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World Council for the Cedars Revolution

Mar 03rd
House Cleaning in Damascus? PDF Print E-mail
Written by OLIVIER GUITTA (Middle East Times)   
Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Syrian President Bashar Assad. Photo by Ammar Rabbo/Abacapress via Newscom.)
Syrian President Bashar Assad. Photo by Ammar Rabbo/Abacapress via Newscom.)

If there is one country that has been all over the news lately, it is Syria. In fact between President Bashar Assad's charm offensive to the West (real or not), Syrian troops amassing near the Lebanese border, a terror attack in Damascus, it seems that today things are shaking up in Syria. But the difficulty of reading into this imbroglio is growing by the day: more players, more incidents, more drama.

While it is tough to know for sure what is going on in Assad's country, a certain pattern is emerging. And all roads lead to the International Tribunal that is meant to try the murderers of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. For the time being the various U.N. reports on the investigation are pointing to one direction where the culprits are presumed to be: Damascus.

What Assad would hate more than anything is that his regime would stand accused and be convicted of being behind the assassination of Hariri. The International Tribunal has become an obsession for the Syrian president. According to the Beirut daily Al-Anwar who cites Lebanese and international sources who obtained copies of the forthcoming report from the international commission, Syrian security services heavyweights are reportedly implicated in Hariri's assassination.

This has put the regime in Damascus in a near panic state. A number of analysts believe that Assad will go to great lengths to prevent the tribunal from proceeding. Now a more clear explanation of events which unfolded in Syria over the last year begins to emerge.

It all started with the assassination in February in Damascus of Hezbollah's Imad Mughnieh. While no formal accusation against the Syrian security services can be made, there is no way that in a country so tightly controlled there was not at least complicity from some in the regime. Interestingly, Mughnieh was suspected of having a hand in Hariri's murder and it could have been convenient for Damascus to get rid of him to avoid linkage to the regime.

Then shortly after, Syria's number 2, Assef Shawkat, head of the security services and Assad's powerful brother in law, was kicked out of the inner circle, stripped of his powers and allegedly put under house arrest. According to a Syrian opposed to the current regime, if Shawkat was not Bashar's sister's husband, he would have been eliminated. What is sure is that Shawkat was reportedly the real mastermind behind Hariri's murder. It is then quite convenient to have him taken out of the picture.

Fast forward to August 1, when General Muhammad Suleiman, Assad's right hand man was murdered by two snipers in Tartous. What makes his murder more than suspicious is that he was in his summer residence under tight security and had usually a team of 20 or so bodyguards. Weirdly enough, none of the members of his security team fired back or launched a pursuit against the snipers. Also Assad surprising everyone did not postpone a trip to Tehran, did not attend the funerals, and did not even present his condolences to the general's family. It looks like the death of his close confidante did not affect Assad in the least. And coincidence: Suleiman was summoned to appear in front of the international commission investigating the assassination of Hariri just a few days after his death. He already had been questioned twice and was one of the key witnesses, since all Syrian services reports from Lebanon were sent to him.

Last but not least, on Sept. 27, an explosion near a security service center in Damascus took place, killing 17. Again, how could this operation be pulled off in a country and a neighborhood so tightly controlled? How could a car full of 500 pounds of TNT be brought there? According to Syria's official television, the explosion killed a general and his son. It is allegedly Brigadier Abdel Karim Abbas, who was reportedly also one of the people interrogated by the international commission investigating Hariri's murder.

While it is true that one can doubt that the regime would be behind a "terror" attack that made so many victims just to kill one of its operatives, this is not so far-fetched especially in light of what occurred in the past few months.

These sudden 'accidental' deaths come at a convenient time for the regime. As they say in the intelligence business, there are no coincidences.


Olivier Guitta, an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a foreign affairs and counterterrorism consultant, is the founder of the newsletter The Croissant (www.thecroissant.com).

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