Syria: ‘suicide’ and uncertainty

Earlier today, Syria’s powerful and well-connected Interior Minister, Brig.Gen. Ghazi Kanaan, was found dead in his office, an apparent suicide. Prior to taking up his present job Kanaan had for 20 years been Syria’s pro-consul in Lebanon. He was one of seven Syrian officials who were questioned recently by the UN-appointed Mehlis Commission, which has been investigating the circumstances of the killing of Lebanon’s Rafiq Hariri last February.
Mehlis is scheduled to submit his report to the Security Council on October 25.
One first very important question is: did Kanaan in fact commit suicide?
It isvery hard to think of someone who has carried out the repressive tasks Kanaan has carried out inside both Lebanon and Syria throughout his life being suddenly struck by an attack of remorse such as might have propelled a suicide. There are of course, “suicides” and “suicides.” A person can be surrounded by armed opponents, handed a gun, and given the option of “ending it quickly.” (An option far kinder than that given by Kanaan to many of his victims.)
Is this a suicide?
If we assume that the decision that Kanaan’s life be taken was not one made only by himself, we need to ask why other powerful figures inside Damascus might want him dead. So far there seem two conjectures worth entertaining:

    1. President Asad wanted Kanaan to be the fall-guy who would carry the rap as the “highest” Syrian official responsible for Hariri’s murder… He may well also have wanted Kanaan to be effectively silenced and put in a place where he could no longer be interrogated by Detlev Mehlis’s investigators. Such a place was found.
    2. (This one was suggested on Josh Landis’s excellent blog from Syria) “Was Ghazi Kanaan setting himself up to be Bashar’s alternative? Could he have been the Alawite “Musharrif” that some American’s and Volker Perthes suggested would take power from the House of Asad and bring Syria back into America’s and the West’s good graces.” Under this scenario, Asad would have found out about the plot and ordered the staged suicide fairly rapidly.

(Perthes, I should note, is a very well-informed expert on Syria, and like Mehlis a German national. He is someone whose judgment I would generally be inclined to trust. On the other hand, I– like Josh Landis– found Perthes’s analysis of Bashar’s present political weakness in that IHT article to be a little overdrawn…)
Josh also refers to this story on the Lebanese newswire Naharnet which tells us that,

    Hours before he died, Kanaan contacted the Beirut Voice of Lebanon radio station and gave it a statement, concluding with the words: “I believe this is the last statement that I could make.” He asked seasoned interviewer ‘Wardeh’ to pass his comments to other broadcast media.

From that story, it ‘appeared’ that Kanaan feared principally that he was about to be set up as the fall-guy for the Mehlis Commission. However, contacting the Voice of Lebanon to give it that statement at that time was an incredibly risky thing to do. What could Kanaan have hoped it would achieve– apart from, perhaps, activate some pre-agreed plan for his exfiltration at a time of dire distress? And if there was perhaps some such plan in which he had at least some degree of faith in, then Landis’s speculation about the possibility that Kanaan was plotting with the Americans might indeed be not far from the mark.
All of Damascus must be on tenterhooks right now. I wonder if there has been a widespread campaign of arrests there? If Kanaan was indeed setting himself up (with help from the Americans and possibly others) to topple the president, then that is what we should expect to see.
If there has not been such a campaign, then the staged suicide of Gen. Kanaan is much more likely to have been an intra-regime affair… Obviously, the killing of a man as politically powerful as Kanaan would leave a good proportion of his many political allies in the country angry (and scared), but that is a different matter.
We should get more clues as to the real story here within the coming days. But of course, given that the regime passes in and out of the cross-hairs of the ardent “regime-changers” in washington, almost anything might happen in Syria over the days ahead.
(I’ll just note quickly here that when I took part in that gathering about Syrian political futures in DC six weeks ago, one of the conclusions in which most of the expert participants concurred was that any political force that might replace President Bashar al-Asad at the present time would almost certainly be considerably more hostile to US policies than Asad has been…)
God save Syria.

