are we expected to do? To respond and comply with the pressure and to accept that impunity will prevail and the state will disintegrate? Is this a democracy? If it is a democracy, I have a majority in the parliament. They know as well, very well, that the majority of the population is supporting us.

What are the risks?
There is the problem with Syria. They consider that it is a threat against their regime. If I want to please this, and please that, I am not going to please anybody. I tell my own people that there are certain principles that are worth [holding] fast and trying to defend them. Otherwise, everybody can dare to slap us on the face. We have to prove that this is a country, this is a sovereign state, this is an independent one, we [want the state to prevail] all over Lebanon, and... having a democratic and free country. Those who have not been voting for the tribunal they say this may cause instability in the country. Yes, it is a risk, instability in the country. Planting bombs here and there. We have to handle it. I mean, there is nothing that you really can do without a cost.

What is the government's plan for resolving the Tripoli crisis?
[Fatah al-Islam] are a group, actually, of terrorists. I could have said, "OK, they slapped me in the face, sorry gentlemen, I cannot do anything." Then why am I here as the state?

What's your plan for dealing with Fatah al-Islam?
I want to find a peaceful solution. We are trying to convince these terrorists to surrender themselves. They may or they may not. The council of ministers asked the Lebanese army to look into the matter and see how this can be treated in case we fail to achieve results through political means. Then the army is entitled to make all the surgical arrangements so to unroot them from that camp.

Is there a deadline for the negotiations?
Days. Definitely, I'm not saying months. The army can put the plan that can guarantee achieving the objective with the least effort and least cost. The army cannot afford not to be successful.

It is said Fatah al-Islam is linked to Syria.
To Syrian intelligence. This is exactly what I have heard from the interrogators [of 20 arrested suspects]. That there are some connections with some Syrian intelligence. Now whether these Syrian intelligence [operatives] are working on their own, or guided by higher superiors, I don't know. We'll have to find out.

What was the connection?
In the way they were assembled, the way they came, the way they got their ammunition and arms, in the way they were discussing and developing their plans and so on. I'm not talking about a telephone call. I prefer not to get into more specifics than that.

Why would Syria support such a group?
To discourage the Lebanese, and the Lebanese army, from taking any effort towards further consolidation of the country. And at same time, make the country as a whole more vulnerable.