Syria’s interior minister was found dead in his office, days before the release of a UN report that could implicate high-ranking Syrian officials in the murder of Lebanon’s former prime minister.
The Syrian government called it a suicide, but opponents claimed it could be murder to cover up high-level involvement.
Ghazi Kenaan, who effectively controlled Lebanon as Syria’s intelligence chief there for 20 years, was one of at least seven Syrians recently questioned by a UN team investigating the February 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
The news of his death shocked Syrians, and the government felt compelled to stress that his death would not affect the country’s political stability.
While life appears normal on the surface, Syrins are tense and buffeted by rumours. And the government is quietly preparing for the UN report by consolidating power, readying a diplomatic counteroffensive and taking steps to guard against any sanctions.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said Kenaan was a “central figure in Syria’s occupation of Lebanon for many years,” but that it was up to Syrian authorities to provide their assessment on the circumstances of his death.
US President George Bush, asked about the forthcoming UN report, said he did not wish to prejudge it. But Bush added, it was “important for Syria to understand the free world respects Lebanese democracy, and expects Syria to honour that democracy”.
Syrian President Bashar Assad, in an interview yesterday before Kenaan’s death was announced, rejected any possibility Syria could have ordered Hariri’s assassination.
“This is against our principles and my principles and I would never do such a thing in my life,” Assad said. “What do we achieve? I think what happened targeted Syria.”
Asked whether it was possible such a crime could have taken place without his knowledge, Assad replied: “I wouldn’t think so. As I said, if that happened, this is treason.”
He added that if the UN probe does have any material proof of Syrian involvement, those involved would be charged with treason and could be handed over to an international court – but added that he did not expect such proof.
Dennis Ross, a former US Mideast mediator, said if the UN report did point to some Syrian involvement, it likely would revolve around Kenaan because of his seniority and prominent position.
“I don’t believe it was a suicide,” Ross said of Kenaan’s death. “The timing is extraordinarily coincidental. It certainly would look as if someone was trying to create the impression the person responsible for the Hariri murder is dead.”
Kenaan, 63, committed suicide in his office, according to the official SANA news agency, which was the first to break the news, a sign that authorities in Damascus, who tightly control the media, wanted the news to be out.
“I believe this is the last statement that I can make,” Kenaan said hours before his death in a statement to a Lebanese radio station. He said he had been questioned by the UN investigators, but denied a report he had told them about corrupt Syrian officials.
A Syrian official said Kenaan shot himself in the mouth with a silencer-equipped gun. A colleague found him slumped on his desk, with a pool of blood on the ground, the official added. Kenaan was taken to Shami Hospital, but he was dead on arrival.
Syrian legislator Mohammed Habash said Kenaan was relaxed at a Cabinet session on Tuesday night and did not appear tense.
“Everything seemed normal,” Habash told Al-Arabiya. “Certainly, the indications that came before it did not show he was under pressure here, or that his political situation was shaky.”
Information Minister Mahdi Dakhlallah, however, told Al-Arabiya TV that Kenaan appeared to be “very upset and angry” over the anti-Syrian campaign in Lebanon that followed Hariri’s murder.
Dakhlallah said Kenaan’s death would be investigated, and stressed it would not affect political stability in Syria.
The interior minister in Syria controls the police. But before he was promoted to minister in 2003, Kenaan was Syria’s intelligence chief in Lebanon, a position that conferred enormous power. Syrian intelligence controlled the hiring and firing of Lebanese officials and every aspect of political and military life.
Several other Syrian officials have also recently publicly denied they co-operated with the UN investigation, in an apparent sign of infighting and confusion within the regime.
Syria dominated Lebanon until mass demonstrations and international pressure forced it to withdraw its troops from Lebanon at the end of April.
In June, the US government moved to block the financial assets of Kenaan and another Syrian general. The step indicated Washington was turning up the heat on Syria, with which it is at loggerheads over Iraq, Lebanon and Palestinian militants.
US Assistant Secretary of State David Welch, in Beirut, said Kenaan’s role in Lebanon “and that of other officials in the Syrian leadership has come under increased scrutiny recently,” and he urged Syria to cooperate fully with the UN investigation.
Many Arab countries, notably Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have been quietly pressing Assad to turn over any officials who may be implicated.
If the UN report implicates Syria, some analysts believe Assad would turn over officers who served in Lebanon if there is irrefutable evidence of their involvement. But they say he would never hand over family members, some of whom occupy powerful positions in government.
The investigators have named as suspects four Lebanese generals who are close to Syria, and Lebanon has arrested them.
Kenaan, born in Syria’s main Mediterranean port of Latakia, is survived by a wife, four sons and two daughters.
He will be buried today inside a mosque he built in his hometown of Bhamra.