DAMASCUS, Syria – Syria is growing increasingly isolated as an Oct.25 deadline looms for the findings of a U.N. investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri, raising concerns at home about possible sanctions against Damascus or even a change of regime.
The uncertainty has been building since Hariri was killed by a bomb in February as his convoy drove through Beirut. Many Lebanese blamed Syria for the attack, which also killed 20 others in Hariri’s entourage.
Hariri’s killing touched off a groundswell of protest in Lebanon and internationally, which forced Syria to withdraw all of its thousands of troops in Lebanon, ending nearly three decades of domination of its tiny neighbor.
The United Nations led an investigation into the killing of the billionaire former prime minister and has questioned witnesses here, although it says no Syrians are suspects. The results of the probe are expected on Oct. 25.
Syrian officials have largely been silent on the probe. Beyond dull, vague and lengthy editorials about Syria paying for its staunchly anti- Israel stance, the media, all state-run, have largely ignored the developments.
For news about their country, Syrians have turned to the Internet, satellite television and Lebanese newspapers. And the news they get leaves them bewildered and worried.
“People have no other source of information,” said Abdul-Salam Haykal, head of the only public relations communications agency in Syria. “This is worrying.”
“We want the president to appear on local TV and tell us what’s going on and reassure us,” he said.
On the surface, life in Syria appears normal. The streets are full of shoppers snapping up special sweets to eat at the end of daily fasts during the holy month of Ramadan.
And President Bashir Assad recently met journalists and actors who said he looked relaxed and confident.
But the capital Damascus is rife with an undercurrent of confusion and constant rumor — of possible U.N. sanctions, U.S. action, or even a possible change in the government if Syria is blamed for Hariri’s death.
The U.N. investigation is not the only source of pressure on Syria. Washington considers the country a destabilizing element in the region and has been pushing the regime to change its behavior.
It wants Damascus to crack down on Arab militants crossing into Iraq, expel radical Palestinians and disarm the Lebanese Hezbollah group, which spearheaded the guerrilla war against Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon, which ended in 2000.
Until it complies, the Syrian regime is being shunned by the West. The U.S. ambassador to Syria, Margaret Scobey, was recalled to Washington shortly after Hariri’s assassination, and there are no signs she will be returning soon.
Senior European and American visitors have stopped calling on Damascus. And the European Union keeps delaying the signing of a crucial Syrian-EU trade agreement that would help boost Syria’s stagnant economy. Syria says U.S. pressure is behind the delay.
Syrians who have seen the president recently said he appeared upbeat.
“The president is sure of himself and his country and he is confident Syria is innocent,” said Fayez Sayegh, editor of the state-run Al-Thawra newspaper, who was among members of the journalists’ union who met Assad for four hours last week.
On Thursday, senior Al-Hayat columnist Jihad al-Khazen said Assad had told him in a two-hour meeting Syria “cooperated completely” with the international probe of Hariri’s killing and the investigators got all they wanted.
In rug stores and outdoor cafes where customers smoke waterpipes with their coffee and tea, many Syrians repeat the official line that Washington is behind an anti-Syrian campaign because of Syria’s anti-Israel policies.
Others, however, are on edge, concerned about the impact on Syria if the U.N. probe offers evidence of Syrian involvement in Hariri’s assassination. They say a series of foreign policy blunders have landed their country in this mess.
“There’s a big sense of defeat,” said one Syrian who did not want to be identified for fear of government reprisal.
At the time of the Hariri assassination, Syria was the main power broker in Lebanon with about 15,000 troops stationed there. But after massive anti-Syrian street protests, the last of the troops withdrew in April.
Two months later, the United Nations sent German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis to head the investigation into Hariri’s murder.
So far, four Lebanese generals who did Syria’s bidding in Lebanon have been arrested and charged with the murder. Mehlis has said he has no Syrian suspects though his team has questioned at least seven Syrians as witnesses.