Bloggers and Kurds in Syria

Joshua Landis’s blog from Syria, SyriaComment is always a really informative read. Today he has a great post about the explosion of blogging there, especially this year:

    I met with the Association of Syrian Bloggers last night at Leila’s Cafe next to the Umayyad Mosque. What a truly wonderful crowd. Ten bloggers showed up. Ayman Haykal, who keeps the Damascene Blog, is the organizer of the association. (His site lists most of the blogs.) Two women bloggers were among the 10 who showed up; most are university students and write in English because of a few technical difficulties caused by writing in Arabic. It seems they are easy to overcome, so we can expect more Arabic blogs quickly.
    There were a mere 5 blogs or so in Syria at the beginning of 2005. Now there are some 34 or 35. “A veritable blog explosion is going on,” Ayman announced. All the same everyone was dismayed at the small number of Syrian blogs. “It is because we are afraid of the written word,” one explained. “We base our blogs around photos. They can say a lot.” We spoke about many subjects: Syrian identity, Arab nationalism, democracy, US policy, and, of course blogging as it related to each. Almost everyone said he was optimistic about Syria’s future and believes the country is changing quickly and for the better.
    It was one of those evenings that make you feel good to be alive. Leila

Bush escalating against Syria

I was going to write a post here noting that the Bushies have taken a serious step toward escalating their battle against Bashar al-Asad’s regime in Syria.
That link there goes to a report by Robin Wright and Glenn Kessler of the WaPo, that on Thursday the State Dept’s new “democracy czar” Elizabeth Cheney hosted a meeting that included “senior administration officials from Vice President Cheney’s office, the National Security Council and the Pentagon and about a dozen prominent Syrian Americans, including political activists, community leaders, academics and an opposition group.”
The opposition group in question is the Syria Reform Party, which Kessler and Wright say is “often compared to the Iraqi National Congress led by former exile Ahmed Chalabi.” The SRP– or rather, as it calls itself, the RPS– is headed by Farid Ghadry, a 50-year-old Syrian-American who left his homeland when he was ten years old…
Well, I was going to post about that, but then I found this great post on Josh Landis’s blog.
Josh is a good, serious US scholar of Syrian affairs who knows Syria fairly well and is currently in Damascus on a Fulbright scholarship. (He speaks and reads good Arabic and is married to a Syrian, all of which attributes certainly strengthen the authority with which he writes.)
One key passage of what he writes there is this:

    Reformers here believe that Syria

Syria-2

(From Damascus. Written Tuesday evening.) As I started writing this, the plaintive quarter
tones of the evening call to prayer were reverberating from the minaret very
near to us. Now, that one’s stopped and I can hear other ones coming
thinly from other minarets around town. On Saturday, when we had dinner
at a restaurant up on Jebel Kassioun looking down on the city, we could see
many of its minarets picked out with green neon lighting: little green spears
sticking up from a broad, spreading carpet of orange street lights and lit-up
homes.

From ground-level I’ve seen some of the churches that have blue lighting
for the crosses topping them. Sunday evening we wandered around the shadowed
streets of the Old City’s Christian Quarter and heard the broad tones of
heavy church bells. Church bells on a cold and rainy Sunday evening…
that reminds me of so many poignant things about my childhood.

Continue reading “Syria-2”

Syria-1 (and Lebanon)

(Written Sunday) This morning we visited the
1,300-year-old Omayyad Mosque. We saw a 1,000-year-old Islamic madrasa
(school) and a stunning 250-year-old palace and nearby khan (a
merchant’s lodging- and meeting-house). We walked along the Street
Called Straight. I shopped a little in the broad, cavernous Souq al-Hamidieh,
and Bill took some photos… Having thus reimmersed ourselves in the busy rhythms
of Damascus’s Old City, a couple of taxi rides and a quick change of clothes
later we were sitting with Syria’s Minister of Expatriate Affairs, the feminist
former litterateuse Bouthaina Shaaban.

It was a short, informal discussion. Dr. Shaaban is going to Geneva
tomorrow to take part in a meeting on “women and peace”, but she slotted
us into her schedule at the last minute. I last saw her– even more
briefly– when I was in Damascus in December 2002. This time, I asked how
the atmosphere had been in Damascus back in May or June of last year when
the Americans, fresh from having vanquished Saddam’s regime in Iraq, was
making very belligerent noises about Syria. “We were never afraid,”
she said. “What could we do? We are are here, and we’ll stay
here.”

