One of the juicier Assad family stories concerns the relationship between Bashar Assad and Assef Shawkat, the head of Syrian military intelligence. Shawkat, who suffered many trials and tribulations before receiving the blessing of Hafez Assad to marry his only daughter Bushra, quarreled five years ago with Maher Assad, Bashar's brother and currently chief of the Republican Guard. The conflict was triggered by some harsh remarks Shawkat made criticizing Hafez Assad's brother, Rifaat Assad, who has been living in Paris for many years now, at a family gathering at which Maher was present. Masher demanded that Shawkat shut his mouth and not criticize his uncle Rifaat, and that the dispute between Rifaat and his brother Hafez Assad had nothing to do with Shawkat because he did not belong the family anyway. Shawkat, who refused to remain silent, reminded Maher that he was married to his sister Bushra, a matter that angered Maher even more; he, like his older brother Basel, had objected to the marriage.
Maher, legend has it, pulled out a gun and shot Shawkat in the stomach. Shawkat was rushed to a hospital in Paris and returned to Syria only after Hafez Assad intervened and initiated a reconciliation among the family members.
Later, after Basel - the oldest son, who was designated to lead Syria after his father Hafez's death - was killed in a car accident, Bashar was called back from London to Damascus to start preparing to succeed his father. Assad the elder advised him at the time to draw Shawkat closer to him both because he was married to his sister Bushra and also because he would prove more loyal to him than to anyone else. This was because although Shawkat was a member of the Alawi minority and of the Ba'ath party, like the Assad clan, he had no broad public base and all his power derived from his connections with the Assad family. That is how a proper ruling family behaves.
Bashar took his father's advice to heart, and Shakat is currently the strongest member of the Syrian ruling apparatus and perhaps the one closest to Bashar. While Shawkat's son, Ziyad, 27, also benefits from these connections, and according to Syrian opposition reports is taking over land and shops in the city of Tartus, Bashar himself also draws considerable benefit from him. Proof of the quality of these relations can be found in Bashar's willingness to let the head of the United Nations international investigative team, Detlev Mehlis, to question even Maher, his brother, but not Shawkat. In Syria, a country of rumor, some take the view that Bashar is even willing to "sacrifice" Maher's head as long as he and Shawkat emerge squeaky clean from the investigation into the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri last February.
Bribes from Hariri
In the power struggles within Bashar's family and among his associates, the involvement of Ghazi Kanaan, Bashar's interior minister who apparently committed suicide last week, stood out in particular. He had served as chief of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, and in fact ran matters in Lebanon on behalf of Syria for close to 20 years. When Bashar took over responsibility for the Lebanon portfolio in 1998 (even before he was appointed president after his father's death in the summer of 2000), he set out to clean the stables of corruption - a code name for a series of purges at the top. This was also the last year of Hariri's first term as prime minister.
During that year, Emile Lahoud, a Syrian loyalist in Lebanon, won the Lebanese presidency in wake of considerable pressure exerted by Hafez Assad. As Bashar's representative in Lebanon, Lahoud also launched a campaign against corruption in the state, with the lion's share of the campaign being directed against Hariri and his associates, who for years paid the heads of the Syrian administration millions of dollars in order to obtain agreement from Damascus for certain political steps. According to one report disseminated at the time by the Lebanese opposition, led by General Michel Aoun (who left Lebanon for Paris and returned to Lebanon this year), in 1992 Hariri offered the then-president of Lebanon, Amin Gemayel, $30 million to end his term six months early, and at the same time offered Hafez Assad some $500 million to agree to appoint Johnny Abdu, who was Lebanon's chief of military intelligence, as president. This was so that Abdu would appoint Hariri prime minister, so that he could advance Syria's interests in Lebanon. According to this report, Gemayel rejected the offer.
