News of Major-General Ghazi Kanaan's reported suicide in Damascus on Wednesday morning was met with astonishment in Beirut. As head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon for two decades, Kanaan was both the supreme arbiter of the country's political life and omnipotent baron of its security establishment. Few Lebanese will forget what they were doing when they first heard about his death.
While there has been much chatter about who was holding the silencer-equipped pistol that blew Kanaan's brains out, the question isn't all that relevant. If a man as arrogant and ambitious as Kanaan takes his own life, it is because he faces an alternative prospect far worse than death (and in Damascus there are many). One way or another, his untimely demise was almost certainly engineered by Syrian President Bashar Assad. The question is why.
The most prevalent explanation among Western and Lebanese observers alike is that Assad, whose regime is under investigation by the UN Security Council for involvement in the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, had Kanaan killed to deflect blame for the murder. This would not be a new tactic for the Syrian dictator. After assuming de facto control of the regime in 2000, Assad abruptly terminated prime minister Mahmoud al-Zu'bi's 13-year tenure and quickly brought him up on corruption charges. Before he could be put on trial (where he might have implicated powerful figures in the regime), however, Zu'bi was reported to have committed suicide while under house arrest. Afterwards, the state-run media excoriated him for a long litany of economic crimes.
In Kanaan's case, however, it is unlikely he was killed to provide Assad with a credible scapegoat for Hariri's murder, as Kanaan was a close friend and business partner of the former Lebanese prime minister. (In fact, it was for this very reason that Assad transferred him out of Lebanon in 2002). While UN investigators interviewed Kanaan along with other senior officials last month in Damascus, by all accounts they did not regard him as a suspect. His death will not help Assad beat the rap for Hariri's murder.
A second interpretation is that Kanaan was killed to prevent him from betraying the regime. Kanaan probably didn't take part in the plot to kill his friend, but it's likely he learned details about it after the fact -- making him the only major Syrian official with knowledge of the operation who wasn't in danger of implicating himself if he co-operated with UN investigators (and therefore the weakest link in Syria's wall of silence). In the weeks before Kanaan's death, there were unsubstantiated rumors in the Beirut media that he had made overtures along these lines to UN representatives.
A third interpretation, suggested to me by a well-placed Lebanese source on condition of anonymity, links Kanaan's fate to recent talks in Paris between U.S. officials and members of the late Hariri's political bloc (now led by his son Saad) about the future of Syria.
Specifically, the Bush administration was trying to ascertain whether anyone within the Syrian regime would be willing and able to assume control in the event of Assad's downfall. It wanted the dictator out, but without sparking an insurgency by Syria's Sunni majority against the minority Alawite-controlled government. The Harirists were said to have given exuberant assurances that Kanaan would take care of everything.
Much like Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress did before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the Harirists may have been deliberately misleading U.S. officials. By this time, Kanaan had been largely shorn of real power in the regime (his appointment as interior minister, putting him nominally in charge of a civil bureaucracy solidly controlled by Assad's allies, was intended to curb his influence in the military intelligence apparatus). Talk of Kanaan running things was simply empty bluster intended to encourage U.S. efforts to overthrow Assad.
Although these talks were behind closed doors, there is good reason to believe Assad was apprised of them and feared that they might lead Washington to intensify the UN investigation into Hariri's murder. Eliminating Kanaan may simply have been Assad's way of putting an end to the discussion.
Gary C. Gambill, a political analyst for Freedom House and adjunct professor at College of Mount Saint Vincent, has published widely on Lebanese and Syrian affairs.