DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syria’s interior minister, who ran Lebanon as security chief until 2003, died Wednesday, and Syria’s official news agency said he had committed suicide.
His death was reported days before the expected release of a U.N. report into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Some readers might remember that only last month Syrian officials had answered questions from German UN investigator Detlef Mehlis on the murder of Rafik Hariri. Syria had at first refused to cooperate outright, but finally caved in to international pressure:
The UN has reached a deal with Syria, allowing it to question witnesses in the probe into the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
The agreement on legal procedures was reached during talks between chief UN investigator Detlev Mehlis in Damascus, Syrian officials said.
Mr Mehlis and a legal advisor from Syria’s foreign ministry had agreed “on the measures and preparations for hearing the Syrian witnesses,” a Syrian official told the state news agency, Sana.
The official added that Mr Mehlis would return to Damascus “at the end of next week”.
Lebanese media has been reporting that Mr Mehlis wants to speak to Rustom Ghazaleh, Syria’s intelligence chief in Lebanon at the time of the assassination, as well as two of his aides.
The German prosecutor is also said to want to interview Mr Ghazaleh’s predecessor, Jhazi Kanann, now the minister of interior, says the BBC’s Kim Ghattas in Damascus.
The circumstances of Kannan’s death are very curious, to say the least:
Hours before his death, he had been interviewed by a Lebanese radio station after he called to refute allegations that he accepted bribes and payoffs while in the Lebanon post.
“I think this is the last statement I might give,” Kanaan said at the end of the phone interview with Voice of Lebanon, Reuters said.
A report from the U.N. inquiry is expected to be released within the next 10 days.
Just before news of Kanaan’s death, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in an exclusive interview that Syria had no involvement in Hariri’s death, and it was impossible for him to have ordered it.
But, he said, if the U.N. probe concluded that Syrians were involved, then they would be regarded as traitors and should be charged with treason and face punishment, either through the Syrian judicial process or by an international court.
That latter bit is very interesting. Kannan categorically denies wrongdoing which pales to insignificance in comparison to Hariri’s murder, but commits suicide (or so the Syrian government claims) as soon as Assad is telling CNN that Syrians involved in said murder would be considered traitors, and maybe handed over to foreign authorities.
Assad explained that potential Syrian conspirators would be treated as traitors because the Hariri murder was very much against Syrian interest.
I see several possibilities here:
1) Assad was stupid enough to order the assassination of Hariri, a hypothesis that is supported by the initial Syrian refusal to cooperate with the UN investigation at all. When Assad had to give in to pressure, and the investigation looked as if it would finger Syria as the culprit, he quickly needed a scapegoat, so he had Kanaan shot using his own weapon.
2) Kanaan had Hariri assassinated for reasons of his own, and panicked when he heard his President say that guilty parties would be punished or handed over.
3) Assad might or might not have been behind Hariri’s assasination, but either way he used the occasion to get rid of an operator and former crony of his father he had no real control over:
When Bashar took over at age 34, he initially talked of reform and cleaning up the endemic corruption and turgid economy. He soon changed his tune as he realized his father had surrounded himself with a bunch of thieves and cutthroats. These guys ran the police state, and expected to be paid. Or else. So Bashar is a dictator who can dictate a lot, but can’t touch any of the private empires his father’s cronies have set up. It’s all about money.
Whichever of the above is true, I doubt that we’ll learn what really happened anytime soon. I expect some purges of minor characters in the Assad government, with a couple of show trials thrown in. Assad might be able to consolidate his power at the expense of his father’s old friends, who have to be mindful of their colleague’s fate. It is almost impossible to predict which course Syria will take, but hopefully Assad will be too busy with the shake-up at home to support the terrorists in Iraq quite as much as he is doing now.
But enough speculation for now, I want to wait and see how things develop from here (although I think that speculation will be pretty much all we’ll have on the issue for the next months).