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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The UN's Strong Signal to Damascus

By most accounts Syrian President Bashar Assad is a political naif who has repeatedly misread the cues of a changing Middle East and disastrously miscalculated Syria's responses. That's why it's helpful that the message the UN Security Council sent to Damascus Monday was forceful and unambiguous, backed by all 15 of the council's members. The council's resolution requires Syria to detain and provide for questioning anyone deemed by UN investigators to be a suspect in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri -- a crime that has been clearly linked to Assad's regime. Surely even this dim dictator must now understand that his choices are to dramatically break with his past or risk isolation and sanctions.

Compliance won't be easy for Assad, even if he chooses to cooperate. Among the prime suspects in the killing of Hariri, who was resisting a crude effort by Assad to reinforce Syria's domination of Lebanon, are the president's brother and brother-in-law. The resolution gives UN investigator Detlev Mehlis the prerogative of determining where and under what conditions suspects will be questioned, and Mehlis may want to bring Assad's relatives or other suspects out of Syria. He should also interview Assad himself, since, according to the preliminary report, Assad directly threatened Hariri several months before his death.

If Assad ordered the killing of Hariri, cooperation would only ensure his own trial before an international tribunal. If he did not, he will have to turn on those who did conspire, even if that means breaking with family members and collaborators. Either way, his best hope with the outside world could lie in liberalizing his government and reversing his foreign policies, which include backing Iraqi insurgents and Islamic terrorists, supporting extremist Palestinian groups, and using murder and intimidation to destabilize Lebanon.

More likely Assad will choose, like Saddam Hussein before him, to stall and prevaricate in the hope that the Security Council will not take action against him. The U.S. administration had to drop mention of sanctions from Monday's resolution in order to win the votes of several governments, including Russia and China. And there is no shortage of Western apologists for Assad, who claim that he is a victim of hard-liners around him, or that the United States and Europe would be better off striking a deal with him. The regime they would accommodate murdered the prime minister of a neighboring state and has done its best to sow chaos and kill Americans in Iraq. There are better ways to handle it than backroom bargaining: As a start, the United States and its allies should continue to insist that the murderers of Hariri be brought to justice.

This comment first appeared as an editorial in The Washington Post.