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Same-Day Analysis

Syria: Syrian Interior Minister Commits Suicide Days Before UN Issues Lebanese Murder Report

Published: 13 October 2005
The reported suicide of Major General Ghazi Kannan yesterday comes nine days before the UN is scheduled to publish its report into the murder of the former Lebanese premier, and highlights Syria's current predicament.    

Global Insight Perspective    
Significance Interior Minister Ghazi Kannan reportedly killed himself by a shot to the head. Speculation has recently been rife that Syrian security officials will be implicated in the murder of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri in February this year, with Kannan questioned by UN investigators in the weeks before his death.
Implications The suicide dramatises Syria's current predicament as the regime grapples to contain the damaging fallout from the Hariri murder. Hours before his death, Kannan gave an interview to the Voice of Lebanon radio station, denying Lebanese media reports that he had accepted a cash payment from the deceased billionaire.  
Outlook The Syrian administration cannot conceal the damaging domestic and regional stains that have affected it since February. The current predicament presents Syrian President Bashar al-Asad with the defining test of his presidency.

Fall of the Mighty

Kannan's rise to the pinnacle of Syria's military intelligence community was confirmed when late Syrian president Hafez al-Asad selected him as his country's chief representative in Lebanon; this effectively made Kannan the principal decision-maker in Syria's neighbour. He held the post of Syria's military intelligence chief in Lebanon from 1982 until 2002, during the height of Syria's power and influence in the country, becoming a trusted member of Hafez's inner circle. Significantly, Kannan, like Hafez, was a member of the minoritarian Alawite sect, which makes up an estimated 14% of Syria's population and is concentrated in the port city of Lattakia. The Alawite community's suspect Islamic credentials had historically prevented it from gaining access to the socio-economic ladder that was largely confined to the Sunni urban elite. The secular Ba'ath party became a vehicle of advancement for Alawites emerging as the dominant political force in Syria's post-independence history, with sensitive ranks within the military and security services firmly in Alawite hands.  

In October 2004, Kannan was appointed Syrian Interior Minister by current President Bashar al-Asad. This appointment collided with Syria's increased regional and international isolation, both as a result of Syria's alleged acquiescence to the use of its territory as a safe haven and transit route for fighters and military supplies for the insurgency in neighbouring Iraq, as well as its unwillingness to loosen its traditional grip on Lebanon (see Syria: 12 September 2005: Syria Under Heightened International Pressure Following Assault by Iraqi Forces on Border Town). Senior Lebanese officials, among whom Hariri was prominent, began questioning Syria's official narrative that its military presence in Lebanon was designed to safeguard the country's territorial integrity and national unity. The situation prompted the introduction of UN resolution 1559, which called for the immediate withdrawal of all Syrian troops and intelligence personnel from Lebanon. It took Hariri's death and the consequent popular anti-Syrian backlash to convince the Syrian leadership to abandon its traditional stranglehold over Lebanon. Yet the domestic aftershocks from the Hariri murder continued to be felt within Syria, as senior officials became embroiled in accusations of involvement in the fatal bomb blast. 

In June this year, both Kanaan and General Rostum Ghazaleh were targeted by the US Treasury Department under an executive order freezing both men's personal assets (see Syria: 1 July 2005: US Moves to Freeze Assets of Key Syrian Officials). Despite the fact that neither Kannan nor Ghazaleh were likely to have bank accounts in the United States, it was a symbolic gesture that underlined the international isolation of Syria's former strongmen. The arrests of Kannan's former subordinates in Lebanon - namely former general security chief Jamil Sayed, ex-police chief Ali Hajj and former military intelligence head Raymond Aznar - as part of the U.N.-led murder investigation further compounded the predicament of Syria's previously untouchable intelligence tsars, prompting widespread speculation that Kannan would be among those named by investigators in their impending report, due out on 21 October (see Lebanon: 30 August 2005:  Former Security Chiefs, Head of Presidential Guard Arrested over Lebanese Ex-Premier's Assassination). 

Asad's Predicament

On the day of Kannan's suicide, President Asad gave an in-depth interview to CNN. He said that Syrian officials found to have been involved in the Hariri killing would be considered 'traitors' and 'severely' punished. Asad said that a fragmented and 'chaotic' Iraq was not in Syria's geo-political interests, and that his regime was committed to helping preserve Iraq's territorial integrity. He repeated Syrian requests for international help and assistance in manning Syria's porous border with Iraq.  However, despite his best efforts to create an air of confidence and dismissive attitude towards suggestions of possible targeted military strikes against his country, the president is increasingly feeling the strain. Questions are also being asked by Syrian sources on whether Kannan 'jumped', or was instead 'pushed' by members of a regime he had obediently served for over two decades. The Hariri-owned Lebanese daily Al-Mostaqbal  today featured the headline: 'Did Ghazi Kanaan Commit Suicide or Was He Murdered?'. It also speculated that 'his suicide could be premeditated murder carried out by a regime that wants to eliminate a key witness.' In the murky world of Syrian military intelligence - commonly referred to as the Mukhabarat - nothing can be ruled out, as all eyes now turn to the highly anticipated UN report.  

Outlook and Implications

Syria's foothold in Lebanon, established during the chaotic Lebanese civil-war period, became the Ba'ath Party's Achilles' heel, exposing Asad to powerful forces that may yet come to unravel the foundations of the sole surviving Ba'athist regime in the Middle East. U.S. President George W. Bush only yesterday reiterated his demand for Syria to alter its regional conduct and stop obstructing efforts at forging a more stable and democratic Middle East regional landscape.  Despite the unyielding international pressure, support for 'regime change' or targeted strikes against Syria is extremely minimal and confined to a minority within the Bush administration. Nonetheless, the future looks bleak for Lebanon's neighbour as Asad's regime is forced to adjust to regional shifts that have altered Syria's standing in the Middle East. The regime's survival now depends on Asad's ability to administer far-reaching changes that are not designed for simply cosmetic purposes, but rather intended to correct the rising domestic discomfort, regional unpopularity and international isolation that currently confronts Syria. 

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