Across the Bay

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Bashar and Hariri

Gary Gambill has a piece in the National Post on Ghazi Kenaan's death. He sees this as a likely scenario:

Specifically, the Bush administration was trying to ascertain whether anyone within the Syrian regime would be willing and able to assume control in the event of Assad's downfall. It wanted the dictator out, but without sparking an insurgency by Syria's Sunni majority against the minority Alawite-controlled government. The Harirists were said to have given exuberant assurances that Kanaan would take care of everything.
Although these talks were behind closed doors, there is good reason to believe Assad was apprised of them and feared that they might lead Washington to intensify the UN investigation into Hariri's murder. Eliminating Kanaan may simply have been Assad's way of putting an end to the discussion.

Gambill goes on to question whether Kanaan had any influence left, after having been sidelined for a couple of years. Then he makes this rather overstated analogy:

Much like Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress did before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the Harirists may have been deliberately misleading U.S. officials. By this time, Kanaan had been largely shorn of real power in the regime (his appointment as interior minister, putting him nominally in charge of a civil bureaucracy solidly controlled by Assad's allies, was intended to curb his influence in the military intelligence apparatus). Talk of Kanaan running things was simply empty bluster intended to encourage U.S. efforts to overthrow Assad.

It is true, as I've noted before, that Kanaan was being sidelined, especially by Asef Shawkat, who launched quite a campaign against him. But Gary's characterization is I think slightly exaggerated. I'd mentioned that the Asef vs. Kanaan power struggle was nowhere near done. The fact that anti-Kanaan leaks persisted until weeks before his death suggests that the struggle was still ongoing, and, as I've said before, some inside Syria didn't think that it was a given that Asef would come out on top. Yes, Asef filled key offices with his people, but that doesn't take away from Ghazi's connections.

Furthermore, and this may be significant, this wasn't an issue of the Hariris pulling strings to bring down Asad as much as it was the Saudis. The meetings in France are said to have involved the French and the Saudis, as well as Khaddam and Shihabi. As I've noted before (and as Gary himself has noted in his excellent article on Lebanon and Syria), in his struggle against Bashar's crew, Hariri managed to get the support of Khaddam and Shihabi, as well as Kanaan. Jumblat's recent eulogy of Kanaan again repeated this basic power-struggle, and was full of jabs at Bashar and his men, Ghazaleh and Lahoud. Kanaan was dissociated from them.

This then widens the circle beyond Kanaan, and includes the Sunni Khaddam and Shihabi. So I think that Gary's Hariri-Chalabi analogy is overblown and leaves out the Saudis and the French (and makes this too much about "the US and the Hariris"). But also, I think his view of Kanaan's pull may be too minimalist, and leaves out Khaddam and Shihabi. Being the only one inside Syria, and an Alawite, not to forget on bad terms with Asef, Kanaan was doomed.

However, the idea that the Hariris dislike Bashar (even more so now) is not novel. I've been making this argument for a while. Hariri's relation with Bashar was horrible from the very beginning, when Bashar took over the Lebanon file (hinted at again in Jumblat's eulogy of Kanaan). This was made public by former Hariri aide Nouhad Mashnouq in an interview in al-Hayat. He revealed that, unlike what Bashar said in his interview on CNN, Bashar was incredibly abusive and violent in his dealings with Hariri, especially in a particular meeting attended by Mashnouq when Bashar threw a fit and started accusing Hariri of all kinds of things (being an Israeli agent, etc.). So Bashar is not "a quiet person." Not by a long shot! He's a thug with a temper, as I've said before. After that stormy meeting, Mashnouq said that Hariri went and had a calm meeting with Kanaan at the latter's house.

Kais from Beirut to the Beltway turns our attention to a piece by Feris Khishen in al-Mustaqbal. He reveals that in a closed session, Hariri said the following: "Our problem is not with Emile Lahoud. Look how he 'shrank' when the orders came down in favor of Omar Karami. Our problem is not with Rustom Ghazaleh, who, as the Syrian leadership has repeated, 'represents what we want in Lebanon and executes it word by word.' Our problem, in reality, is with Bashar al-Asad himself." Khishen goees on to say that Hariri dealt with Rustom Ghazaleh as Bashar's personal representative in Lebanon, which is precisely what he was (his and Asef's), which is why he replaced Kanaan.

It's interesting, but not surprising, to hear that Hariri may have thought that Lebanon's future, and its proper relations with Syria, would be seriously hampered should Bashar stay in power, or at least, stay on that course (and, as Michael Young has noted, Bashar has incredible contempt for Lebanon, which dictated the way he dealt with the country). On a side note, it's notable that the Bashar cheerleaders always either "fail to mention" Lebanon, or assume that Syria should keep its hold on the country, whenever they advocate for Bashar.

That Jumblat has apparently jumped on this bandwagon comes from his realization that Bashar will never forgive him. As is always the case with Jumblat, this realization came after repeated attempts by him to reopen channels with Bashar that have all been turned down and countered with violent responses.

This really leaves one party in Lebanon that is backing Bashar and his posse, beside Lahoud and the old sycophants. It's the only party that posed, after Hariri's murder, with Rustom Ghazaleh and praised him and Bashar. That party is of course Hizbullah, who continue to attack the Mehlis investigation and defend Bashar.

Nabih Berri has been careful. While continuing to back the Syrian line, he has made some interesting statements that could be open for interpretation. For instance, in his recent trip to the Gulf, he defended Syria and insisted on its stability, and kept the language on the level of the countries and the peoples. That can be understood in various ways, even the point about stability. Its ambiguity may be telling. It will be interesting to see how the chips will fall internally in Lebanon after the Mehlis report, and how people will realign themselves.

Meanwhile, regardless of all this, Seniora continues to press on with the "new method," mentioned by Khishen, of establishing healthy and proper relations with Syria, and is calling for border demarcation and exchanging embassies, two things that Syria has always loathed. He's getting full support from France, the US, and the Gulf states.