She said she thought Foreign Minister Farouq Shara would be going to the
“summit” on Iraqi reconstruction that starts tomorrow in Sharm al-Shaikh,
Egypt. She said she hoped the summit could help to find a way to make
elections happen in Iraq, and that Iraq’s neighboring states– all of whom
will be represented at the meeting– could play a role in that…

Continue reading “Syria-1 (and Lebanon)”

A little closer to Fallujah

Ha! I’ve got a very expensive connection here at our hotel in Damascus.
Last night we took a really interesting quick tour of the Old City etc by car, then had dinner at a place high up on Jebel Kassioun overlooking the twinkling lights of the city. Our host talked a bit about how anguished most Syrians, especially those in the northeast of the country, feel about the events in Fallujah.
Ilana Ozemoy has a very sobering piece of reporting from Falluj-ozny in today’s US News & World Report

    Once the sky stopped raining fire and the smoke from the tank cannons vanished, it was time to pick up the pieces. But where to start? What had been houses were now piles of brick and glass, demolished by 500-pound bombs. Whole city blocks were leveled, the rubble and mangled carcasses of cars pushed to the sides of the streets by the force of Abrams tanks. In crushing the Sunni insurgents who had laid claim to the streets, U.S. and Iraqi forces left Fallujah looking like a city ripped asunder by a hurricane. “It’s in bad shape. I don’t know what they [residents] have to come back to,” said Sgt. 1st Class John Ryan of the 1st Infantry’s Division Task Force 2-2…
    Rooting out a thousand or so insurgents in Fallujah required American commanders to commit some 10,000 troops, reinforced by punishing air power. The Army’s 1st Infantry Division, lacking the number of soldiers necessary to search every house, employed its tanks, blasting heavy cannon rounds in answer to snipers’ gun-and mortar fire to minimize time–and U.S. casualties. “You never want to destroy someone’s city like this. These people have worked hard for what they have,” said Staff Sgt. David Bellavia, of Task Force 2-2’s Alpha Company. “But this was the only way to eliminate those fanatics.”
    … While some houses survived with little damage, whole swaths of the city were made virtually unlivable. On the eastern side of Fallujah, which suffered some of the heaviest fighting, the front of one house looked as if it had been sliced off with a bread knife. The upstairs bedroom remained intact, a small vase of plastic roses sitting undisturbed above a perfectly made bed while the guts of the house spilled into the front yard, burying a man caked with blood and dust.
    …with weeks to go before the electricity is turned on and serious reconstruction work begins, Fallujah risks becoming a sequel to the battle for Baghdad–a quick, effective military operation, followed by a slow and problematic reconstruction effort. What Iraqis have seen so far are the images of scorched neighborhoods and wounded civilians looped on Arab satellite TV newscasts, and those who survived the fighting angrily condemned the military tactics. “There was no food, no water, no electricity–just the smell of gunpowder,” recalled Muhsan Fuad, 30, who fled his house in Fallujah’s Jolan neighborhood a few days after the offensive began, transporting the remains of a cousin killed by mortar fire. “It’s a war for freedom and democracy where there is no mercy, no law, no difference between men, women, and children. This is the American way of democracy?”

By the way, the piece is titled “Destroying it to save it?”.

