November 9, 2005 | Pittsburgh Tribune

Death as a Political Option

By: Amb. Richard Carlson & Barbara Newman.

The conclusion of United Nations' investigators that Syria's leadership planned the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri — and had their Lebanese agents-in-place carry out the murder — is having a deep impact in the region.

The heat generated by the investigation is burning very close to the young Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. The German investigation's chief, Detlev Mehlis, has collected evidence that points to close friends of Assad, including his brother and brother-in-law, at the center of the conspiracy that killed Hariri and 22 others in his entourage last February.

Now Assad has pledged that “any Syrian” will face a murder trial if the evidence against them is “concrete,” although in the same statement Assad denies that Syria had any role in Hariri's killing.

Syria's Gen. Ghazi Kanaan, the powerful and sinister spymaster who held Lebanon in an iron grip for more than a decade, recently was interrogated by the U.N. investigators about the Hariri murder. Last month, Kanaan was found dead of a gunshot wound in his office in Damascus. Syrian officials say Kanaan shot himself in the mouth with his own pistol.

Many observers assume Kanaan was murdered. A Lebanese source told us by telephone that President Assad himself ordered the killing. But he could offer no evidence, other than “common sense.”

Cynics say Kanaan was “ruthless and cruel” but “he is the last guy who would ever hurt himself.”

Bashar Assad, the pencil-necked ophthalmologist, inherited the country from his smarter (and more sinister) father Hafez Assad. Young Assad is having trouble holding on to the power handed to him. Independent and flamboyant, Kanaan never clicked with Basher Assad, whom he regarded as a flailing boy, a mincing shadow of the old dictator, his father.

And, lately, Kanaan had had serious differences with Assad.

First, he did not want to go ahead with extending the Emile Lahood presidency in Lebanon.

Second, he apparently was about to cut a deal with the U.N.'s chief investigator with information on the Hariri assassination.

Third, Kanaan, also a member of the ruling Alawite clan, was strong enough and had the requisite contacts and favor-bank credits, to mount a threatening opposition to Basher Assad if he chose, especially within the regime's important security and special operations corps.

Finally, Kanaan was engaged in a tug of war with his replacement in Lebanon, roiling waters in an area particularly sensitive to Assad.

Kanaan was the “black box” of Hariri's murder, said a Lebanese commentator, analogizing Hariri's murder to a suspicious plane crash. “Now the box is lost.” Kanaan does not appear to have been a suspect in the Hariri murder but he was a friend of Rafiq Hariri and on his secret payroll. He is believed to have supplied Mehlis' investigators with important information.

Hariri was one of the world's richest men and a sophisticated crook of gargantuan achievements, many of them deeply corrupt. Hariri's billions carried him to power but couldn't save his life. Nor could they save Kanaan, who was accused in a Lebanese TV station's report just a few hours before his death of being paid $10 million in cash to help get Hariri elected in Lebanon in 2000.

The Hariri assassination — and Syria's likely involvement — has been reported as an aberration. It was not. Murdering political opponents long has been a component of Syrian foreign policy, a preferred method of dealing with political annoyances, and an open option, always on the table.

The list of those killed by the Syrians is long. The most prominent were Christian President-elect Basher Gemayel, Christian President-elect Rene Mouawad, Muslim journalist Salim el-Louzy, the Muslim mufti of Lebanon, Hassan Khaled, and Druze head Kemal Jumblatt.

The Syrians tried hard to kill Gen. Michelle Aoun, the 70-year-old Maronite Christian leader who headed the Lebanese government at the end of the civil war of 1975-90. Aoun only returned to Lebanon this summer — and was elected to Parliament — after being chased out of Lebanon 15 years ago by the assassination-minded Syrians.

Druze leader Kemal Jumblatt was assassinated by Syria right after a visit with Hafez Assad, the old dictator. When his son, the current Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, made a pilgrimage to Damascus to see Assad, his father's killer, Assad pointed to the chair next to his and said, “Your father sat there last time he came to see me. Make yourself comfortable.”

The threat was unmistakable.

Richard Carlson is vice chairman of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a counterterrorism think tank in Washington, D.C. Barbara Newman is a senior fellow at the foundation and co-author of “Lightning Out of Lebanon: Hezbollah on American Soil.”



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