The suicide of Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan is a sign of the steadily growing pressure on the Syrian government. Mr. Kanaan’s death eliminates a central figure in the investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, but it will not end the inquiry, nor is it likely to help Damascus. Syria’s isolation is increasing. It is unclear how the government of President Bashar Assad will cope with this pressure.
Mr. Kanaan was at the heart of Syria’s intelligence and security apparatus. He spent 20 years in Lebanon, where he served as the head of Syria’s military intelligence service. He was the ultimate power broker in Lebanon, with final approval of every important government appointment. His personal and political connections, and his efficiency, won him the interior ministry portfolio last year after a string of high-profile and unexplained killings in Syria.
This history, and his experience in Syria, made him a key figure when United Nations investigators began looking into the murder of Mr. Hariri, who was killed in a massive car explosion in Beirut on Feb. 14. The blast followed Mr. Hariri’s efforts to eliminate Syrian influence in Lebanon; Damascus had virtually run the country for decades and used Lebanon as both a buffer between itself and Israel and as a staging ground for attacks by anti-Israeli proxies, such as Hezbollah, to help pressure Israel into returning the Golan Heights, seized in the 1967 war.
If killing Mr. Hariri was designed to silence the calls for a Syrian withdrawal, the move backfired. The assassination set off widespread demonstrations throughout Lebanon — “the Cedar Revolution” — and culminated in the withdrawal of all Syrian troops in the country and parliamentary election wins for anti-Syrian politicians. Equally important, the U.N. responded to the murder with a call for an investigation of its own. After initially resisting the probe, the Syrian government allowed it to interview key officials. The initial report is to be given to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan later this month, and discussed by the Security Council shortly after.
Mr. Kanaan was one of seven ranking Syrian officials questioned by U.N. investigators three weeks ago. Four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals have reportedly been arrested in the probe. Syrian officials deny that their government was involved in the killing and have said that anyone proved to have played a role would be a “traitor” and prosecuted. Mr. Kanaan’s death provides a tempting opportunity to use him as a scapegoat. Others have noted that Mr. Kanaan was a possible successor to President Assad. Both possibilities have led to considerable speculation about whether his death was really a suicide.
No matter what the cause, Mr. Kanaan’s death will not end the pressure on Syria. The United States has long been suspicious of Syria because of Damascus’ hostility to Israel and its support for groups like Hezbollah. The Assad regime is considered to be a source of regional instability and an obstacle to peace in the Middle East. In addition, the U.S. now believes that Syria is not doing enough to stop the flow of insurgents into Iraq and is promoting unrest there. Mr. Assad has said that his country is unable to patrol its long border with Iraq, but Mr. Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, said last month that “patience is running out with Syria.” Syria has offered to cooperate with the U.S. — and has done so in the past — but neither government has been happy with the resulting arrangement.
Difficult relations with the U.S. are a staple of Syrian foreign policy. Unfortunately for Damascus, the killing of Mr. Hariri has swayed opinion in other countries, including France, which have been more tolerant of Damascus’ policies. Other Arab governments are increasingly frustrated with Syria’s hard line and have had enough. They are reportedly pressing Mr. Assad to hand over anyone who may be involved in the assassination.
Mr. Assad may have no choice. And that image — of a Syrian leader bowing to the U.N. — could do irreparable damage to his regime. Syria has long been insulated from foreign pressure, but it is no longer invulnerable. In many respects, Damascus seems outside the mainstream in the Middle East, clinging to policies that no longer respond to circumstances. There are increasing doubts about Mr. Assad’s ability to navigate the currents in the region. Those strains will only increase as the U.N. investigation continues and U.S. frustrations mount over events in Iraq.
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