DAMASCUS // The international investigation into the murder of Rafik Hariri once loomed like a dark cloud over Damascus, plunging Syria into some of its most difficult days in decades. Syria was accused of masterminding the former Lebanese prime minister's death, sparking unprecedented public protests in Beirut that forced an end to almost three decades of Syrian military presence in and political control of its smaller neighbour. Europe and pro-western Arab countries - allies of Hariri - increased pressure on Damascus; Syria's former vice president publicly accused Bashar Assad, the president, of ordering the assassination; and the Bush administration began to talk about regime change in Syria. For a time, analysts doubted Mr Assad could weather the storm, and that Syria could be swept up in a great wave of change that would reshape the region, from Baghdad on the Tigris to Beirut on the Mediterranean Sea. Yesterday as the Special Tribunal for Lebanon finally opened in The Hague, conditions could scarcely be more different. Rather than viewing the inquiry as the grave national threat it was once believed to be, the reaction in Syria - which has always denied any official involvement - has almost been one of casual disinterest. "In 2005 and 2006 this issue was suffocating for Damascus," said Tharbit Salem, a Syrian journalist and political commentator. "Now Syria is breathing again, Syria is relaxed. "If you look at the situation now there has been real change: relations with France are good, Lebanon is relatively calm, George W Bush is finished and the neoconservatives are out of the White House. Even relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria, which have been troubled, are better now." Years of diplomatic isolation ended in 2008, with Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, leading a rapprochement with Syria. His predecessor, Jacques Chirac, had been a close personal friend of Hariri. With the French resuming ties, other European states followed suit, in a move seen as a reward for constructive Syrian involvement in ending a dangerous impasse in Lebanon that had brought it to the brink of another civil war. By the start of 2009, with Barack Obama sworn in as the US president, the last major ideological obstacle to the principle of engaging with Syria was over. American congressional delegations to Damascus last month signalled a willingness in Washington to re-engage with Syria and, while many issues were raised in meetings with Mr Assad - including Hamas, Hizbollah and Syria's alliance with Iran - there was apparently no mention of the Hariri tribunal. Once a centre of international attention, it had largely disappeared from political sight. Investigators have yet to name any suspects but the inquiry has implicated Syrian security officers. Daniel Bellemare, the UN investigator leading the investigation and prosecuting the criminal case, has said he believes it will be solved. The first UN investigator, Detlev Mehlis, said the plot's complexity suggested Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services played a role. He was subsequently replaced at the head of the investigation by Serge Brammertz, who was far less vocal about possible perpetrators. Syria has co-operated with the investigation, although its opponents say not fully. Damascus insists that any Syrian accused of involvement should be tried in Syrian courts. "In legal terms the tribunal has no authority over Syria," said Umran Zaube, a Damascus-based lawyer close to the Syrian administration. "The government did not sign up to the tribunal, which is an agreement between the UN and Lebanon. It's a matter for them. "Syria's position on this is very clear: if there is real evidence of a Syrian being involved in the crime, they should be subjected to Syrian legal procedures in a Syrian court." The Hariri tribunal has long been regarded here as a political football, rather than as a truly independent effort to catch and prosecute the killers. "This has been all about international politics," said Mr Salem, who lost a personal friend who was part of the Hariri motorcade destroyed on Feb 14 2005. In total 23 people died in the blast. "I want to see the murderers brought to justice but justice has not really been high on the agenda." According to tribunal officials, it could take as long as five years for the case to be concluded. Were any senior Syrian government figures to be found guilty, the tribunal could still pose a tricky political problem for Damascus. But Mr Salem, the Syrian journalist, said nothing would be as bad for the Syrian authorities as the situation was in 2005. "It is not so much a matter of Syria being in a strong or a weak position now," he said. "It's just not under the same pressure as it was. Syria knows it has survived the worst and even if things get difficult again it will not be as hard as it was immediately after the killing." firstname.lastname@example.org
BAS CZERWINSKI STR
With the pressure off, Damascus can exhale
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