BEIRUT: President Bashar Assad considered one of Rafik Hariri’s final attempts to reduce tensions with the Syrian regime a “mockery,” Ali Hamade told the Special Tribunal for Lebanon Monday.
Hamade, a journalist, told the court that he served as an ad-hoc intermediary between Lebanon’s late former prime minister and the Syrian regime. On three occasions he met with his acquaintance, General Mohammad Nassif, a high-ranking Syrian intelligence officer close to the Assad regime, to convey a message of conciliation on behalf of Hariri.
The purpose of the meetings, Hamade said, was to “try and allow a different phase in the relations based on the respect of allies ... toward one another.”
After the first meeting, Nassif told Hamade that President Assad was “optimistic, positive” about the attempted thaw in relations.
By the third meeting in December 2004, just two months before Hariri’s assassination, Nassif said that Assad was no longer interested in Hariri’s tidings, Hamade told the court.
“President Bashar Assad considers that such messages are just mockery,” Hamade recalled Nassif saying.
“I can say that the tone changed, and the discourse had changed in Syria,” Hamade testified. “General Mohammad Nassif was very harsh in terms of political words [he used] toward Premiere Hariri” at the third meeting.
While five Hezbollah members stand accused of plotting Hariri’s murder and the ensuing cover-up, the focus of recent testimony at the U.N.-backed tribunal has shifted toward Hariri’s fraught relationship with the Syrian regime.
After Damascus orchestrated the extension of President Emile Lahoud’s term and Hariri resigned from office in October 2004, relations between the Future Movement leader and Damascus appeared to hit a nadir.
Hariri was plotting his return to politics through the upcoming elections where he hoped to win a sweeping majority in parliament that would force pro-Syrian Prime Minister Omar Karami out of office.
In early January 2005, however, Hamade said that there were signs that the relationship between Hariri and Assad was on the mend.
While Hamade was visiting Hariri’s residence in Paris, the former prime minister received a call from Taha Mikati, the brother of former Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who enjoyed a close relationship with the Syrian regime.
After a brief meeting, Hariri told his guest that Mikati had conveyed a message from the president of Syria: “That Bashar Assad had no hard feelings toward Mr. Hariri and that he [Assad] could change the government of Mr. Karami in order to allow Mr. Hariri to create a new government,” Hamade told the court.
Early on the morning of February 14, 2005, Hariri called Hamade into his office. “He told me ‘Get ready, you will be going to Damascus today to meet with Mohammad Nassif.’”
Hamade never learned what message he was to convey to the Syrians that day, however. Two hours before he and Hariri were scheduled to discuss the mission a bomb ripped through downtown Beirut killing the former prime minister and 21 others.
Defense attorney John Jones, who represents the interests of Hezbollah member Mustapha Badreddine, questioned Hamade about notes he took during these key meetings. Hamade admitted he could not find them.