Across the Bay

Monday, March 28, 2005

Cash Cow

In case you weren't sure why the Syrians are holding on tooth and nail to Lebanon. Here's one clue:

Koleilat also seemed to have friends in high places. She "claimed she was backed by high-ranking government officials and Army intelligence officials," Fortress Global reported. Indeed, the investigators say, they uncovered evidence that during a one-month period ending in January 2003, Koleilat used Al-Madina funds to pay $941,000 to the brothers of Gen. Rustum Ghazali, then the powerful chief of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon. Citing a confidential source, Fortress Global says that the following March, Koleilat arranged a $300,000 "donation" for General Ghazali from bank funds. She also moved $100,000, in November 2002, through an account at a sister bank of Al-Madina's to a Lebanon bank account of Mustapha Tlass, then the minister of defense and the deputy prime minister of Syria, according to Fortress Global.

Its report cites other "questionable" deals. In 2002, the report says, Koleilat transferred, at no cost, a lavish Beirut apartment to a close friend of Khaled Kaddour, identified as the office manager for Syrian Lt. Col. Maher Assad. Assad is the brother of Syrian President Assad. Koleilat also used bank funds, the report said, to buy a villa from Elias Murr, then Lebanon's interior minister and the son-in-law of Lebanese President Lahoud. Koleilat paid $10 million for the property, and placed it in the name of her boyfriend, Fortress Global says. When the villa was later taken over by Lebanese authorities, the investigators say, it was valued at $2.5 million.

This report has more, with interesting remarks on Lebanon's debt:

Economist Joe Faddoul, head of the consultant group Istisharat, said: "The direct and indirect takings [by Syria] each come to $1 billion, or $2 billion a year."

He pointed out that since factional violence here came to an end 12 years ago, Syria has taken home $24 billion from its ties to Lebanon, which Faddoul said helps explain the Lebanese public debt of $35 billion.

"The official line is that the debt is the result of waste and corruption," he said, although in fact it is a result of "a coherent and organized system of direct and indirect payments."

He cited the example of telephone "piracy" thanks to two pro-Syrian entitites operating in Lebanon.

A well-placed source here has said that "tens of millions of dollars in telephone receipts go directly into Syrian pockets each month."

It's not news, just another piece of the puzzle. That's why Bashar (and his Lebanese cronies) will fight to the bitter end. But it's all crumbling before their eyes, with international investigation looming on the horizon.