FROM NEW YORK, Valentine’s Day

I’ve had a busy couple of days of work here, talking to some really interesting folks about my ‘Violence and its Legacies’ project, and starting to make plans for the research trip I’m planning to Africa in April, as part of the project.
From time to time, the idea of going to Africa in April seems weird. Shouldn’t I be concentrating more on this terrible Bush War in (and around) Iraq??
But I think its important not to become too, too distracted by the Bush War. Other parts of the world do still matter– a lot. And this project I’m working on, which looks at how effective three countries in Africa–Mozambique, South Africa, and Rwanda–ended up being when they sought, eight to ten years ago, to deal with legacies of atrocious violence, is certainly one with lessons that will have relevance everywhere. Including Iraq.
Yesterday, I talked to Alex Boraine, who worked with Archbishop Tutu as Executive Director of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. He’s now head of an organization called the International Center for Transitional Justice, that seeks to advise countries in transition on setting up their own TRCs.  Well, since I was focusing on my African research, we didn’t specifically talk about the idea of a TRC for Iraq.  But it’s not a bad idea.
What the S. African TRC did was significant because it helped to allow the white-minority regime to give up power to the democratic will of the (non-white) majority–and to be reintegrated into the new S. Africa as part of Mandela’s new ‘Rainbow Nation’.
In Iraq and in Syria, we also have the problem of minority-based regimes hanging onto power– with one great motivation for them to do so being their fear of how the majority might treat them if the majority were given a democratic order.
In South Africa, the TRC, and the broader black-white negotiation of which it was a part, allowed the white South Africans to cede power to the majority without fear of bloody retribution…
Wednesday, I talked for the first time to Andrea Bartolli, an Italian national now at Columbia who first came to NYC in the 1980s as the representative at the UN for a Catholic lay-based social-justice organization called Sant’ Egidio.  In that role, Bartolli played a significant behind-the scenes role with the rest of the Sant’ Egidio team who were helping to bring an end to Mozambique’s long-running civil war.  They succeeded in 1992.
Talking to Bartolli was fascinating.  One of the key factors he mentioned that allowed the negotiations between the two sides to the Mozambique war to succeed was the fact that they proceeded largely out of the public eyeof the world’s media, big governments, etc.  Another factor was that at that time, “No-one was even thinking that criminal prosecutions for past atrocities should be part of a peace negotiation– unlike today.”
So instead of criminal prosecutions etc (which became the international flavor-of-the-decade just a few months after Mozambique’s October 1992 agreement), what the Mozambicans did at both the national and local levels, was to state clearly that “the era of war and violence is past”, and to get on with the job of healing and rebuilding.
Bartolli told me he thought it was really important to have a consciously transformative event like the one where the leaders of the two sides there made a joint announcement that the war had ended.  He also noted that while most Westerners have a view of war that is purely instrumental– that “man uses war for his own purposes, a la Clausewitz”– in Mozambique the most common view is that war and violence are forces that themselves take hold of and use people.
Hey, George W, are you listening??
* * *
UNCLE VANYA:  We went to a great production of Brian Friel’s version of the play last night at BAM’s Harvey Lichtenstein Theater.  It seemed as though friel had cut/adapted the play well.  It moved right along.  A wrenching performance by Emily Watson as Sonya; and both Friel and Sam Mendes, who directed, had really succeeded in keeping/capturing Chekhov’s general gestalt of inescapable social decline.
Of course, New York is exhilarating and fun!!!  I guess the anti-war gathering tomorrow is not getting a permit to move, so we’ll be standing around freezingat the rally, listening to Tutu and others speak.
Yesterday, walking around the financial district, we passed a vast, slowly-moving convoy of fully-filled police vans.  The police presence on the subways was not as heavy as the NYT seemed to have portrayed.  In general, the security measures around the city seem to have settled back somewhat from when I was doing similar kinds of meetings here in March ’02.
* * *
NOTES OF 2/13 (but posted a day late):  In New York.  Front pages of most tabloids screaming about Bin Laden’s latest tape.  Audio-tape, that is.  Then, there’s the issue of duct tape: photos of people cleaning out the store shelves of this item which will– Tom Ridge assures us– save our lives in the event of chemical attack.
Mainly, though, New Yorkers seem to be stayng indoors because of the icy grip of winter here.
Today, my latest column in The Christian Science Monitor.  A challenging one indeed.  I wrote it Monday, seeing as how Tuesday I would be driving here to NYC.  The main argument I was making was that in his Feb 5 speech to the UN Colin Powell definitely did NOT establish w/ any credibility that there is a ‘nexus’ between OBL and Saddam (see my previous musings on this, below.)
So the drive here from Virginia was a toughie: swirling snows etc etc.  I heard a few scattered news reports on the car radio, but mainly listened to some Hemingway stories on CD.  I was focusing 100% on driving safely.  Got in maybe 10:30 p.m.
Wed. morning my editor at the CSM calls early, in a panic about the piece. She was right, my careful argumentation did look a little OBE (overtaken by events) in light of the new Osama tape, and the use Colin and his friends were making of it.  (Did you see Maureen Dowd’s great column on that in Wednesday’s NYT? Fabulous!)
So I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and tried to write a new head-and-foot for the piece.  It probaby wasn’t the greatest piece of work I’ve ever done.  But I was under a very tough deadline at that point
The arguments I was making in the piece are little complex.  But duh!  The world is complex!  It cannot be reduced to the war hawks’ simple Manichean view of things.  Jerking the American public into this quite avoidable war on the basis of the administration’s phony argumentation about an OBL-Saddam nexus is still
a really dangerous path to follow.
Plus, as I wrote in the column, by talking up the alleged OBL-Saddam nexus so much, the Bushies seem to have ended up virtually daring OBL to try to make it a reality. A challenge which– surprise, surprise– he seemed eager to take up.
Except he never shook his utter distaste for Saddam and Baathist socialism…