A Death in Syria

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As Jeff Taylor and a bevy of Reason readers have observed, Ghazi Kanaan, Syria's interior minister, is said to have committed suicide. Perhaps he did, though to me that seems unlikely; having amassed tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars during his long tenure as Syrian proconsul in Lebanon, he had the option of eventually spending part of that sum in exchange for giving information to the United Nations commission investigating Rafik Hariri's murder. Kanaan and Hariri happened to enjoy good relations, and I would guess Kanaan opposed his assassination, though he certainly knew who was involved.

What made Kanaan dangerous was that he was a well-connected and wealthy officer from the ruling Alawite community; if anybody could combine the intelligence networks, communal ties and money needed to replace the Assads and their kin in a coup, it was he. That possibility, and the fact that Kanaan might have been willing to give information on the Hariri murder to the U.N. investigators, perhaps in order to advance his chances of removing the regime, may have doomed him. Still, at this stage there is no evidence of a coup being prepared, so that one should consider alternatives.

One Arabic newspaper, Kuwait's Al-Siyassah (which supports the Kanaan coup thesis), says that Kanaan was going to be made a scapegoat for the Hariri murder by the Assads, alongside three other intelligence officials (including Kanaan's successor as intelligence chief in Lebanon). The alleged "suicide" allows people to suggest he killed himself because he feared being accused by the U.N.–implying guilt. In that sense his demise was designed to avoid his publicly denying this, and proving it. No one will ever know.

However, one thing is certain: the Syrian regime is unraveling, and while the Assads might be able to count on the fears of their Alawite coreligionists to keep a handle on power for a time, the fact that a senior Alawite is now dead suggests the community is not as united as was presumed. It also indicates that Syria was involved in Hariri's murder, something Assad has repeatedly denied. That's the regime's dilemma: on the one hand it has professed its innocence in Hariri's killing; on the other, it must prepare for a U.N. report that might blame Syria by finding scapegoats, which contradicts the claims of innocence.

(I had written about Kanaan and how Syria ruled Lebanon for Slate back in May 2003. Read today it makes an amusing memento mori.)

Addendum: For a round-up of views on the Kanaan affair, and observations of his own, Tony Badran at Across the Bay has posted this; he highlights the fact that Kanaan may have prepared for his grand departure by talking to a Lebanese radio station, a very rare occurence by Syrian officials. Josh Landis at Syria Comment also offers some perspectives.

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  1. Syria ruled Lebanon for Slate? And I thought I’d heard all the conspiracy theories.

  2. Genuine question here: Is it possible that Kanaan did indeed pull the trigger on himself, but under duress? e.g. “You either end your own life quickly, or Khaled here will have fun killing your family slowly while you watch, and then killing you even more slowly.”

    Is that plausible?

  3. Syria ruled Lebanon for Slate? And I thought I’d heard all the conspiracy theories.

    Well, Microsoft does have deep pockets…

  4. I don?t think that Kanaan?s ?suicide? is related to Hariri?s investigation. He may have pulled the trigger but if he did, then he was forced to. Remember Pantangeli in the Godfather movie. He betrays the Corleone family and is forced to commit suicide. In exchange for this service, Pantageli?s family is spared and left with his fortune.

    I think that it is part of an internal conflict inside the Baath regime. Bashar and his clique are purging the regime from the other clique. Maybe he?ll be used as a scapegoat for Hariri?s assassination, but this is not the primary explanation of his elimination.

  5. Vox P. – you could have used a real life example, Rommel.

    There’s also this (via praktike) that adds to the stew. Sounds like the making of a good novel.

  6. Iraq and Syria should merge so the whole clusterfuck is less confusing for me.

  7. one thing is certain: the Syrian regime is unraveling

    this is, i have to think, yet another example of the wishful thinking of mr young’s imperial-neocon bias infecting his analysis.

    the assads are certainly under pressure from without and perhaps quiet high places within — but episodes like this do not constitute an “unraveling”.

    but this is a step in a dance of cleansing that countless authoritarian regimes act out from time to time in an effort at self-preservation. many times — most often, in fact — they complete it successfully, easily maintaining control. how many people did stalin send to the gallows and remain in power? how many people did southern american elites murder to maintain their grip on the reconstructed south? how many communists and anarchists did the american industrialists put to death to steady the pillars of laissez-faire? in all these cases, important power rival power brokers were beheaded in an effort to stem the tide.

    now, i will agree that all were ultimately unsuccessful — but only very slowly did the mechanisms that murder purported to defend fade away. to claim that jim crow unraveled may, i suppose, be true — if one accepts that an unraveling can take a century or more.

    unfortunately for the assads, i doubt it much matters whether or not they maintain internal control. when a war-mad white house has set out on a plan of empire, invasion is simply the next step. the cedar revolution that the administration fomented failed to depose assad from within. for now, condi can talk cheney out of invading by claiming that the mehlis report will pressure assad into collapse. but, if he doesn’t fall soon, condi will lose that argument, and america will plunge yet another corner of the world into the darkness of war to manifest its new world order.

  8. Rommel is not a good example!
    Rommel was a soldier with the sense of honor, while Kanaan was a terrorist and a mafiosi who betrayed the family. Pantangeli corresponds more to his profile.

  9. How do you know Kanaan did not act honorably in his service to his dishonorable cause? Like Rommel.

  10. Come on, joe, we’re talking about Syria, not Boston.

  11. Joe, there are several testimonies of ex-Lebanese detainees (those who survived) indicating that Kanaan ordered his men to torture them. The guy engaged in widespread violations of human rights in Lebanon, if there was a justice, he should be tried for crimes of war.

  12. But Vox P., Bush and his imperialist neocons don’t like Syria, so that makes Kanaan a victim for Joe and other Bush-haters. Like that “tin-pot” dictator Saddam and the Tikriti minority of the Sunni minority which got booted from power in Iraq.

    The New York Times reports Kanaan was the most pro-American of the possible successors to Bashir, so that could have done him in, as many have suggested.
    But, the media’s also saying he was personally feeling the pressure from all of the international attention on Syria.

    Pace gaius marius, it’s a bad sign when a regime starts eating its own. Torture and murder should be focused on the democratic opposition, not the “old guard.”

  13. “Pace gaius marius, it’s a bad sign when a regime starts eating its own.”

    Maybe, maybe not. The Soviet Union limped on for another 50 years after the peak of its purges.

  14. GM,

    What’s with those Anarchists and Communists put to death by American industrialists? Or am I too dense to pick up on the joke?

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