Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 October 2005
Issue No. 765
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Death of a minister

Writing from Damascus, Sami Moubayed provides the Syrian take on Ghazi Kanaan's death

Click to view caption
A Syrian policeman salutes as an ambulance carrying the coffin of the late Syrian Interior Minister Lieutenant Ghazi Kanaan is convoyed by the cars of relatives and mourners

"He was an arrogant man and probably could not tolerate the prospects of facing interrogation, trial, and judgement. As events closed in on him, he must have felt lonely and exceedingly vulnerable." Thus wrote British journalist Patrick Seale in his classic book Asad: Struggle for the Middle East.

Seale was not, however, writing about minister of interior Ghazi Kanaan, who reportedly shot himself on 12 October. Rather, he was writing about Abdel-Karim Al-Jundi, director of Syrian Intelligence, who killed himself in March 1962 after trying to topple or assassinate the then Syrian defence minister Hafez Al-Assad.

But aside from the fact that both officials were reported to have killed themselves, there are no further similarities between Al-Jundi and Kanaan. Al-Jundi shot himself because he did not want to get punished for making trouble in Syria. Kanaan killed himself because he could not tolerate the circus revolving around him since the assassination of his friend, former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri. He could not see his world, which revolved around Lebanon, collapsing in front of him while he was incapable of doing a thing to save it. He could not take the blame for things he hadn't done, such as the assassination of Al-Hariri.

Kanaan died because he was a brave man. Even his enemies could not but admire him, saying that it takes real courage for someone who loved life and lived it to the maximum, to end his own life. They remembered that he had been a smart officer who effectively carried out his duties in Lebanon.

He was smart, pragmatic and knew how to play the complex game of Lebanese politics. He respected the Lebanese and truly wanted them to rise from the civil war and build a new future for themselves. The philosopher and famous opposition writer Michel Kilo described him as "the most important Arab officer in the second half of the 20th century".

Kanaan was born in 1942 in the village of Bhamra, near the coastal city of Latakia. He joined the Homs Military Academy and graduated in 1965, two years after the Baath Party came to power in Syria. As a young officer he pledged allegiance to Al-Assad, who seized power in 1970.

Three years later, Kanaan led an infantry unit against Israel on the Golan Heights in the Arab-Israeli War of 1973. He rose in rank to colonel and in 1981, having earned Al-Assad's admiration, became director of intelligence in Homs. At the time, a war was raging in Syria between Al-Assad and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Kanaan helped keep Homs under control and free from the Brotherhood.

This scored him more points with Al-Assad who made him director of intelligence in Lebanon in 1982. He replaced General Mohamed Ghanim in Lebanon the year that Israel invaded and occupied Beirut. Kanaan's army left Lebanon only to return after the Israeli exodus in 1982. He developed a habit of jogging every morning on the Rawshe district on the coast of Beirut, with no bodyguards, to show the world that the Israelis had left and Beirut was once again under his direct control.

He helped broker alliances with Lebanon's warring militias, most notably those of the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, Shia leader Nabih Berri and Maronite warlord Elie Hobeika, whom he had brought under Syrian patronage after the latter had been a one-time ally of Israel. With Al-Assad, he worked relentlessly to obstruct the 17 May 1983 agreement between Israel and Lebanese president Amin Gemayel. He also worked closely with vice-president Abdul-Halim Khaddam, who orchestrated the Tripartite Agreement between Berri, Jumblatt, and Hobeika in December 1985.

He remained very influential in Lebanon for the remainder of the war years, trying to create a Syrian alliance with Samir Geagea, the warlord of the Lebanese Forces. He rewarded Syria's top allies with senior jobs in post-war Lebanon, making Hobeika and Jumblatt ministers and Berri the speaker of parliament.

Under the post-war regime of Lebanon's pro-Syrian president Elias Hrawi, Kanaan became the kingmaker in Lebanese politics. He helped bring Hrawi to power and lobbied for his re-election in 1995 before pushing for the election of President Emile Lahoud in 1998. He helped market Lahoud in 1998 as an honest, reliable and non-sectarian officer who was dedicated to the liberation of South Lebanon.

He also worked against the return of Lebanon's former Army Commander Michel Aoun whom he had helped defeat and exile from Lebanon in the 1990s. In the late 1990s, Kanaan became close to Bashar Al-Assad, who prior to becoming president in 2000, had been in-charge of the Lebanon File. When Al-Assad became president in 2000, he worked closely with Kanaan to polish Syria's image in Lebanon. Part of this image change was to bring Kanaan back home in October 2002. Before Kanaan returned to Syria, Lahoud awarded him the Cedar Medal of the Commodore.

It was then that Kanaan became director of the Political Security Department of Syrian Intelligence. One journalist, observing his departure from Beirut in 2002, remarked: "Few major events in the history of this nation over the past 20 years took place without being shaped, in some way or another, by his presence." In 2004, Kanaan became minister of interior in the cabinet of Prime Minister Mohamed Naji Al-Otari. His appointment made waves in Syria since he was known as a strong leader who had controlled the "un-controllable" Lebanon. He snubbed everything around him, criticising the chaos in the Ministry of Interior and extended his anger to the Ministry of Information, saying that "the Syrian (official) media is unreadable."

