Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Syria's Serious Troubles

"It is now almost beyond doubt that by the time the chief [UN] investigator, Detlev Mehlis, completes his work next month, he will have direct evidence that the assassination [of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri] was orchestrated from Damascus. If so, the killing of Hariri will probably count as one of the most disastrous own goals in the history of international politics."
-- Brian Whitaker, "Damascene Subversion," The Guardian, 19 September 2005

Whitaker winds up reporting almost as much rumor as fact, with some of his most interesting tidbits drawn from syriacomment.com . But the thrust of the article is right in line with the analysis of The Washington Post's David Ignatius and others cautioning that the United States would make a mistake if it pushes too hard and too fast to bring down the shaky Bashar Assad regime. As David puts it, "The mess in Iraq is a potent warning about the dangers of kicking over hornets' nests."

For those who want a program to the key players in the Syrian game, Whitaker presents a useful list of the bosses who could have ordered the Valentine's Day massacre that took Hariri's life:

"Besides President Assad himself, the inner circle at the time is believed to have consisted of:

· Maher Assad, the president's younger brother, who has various military and security functions, including overseeing the presidential guard· General Ghazi Kenaan, the interior minister, who previously spent 19 years as head of military intelligence in Lebanon.

· General Asef Shawkat, the president's brother-in-law (married to his elder sister, Bushra) who is head of military intelligence. His relations with the president's younger brother have not always been good, and it was reported in 1999 that Maher shot him in the stomach following a quarrel.

· General Bahjat Suleiman, the hardline head of the internal security division of the General Intelligence Directorate, who reportedly went into semi-retirement last June.

· Abdel-Halim Khaddam, vice-president and the only Sunni Muslim among the inner circle (the others belong to the minority Alawite sect). Khaddam was on good terms with Hariri and had business dealings with him. He was also the only Syrian official to pay his respects to the family in Beirut after the assassination. In June it was reported that Khaddam was stepping down from the vice-presidency. It is unclear whether he has actually done so, and no successor has been announced."

For more background (some of which may have been a little over-optimistic), see:

Shadowland: CSI: Beirut, 30 Mar 2005
Syria is playing for time, and the Lebanese investigation into the Hariri assassination is a farce. Meanwhile, chaos is building. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/7337270/site/newsweek/

Shadowland: The Default Democratizer, 15 Mar 2005
Bush's focus on freedom comes after a string of disastrous policy mistakes in the Middle East. But for the people living there, that's still not bad. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/7190043/site/newsweek/

Cover Story: An Arabian Spring, 6 Mar 2005
Democracy: Many Arabs are fed up, and want their freedom. Can people power prevail? http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/7103524/site/newsweek/

Shadowland: The Rap on Freedom, 4 Mar 2005
Dictators and despots may believe that Washington's rhetoric on democracy is just another American fad. But the political climate really has changed in the Middle East
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/7069491/site/newsweek/

Shadowland: Democratic Terrorists?, 24 Feb 2005

Lebanon could emerge as the center of a new Middle East. But first the United States may have to come to terms with Hizbullah. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/7025012/site/newsweek/

Background from the Council on Foreign Relations:

Syria reportedly tries to secure a deal with the United Nations to avoid punishment if, as many expect, the UN investigation into former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination implicates Damascus. CFR’s Bernard Gwertzman interviews Damascus-based Syria expert Joshua Landis, there is analysis from the Christian Science Monitor, a Washington Institute briefing on the Hariri investigation, and a BBC backgrounder on Syria’s long stay in Lebanon.
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