In any case, Lahoud's "clean-up campaign" ended a short time after it began, when it emerged that he might cause damage to the chief of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, Ghazi Kanaan, who was also on Hariri's payoff list. Lahoud recommended to Bashar Assad that he remove Kanaan and appoint his brother-in-law Assef Shawkat instead. But Bashar, who was not yet president, feared taking such a far-reaching step. He left Kanaan in place for another 12 years before appointing him head of political intelligence and then gave him the important job of interior minister, where Kanaan continued to pull strings in Lebanon through his previous deputy Rustum Ghazale, who was appointed to replace him as chief of Lebanese intelligence.
Kanaan, who understood that he was under surveillance and that his position was starting to totter, tried to prove his loyalty to Bashar's regime and at the same time worked closely with Rafik Hariri, who again became president in 2000. In the same year, Kanaan initiated the new election law that redivided Lebanon's electoral regions in such a way that would ensure the election of pro-Syrian Sunni delegates to the Parliament and create dependence between the Christian and Sunni candidates. If the reports from New TV, which is owned by businessman Tahsin Khayyat, are true, then Kanaan admitted to the international investigative committee that he had received $10 million from Hariri to push the new election law through. Kanaan, according to the same reports, presented copies of the checks that he received as proof that he had no interest in seeing Hariri killed.
Who is the weakest link?
According to Lebanese commentators, Kanaan's loyalty to Bashar Assad was absolute, but some top Syrian and Lebanese officials close to the president believed that Kanaan held too much power and that his wings needed clipping. Thus, for example, in Lebanon it is known of a dispute between Kanaan and his replacement Ghazale. Kanaan was convinced that they should work according to the well-known principle of "sensitivity and determination." He was a believer in the personal, diplomatic approach, and as a man of considerable charisma and personal charm, he knew how to implement it. Ghazale, on the other hand, is an aggressive man with poor speaking skills. Thus, for example, he threatened Hariri directly, whereas Kanaan knew how to avoid such direct clashes. Ghazale had a great deal of information about Kanaan's political and business dealings in Lebanon, and he may have wanted to get rid of Kanaan, so when the large-scale demonstrations against the Syrian presence began, Kanaan was among those who believed that it was Ghazale's heavy-handed approach that had precipitated the protest movement.
Kanaan was also forced to choose sides in the power struggle between Maher, Bashar's brother, and Assef Shawkat, the brother-in-law. It is not clear if he always managed to choose the right side in that power struggle, and it is possible that in the wake of the international investigation, Kanaan felt that he had been abandoned by all parties - including Bashar - who rushed to save their own skins.
Meanwhile, a number of unexplained questions remain in the Kanaan affair: Was it Maher Assad who cooked up the move against Hariri by means of a violent group that was acting under the noses of Kanaan and Shawkat? Was Maher afraid that Bashar's weakness would lead to the fall of the ruling family in Syria and that consequently, it would be preferable to start preparing to take over now? If the answer is yes, then Maher had an interest in removing Kanaan, who was viewed as Bashar's loyal advisor.
It is not inconceivable that Maher was in league with Rifaat Assad, who himself hopes to become president of Syria and is even willing to collaborate with the Americans in order to do so. If Kanaan knew of this possibility, could he have warned Bashar without risking being viewed as someone stirring up family quarrels?
Another question relates to the fear of Bashar and his family to the possibility that Kanaan might have been the weak link, and that he might possibly give up incriminating information in the Hariri assassination affair. These questions are directed at the possibility that Kanaan was murdered or ordered to commit suicide and did not kill himself of his own accord. However, there is also a personal angle that could disprove this possibility. When a person of Kanaan's position, an interior minister and the de facto head of internal security and a very close associate of the president, finds himself facing an interrogation and feels that he has been abandoned, it could lead to suicide.
Detlev Mehlis, the head of the UN commission investigating the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, will submit his investigative report on Friday to the secretary general of the United Nations. If the transcripts of the interviews are made public, we may discover not only who assassinated Hariri, but also who moves what in Bashar Assad's government.
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