A Killing's Aftershocks Shake Syria's Elite

Interior Minister Kanaan's suicide may be fallout from a probe of a former Lebanese leader's assassination. Syria's President should worry, too

By Stanley Reed

The political chain reaction set off by the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is gaining force. It served as the catalyst for driving the Syrian military out of Lebanon. The latest casualty of the affair appears to be Ghazi Kanaan, Syria's powerful Interior Minister and the former chief of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon. Syrian authorities say Kanaan committed suicide in his Damascus office on Oct. 12.

The question now is whether the backlash unleashed by the Hariri killing will reach all the way to Bashar Al Assad, Syria's youthful President. "This is a landmark event," says Murhaf Jouejati, director of Middle East studies at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. "[Kanaan] was a very important person in the inner circle."


  Whatever the actual cause, Kanaan's death serves as a sign that international pressure is reaching into the upper echelons of the Assad regime. The U.N. investigator, Detlev Mehlis, a former German prosecutor, had interviewed Kanaan in late September as part of the probe into Hariri's death, and it has been widely rumored in the region that Mehlis's report, due on Oct. 25, would finger Syrian intelligence operatives including, possibly, Kanaan.

Hours before his death, Kanaan allegedly made a bizarre call to a Lebanese TV station in which he defended his activities. One theory circulating about his death suggested that he feared being sacrificed by the regime in a deal reminiscent of the one the Libyans concluded to end their political isolation over the 1988 bombing of a Pan AM 747 in Lockerbie, Scotland. As part of that process, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi turned two Libyan intelligence agents over for trial at a special Scottish court in the Netherlands. Only one was convicted.

The U.N. inquiry into Hariri's death poses a significant threat to Assad, not least of all because some feel the U.S. is using the probe as a vehicle for punishing the Syrians for a host of transgressions. Chiefly, the Bush Administration is unhappy about Assad's tolerance of Iraqi opposition activities in Syria and an inability or unwillingness to close Syria's borders with Iraq to jihadi fighters.


  On Oct. 9, David Welch, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, criticized Syria for a list of offenses and said, "I expect that [the U.N. report] will be another occasion when the international community is going to send the strongest of signals to the Syrians about their misbehavior."

If Assad has any political smarts, he must sense deep trouble. Since taking power on the death of his ruthless but shrewd father, Hafez, in 2000, he has seemingly made one political misstep after another. His biggest mistake: Permitting Syrian sympathy for the remnants of Saddam Hussein's ousted regime to go unchecked.

Some analysts, including Jouejati, think the Bush Administration would like to see Assad ousted. In theory, the end of the Assad regime would rid the Middle East of a persistent nuisance and unleash Syrians' well-known but long-repressed entrepreneurial talents. Either way, the regime feels jittery, and no one can say for sure that Bashar is in full control. Kanaan's demise will only add to the tensions.


  Assad may still win rescue. The most important Arab countries, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, may intercede with the U.S. not because they are fond of Bashar but because they want to head off further instability in the region.

In addition, the lack of plausible successors to Bashar may convince the U.S. and other players that allowing his ouster at this time is unwise. Not one of the military and security chiefs around Bashar looks strong enough to make a move. One eager candidate is Rifaat Al Assad, Bashar's uncle, who lives in exile in Spain. But he has made himself an unpopular figure in Syria, tarnished by his association with the brutal suppression of a rebellion in the city of Hama in 1982.

The fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, which staged a bloody insurrection against the regime in the early 1980s, may prove the most formidable opposition force. The Brotherhood has deep roots in Syria's Sunni Muslim majority, which considers itself oppressed by Assad's minority Alawite sect. The exiled Brotherhood leadership has been sending conciliatory messages via its Web site.

Kanaan's death shows that no one is safe from the whirlwinds sweeping the region.

Reed is BusinessWeek's London bureau chief

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