Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Syria: Was Kanaan Plotting a Coup?

What the French call le telephone arabe is ringing off the hook since the announcement that Syrian Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan killed himself earlier today. Some of the most interesting speculation, as usual, is on Joshua Landis's syriacomment.com:

Was Ghazi Kanaan setting himself up to be Bashar's alternative? Could he have been the Alawite "Musharrif" that some American's and Volker Perthes suggested would take power from the House of Asad and bring Syria back into America's and the West's good graces. I have heard from several people that "high ranking Syrians" have been complaining to people at the National Security Council and elsewhere that they are very distressed by the mistakes Bashar al-Asad has made and the terrible state of US-Syrian relations.
Could Ghazi have been setting himself up as the alternative to Bashar? Could the Syrian government believe he might have been? We don't know, but here goes the possible speculation. He is known to have had good relations with Washington, when he held the Lebanon portfolio. He visited DC. Two of his four sons went to George Washington University in DC.
Kanaan was reported to have been one of the "Old Guard" who spoke out against the extension of Emile Lahoud's presidency in Lebanon, which set the stage for Lebanon's Cedar revolution and the assassination of P.M. Rafiq Hariri. He had been one of the Syrians responsible for cultivating Hariri and building up his position in Lebanon. He was also accused of having significant business relations in Lebanon which tied him to Hariri. It is unlikely that he was involved in Hariri's murder, having been a Hariri and not Lahoud supporter.
His relations with Lahoud were strained, and Lahoud reportedly was one of the people who insisted that he be removed from the Lebanon file and replaced by Rustum Ghazali. (Told me by Nick Blanford of the Christian Science Monitor, who is writing a book on Hariri.)
Since the June Baath Party Conference, it has been rumored that Ghazi would lose his Cabinet position as Minister of Interior, where he had been causing quite a ruckus.
Kanaan was the most senior Alawi official left in government of the Hafiz's generation. He had served as an intelligence chief and minister of interior giving him influence over and knowledge of all branches of the security forces - intelligence and police. If Washington were to turn to anyone to carry out a coup against Bashar, it would have to place Ghazi Kanaan on the top of its list.
Could Kanaan have been assassinated in order to prevent him from challenging Bashar? We may never know, but it is possible.
Bashar al-Asad has been clamping down on all possible rivals. Civil society has been all but silenced since the June Baath Party conference. The Atasi forum shut down. Evidently Anwar al-Bunni, Damascus' leading civil rights lawyer and advocate is presently in hiding so he would be arrested. All emerging political movements have been broken up during the past several months. The Kurds are under intense pressure as are all Islamic organizations. Bashar's strongest suit is that there is not alternative to his rule. Washington must either accept him as president or tempt the fates that Syria will collapse into some form of social chaos. Now that Ghazi Kanaan is no longer alive, it is hard to imagine another Alawi in the government who would have the authority, knowledge, or standing to pull off a coup.
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