It was a keenly awaited speech, coming at crucial time for Syria. As supporters rallied at Damascus university, President Bashar al-Assad addressed the nation. He said his government would cooperate fully with the United Nations probe into the murder of Lebanon’s former leader Rafik al-Hariri.
But he added he would not accept any measure that harmed national security. Assad announced that the German judge leading the UN inquiry, Detlev Mehlis, had turned down an invitation to come to Damascus. The overall tone was defiant – there were repeated references to “international forces trying to destabilise Syria.”Assad did not explicitly mention Washington, but it was clear who his comments were aimed at. And there was a stinging attack on Lebanon’s Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, an ally of the Hariri camp. Assad accused him of being a slave of western masters. Damascus recently announced its own probe into Syrian officials implicated in the Hariri assassination by the Mehlis report. It has also banned those allegedly involved from leaving the country. Meanwhile, in Paris, French President Jacques Chirac threatened Syria with sanctions if, as he put it, Assad persisted in not cooperating fully with the UN.