Kanaan continued to be fixated with the affairs of Lebanon and reportedly was greatly disturbed by the renewal of Lahoud's mandate in 2004 claiming that this would quadruple the opposition to Syria. As expected, anti-Syrian sentiment mushroomed and led to the passing of UN Resolution 1559 calling on Syria to leave. The actual evacuation took place in April 2005.

According to sources who knew Kanaan well, he was greatly disturbed when Al-Hariri was killed in 2005. They confirm that had he been in Lebanon he would not have allowed it. He sat back and watched in amazement at how his former allies in Lebanon turned against him, and in order to enhance their popularity, criticised them severely in their TV interviews, press releases and private discourse.

These were the same men and women who had gone out of their way since the 1980s to court the Syrian general. For them to have abandoned him and denigrated his image while only four years earlier they had treated him with lavish respect was simply too much for Kanaan.

The Lebanese described him as an occupier, while he saw himself as a co- builder in Lebanon. He would often say that he did what was needed to end the civil war and preserve a united Lebanon. He had greatly supported Hizbullah in their war against Israel, which resulted in the liberation of South Lebanon in 2000.

Sources close to Kanaan say that he often complained about the Lebanese, who had turned against him following Al-Hariri's assassination despite him having been the man who had brought them Al-Hariri in 1992 in the first place. The truth is that all those who know what Kanaan's relationship with Al-Hariri was really like know that it is impossible for Kanaan to have been involved in the assassination. First, Kanaan has been away from Lebanon since 2002. Since then, his wings have been severely clipped vis-à- vis Lebanese affairs. By 2005 he had lost all influence over the Lebanese scene, although it still interested him.

Second, why would Kanaan kill someone like Al-Hariri, who had been a friend and ally since 1992? Al-Hariri was always generous and respectful with the Syrian general, always visiting him at his headquarters in Majdal Anjar, to confer on matters of state, and Kanaan often returned the visit to A-Hariri's Qraytem Palace in Beirut. Simply, the two men had an excellent working relationship. In addition, it is reported that Kanaan was involved in several business deals with Al-Hariri.

Almost everyone in Lebanon believes that Kanaan was killed by somebody in Syria because he knew too much about Lebanon. This was repeated by Abdul- Rahman Al-Rashed of Al-Arabiya TV who wrote in Asharq Al-Awsat: "we know that not a single Arab politician commits suicide and that there is no culture of suicide" in the Arab world.

The question that refutes these allegations is: if the Syrian government killed him, why did it use the story of suicide? Couldn't it have used a more convincing argument? Simply, the government did not kill him.

In fact, the Syrian government was shocked by the suicide of Kanaan. It came with very bad PR for the Syrians, over-shadowing an interview with Bashar Al-Assad on CNN, which constituted one of Syria's best publicity stunts in recent years. Had the regime been angry with Kanaan they would not have given him an official funeral. They would not have kept him at the Ministry of Interior.

Also, adding credit to the suicide story is the statement he made, hours before his death, to the Voice of Lebanon radio station. He was responding to accusations made against him by New TV the day before his death. On air, Kanaan said: "I wish to clarify that our relationship with our brothers in Lebanon had been based on love and a desire to help Lebanon overcome its current ordeal. Syria gave and took from all noblemen in Lebanon, sparing no blood, to achieve unity and freedom in Lebanon, at a time when such an achievement was impossible without Syria." He then said his now famous phrase: "I think it is the last statement possible for me to give."

Other opponents of the suicide story are arguing that Kanaan was not a weak man who would have committed suicide. His personality was very strong -- stronger than that of someone who would be carried away, or disenhearted by what the press has to say about him. Dennis Ross, former US envoy to the Middle East, said: "I don't believe it was suicide." The UN does not seem to believe that it is suicide either, and Mehlis has requested that the Syrian government dig up Kanaan's grave and conduct an autopsy to make sure that he really did shoot himself.

The request has been frowned upon by Syria and officials claim that there is no real desire to see the body, or UN doubt that Kanaan killed himself. Mehlis is doing this simply to pressure the Syrians and force them to do things they see as insulting. Had he truly been interested in an autopsy, the Syrians are saying, then he could have requested it before the funeral.

As far as logic is concerned, the Syrian minister ended his own life because he was too arrogant to accept the barrage of accusations being fired against him in Lebanon. After reigning supreme for 20 years he could not accept that all he had created in Lebanon could disappear within a matter of months. He also realised that Mehlis was bound to incriminate Syria in the murder of Al-Hariri, regardless of whether he had proof.

Kanaan feared that Mehlis would put the blame on him, also without a shred of evidence. Ironically enough, as Seale wrote about Al-Jundi, so too Kanaan felt isolated as his life came closer to its abrupt end: "As events closed in on him, he must have felt lonely and exceedingly vulnerable."

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