BEIRUT – The death of Syria’s interior minister Ghazi Kanaan in Damascus Wednesday has raised new tensions ahead of the publication of the UN report on the murder of Lebanon’s former prime minister Rafik Hariri. The report is expected next week.
Kanaan and other members of Syria’s ruling circles had come under increasing pressure in recent months because of the United Nations investigation, which extends to Syria. The interior minister was recently questioned by the UN team headed by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis.
In an interview with a Lebanese radio station hours before his death, Kanaan said: "I believe this is the last statement that I could make."
Observers of Syria’s political scene cast immediate doubt on whether Kanaan had committed suicide. "He’s a fighter. He had seen many worse things than the Mehlis investigation," said American Syria expert Joshua Landis, who lives in Damascus.
He said that rather than the UN investigation, the real reason for Kanaan’s demise might be that he came to be seen as an alternative to President Bashar Assad, particularly by the United States.
The death of Kanaan comes at a sensitive time for Syria. The UN report may be decisive for the survival of the rule of the young president.
Syria has come under increasing pressure from the international community in recent years. The United States and some other Western countries accuse Damascus of supporting militants in Iraq and in the Palestinian territories, and of continued involvement in violence in Lebanon.
U.S. President George Bush has repeated his demands this week that Syria do more to stop insurgents crossing into Iraq. He said Damascus was still "far too involved" in Lebanon.
The UN Security Council last year adopted resolution 1559 that called on Syria to end its presence in Lebanon. The report on the Hariri investigation could further erode Syria’s international position.
The Security Council is scheduled to discuss the findings of the UN report Oct. 25. In Lebanon, four pro-Syrian men who headed security services have been arrested and charged with the planning that led to the assassination of Hariri. That followed the UN investigation.
The assassination of Hariri in February this year set off mass demonstrations in Lebanon that, combined with international pressure, forced Syria to withdraw its troops from the country after a nearly 30-year presence.
Lebanese politicians and commentators have also questioned whether Kanaan had committed suicide or whether his hand was forced by people in government.
Prominent journalist and MP for the ruling anti-Syrian bloc, Gebran Tueni, said it was not certain that Kanaan had committed suicide. Speaking on the Arab satellite TV station al-Arabiya from Paris, where many prominent Lebanese politicians are waiting for the security situation in their country to improve, Tueni said: "In Syria, there are some people who want to hide the facts and don’t want everything about the Syrian period in Lebanon to be known."
In Beirut, a well-known analyst who refused to be named due to security concerns, said that the big question now was whether other senior Syrian officials targeted by the UN investigation will be silenced. "Will there be others? He [Kanaan] did not act alone," the analyst said.
He added that in Lebanon the death of Kanaan is widely seen as an "admission of guilt." He said questions had arisen also on the impact on Syria of the death of Kanaan, "who held the government together."
Political scientist at Damascus University Marwan Kabalan said that he expected the government to contain the crisis quickly. "They are going to stick together for now, and then when the Mehlis report comes out, who knows."
He said that though nobody in Damascus was saying it, "everybody is linking it automatically to the UN investigation."
As former head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon until 2003, and its effective ruler, Kanaan was regarded as particularly knowledgeable about events surrounding the events in the neighboring country.
His successor Rustom Ghazaleh, who headed the apparatus until the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in April, has also reportedly been questioned by the UN investigators. They are said also to be seeking to interview Bashar Assad and a member of his family.
In June, the United States ordered the assets of Kanaan and Ghazaleh frozen, saying they had been involved in "terrorism" in Lebanon.
The 63-year-old Kanaan was seen as a "safe pair of hands" and was one of the few remaining members of the old guard in Syria who had hung on to power under Bashar Assad.
Some of the speculation surrounding his suicide centered on these circumstances, and the fact that he is a member of the ruling Alawite minority.
The U.S. administration is widely seen to be searching for an alternative to president Assad from among the Alawites. Some real or imagined approaches to Kanaan may have proved fatal for him, some fear.
In one of his last acts, the phone call with the Lebanese radio station Sawt Lubnan, Kanaan was at best ambiguous about his role in the Hariri affair.
He phoned to deny reports that he had told the UN team that he had received payoffs from Hariri. According to the reports, he had told the UN that because of these "riches," he certainly did not have a reason to kill Hariri.
The UN report may yet reveal Kanaan’s real testimony, and it may shed light on his role in the Hariri affair. But after his death, what many in Lebanon had feared is starting to happen: the trail to Damascus, if it ever was there, is going cold.