Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Syria: Kanaan Falls on His Sword

Just out on the wires, this from the BBC:

Syrian minister 'commits suicide'
Syria's Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan has committed suicide, the official news agency in Damascus says.
He was reportedly questioned by a UN investigator last month over the murder of ex-Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri.
For many years Kanaan was Syria's powerful intelligence chief in Lebanon, which was dominated by Syria until its military withdrawal earlier this year.
He returned to Damascus in 2002 as political intelligence chief and joined the cabinet in 2004.
"Interior Minister Brig Gen Ghazi Kanaan committed suicide in his office before noon," the Syrian Arab News Agency (Sana) reported.

Since he gave up the Lebanese dossier in 2002, Kanaan's power in Syria waned as well. He was one of the old guard, not the new crowd among Bashar's siblings and in-laws. As such, in the mafia state that is Syria today, he probably seemed expendable. But there was a time, during the most dangerous years of the Lebanese war, when Kanaan pulled all the strings. This excerpt from an article I wrote for Foreign Affairs in 1987 gives, perhaps, some notion of the way Kanaan and Assad pere operated, as well as the limits of their power at that time:

The pace of abductions was quickening. Soon it appeared to be out of Syrian control. By mid-June 1985 one group of Iranian-backed kidnappers, calling itself Islamic Jihad and linked to the Mousavi clan, had accumulated six American hostages, including a newsman, a hospital director, an academic, two priests and the CIA station chief William Buckley who, by then, was dying. There were also two French diplomats and two French journalists in Jihad's hands. Assad was proffering his good offices, but to no avail. Then on June 14 a related group of Iranian-backed Shi'ites hijacked TWA Flight 847 and 40 new American hostages were flown to Beirut. One was murdered.
Assad maneuvered. His ally, Nabih Berri, intervened and all but four of the Americans were put in the custody of Amal. But it was just at this point that Assad's impotence began to be evident. The four Americans in the hands of the radicals effectively gave them leverage over all the others. Assad negotiated and cajoled, and his spokesman announced that all would be freed. Then, to his considerable embarrassment, the radicals said no, new conditions had to be met. Another day went by before the TWA hostages finally were freed, but the six Americans and four French previously abducted were not.
Washington and Paris were losing confidence in Assad's ability to deliver, and as they did so they turned more and more to direct -- if secret -- negotiations with Iran. The arms-for-hostages deals cut by the Reagan Administration with Tehran eventually sidestepped Assad even as a token participant, and the Iranians moved to squeeze him out of the picture altogether. Meanwhile their militias treated both Syria's professional soldiers and its proxies with growing contempt. Firefights broke out in Baalbek between Syrian troops and Hezbollah militiamen in May 1986. The next month two members of the Damascus-backed Syrian Social Nationalist Party were kidnapped by Shi'ites associated with Hezbollah; their bullet-riddled bodies were found two days later. Five days of fighting followed around the Bekaa Valley town of Mashgara. In October, when the Syrians arrested two members of the militias in Mashgara, the Shi'ite radicals responded by kidnapping four Syrian soldiers. Not until the Syrian army freed its prisoners were the soldiers returned.
Adding to the chaos was the factionalism of the fundamentalists themselves, both in Lebanon and Iran. Mehdi Hashemi and several other Iranians especially committed to exporting their revolution began operating in defiance of sectors of the Iranian government. Syrians got caught up in this feud and in October 1986 Syria's charge d'affairs in Tehran -- said by diplomats there to have an extensive intelligence background -- was abducted and beaten by Hashemi partisans. Hashemi himself was arrested soon afterward, but the stain of the affront endured. {Note: After Hashemi's arrest his associates leaked to a Lebanese magazine the story of U.S. National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane's visit to Tehran. It was reprinted in a pro-Syrian Beirut newspaper, Al-Shiraa, where Western news media picked it up. See "Iran's Quest for Superpower Status," Gary Sick, Foreign Affairs, Spring 1987, pp. 706-708.}
Throughout this period Western diplomats in the region commonly argued that Assad could release the Western hostages if he cared to. His security services were bound to know where many of the hostages were being held and who was holding them. But if some were freed by force, others were likely to be killed. Assad would get little credit for corpses and considerable blame from the West, and meanwhile would have poisoned his already delicate relations with Tehran. He had less room to maneuver than many realized. The hostages were essentially an emotional problem for the United States and France. But for Assad their continued captivity was a direct affront, a constant test of his influence, which he seemed unable to meet.
By November 1986 Assad needed a gesture, a symbol of his strength as well as his goodwill, that would increase his political capital. Syrian intelligence services had been implicated in terrorist attempts in Europe; Britain, the United States and Europe took actions of protest. Perhaps worse from Assad's point of view, he was seen as a man of waning capabilities; news reports often raised the question of his health.
At just that moment came a breakthrough in the hostage situation, resulting, as we now know, from the secret arms shipments from Washington to Tehran: Islamic Jihad released American University Hospital administrator David Jacobsen. Here was an opportunity for Assad to recoup. But instead of sending him out through Damascus -- the route other hostages had gone -- Jihad arranged his liberation in such a way that Syria could take no credit. Far from the profuse thanks to which he was accustomed, Assad was all but ignored.
The affronts to Assad are not always so subtle. In the summer of 1986 Syria deployed about 300 uniformed "advisers" and hundreds more plainclothes agents in West Beirut to help impose a "security plan." But they were barred from entering the city's teeming southern suburbs, where Hezbollah holds sway and is believed to hold most of its Western captives. Meanwhile a new wave of kidnappings began, led by a group calling itself the Revolutionary Justice Organization. With much the same techniques as Islamic Jihad, the new group was picking up new hostages, it seemed, whenever old ones were about to be released.
Hostility between the Hezbollah militiamen and the Syrian advisers continued to mount: in February 1987, in a ludicrous but humiliating confrontation, Syrian soldiers and Lebanese police patrolling West Beirut were surrounded by Hezbollah militiamen, disarmed, beaten and their heads shaved.
It was less than two weeks later that Assad began a full-scale deployment of 7,000 troops in Beirut. On the night of February 24, 1987, his soldiers entered the Basta neighborhood and approached the Fathallah barracks. Most of the Hezbollah fighters headquartered there had pulled out after burning tires inside the building to cover any signs of the prisoners they had held there -- among them, almost certainly, American and European hostages. Scattered shots were heard, and when the Syrians were finished, 23 men and women said to have been partisans of Hezbollah lay dead. By morning, the writing on the walls of the barracks that praised the glories of Islam and "Imam" Khomeini was painted over. Now the writing on the wall praised Syria. The strike at Iran was quick and violent, but fell short of full-scale confrontation. Still Assad did not send his forces into the southern suburbs....

More on the Hariri case and its aftermath this year:

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.

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