Hariri’s ghost and the ‘Lebanese curse’
BEIRUT - The February 14, 2005, assassination of Rafik Hariri, five times prime minister of Lebanon and its only real statesman, still haunts the country, and indeed the entire Levant, like Banquo’s ghost.
But even as a UN-mandated special tribunal in The Hague tries five Hezbollah members for slaughtering Hariri and 22 others in a massive suicide bombing in the heart of Beirut, the death toll linked to that fateful St Valentine’s Day massacre keeps rising.
This has coincided with the tribunal’s focus of the decade-old effort to determine not just who carried out the attack on the burly billionaire but who ordered and masterminded it is, once again, as it was right after the bombing, centring on Syria.
Walid Jumblatt, the wily leader of Lebanon’s Druze minority and a former ally of Hariri in his struggle to end Syria’s quasi-occupation of Lebanon, boldly pointed the finger at Syrian President Bashar Assad on May 7th when he wrapped up four days of no-holds-barred testimony before the tribunal and declared Hariri was killed because he wanted the Syrians out of his country and had the international clout to make it happen.
“I insist on accusing the Syrian regime,” Jumblatt stated under oath. “Rafik Hariri asked for the Syrian withdrawal and they assassinated him.”
Admittedly, Jumblatt has an axe to grind with the Syrians. He says they ordered the assassination of his father, Kamal, who was gunned down by a Lebanese hit squad on March 16, 1977, in his Chouf Mountains stronghold south of Beirut during Lebanon’s civil war.
The elder Jumblatt, a leftist leader who had a wartime alliance with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, also had problems with the Syrians in the form of Assad’s hardline father, the redoubtable Hafez Assad, “the Lion of Damascus”.
Kamal Jumblatt bitterly opposed the Syrians’ intervention in the civil war in June 1976. The younger Jumblatt took over the leadership of the Druze and his father’s Progressive Socialist Party and over the years kept his small sect, an esoteric offshoot of Islam, intact by constantly shifting alliances.
Political testimony by Jumblatt and other leading Lebanese politicians in recent weeks has reflected how the tribunal prosecution is concentrating on Syria’s alleged involvement in the Hariri assassination by focusing on Assad’s personal enmity towards Hariri.
And it’s here that developments outside the former Dutch intelligence headquarters, where the tribunal is sitting, begin to intrude on this unique legal process, the first international investigation of a single act of terrorism.
The deaths of several senior Syrian intelligence officers in what can only be described as mysterious circumstances give weight to suspicions that implicate Assad, or at least the Damascus regime which has a history of liquidating its opponents, in the killing of Hariri and the subsequent assassination of more than a dozen other anti-Syrian Lebanese figures.
These Syrian officials were all stalwarts of the regime at one time or another and played key roles in enforcing Damascus’ domination of Lebanon.
“It seems that a curse has befallen the Syrian intelligence officers who took up posts in Lebanon under Syrian tutelage from 1990 to 2005,” Lebanese columnist Jean Aziz observed on April 26th amid widespread suspicion in Lebanon that Damascus was eliminating anyone who could have testified it was behind the Hariri assassination.
“While it may be impossible to determine if these deaths were related to the Hariri affair, in practical terms they may have severed ties between the Syrian regime and the assassination because Military Intelligence was at the heart of Syria’s Lebanon policy,” observed analyst Michael Young, author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square, an account of the political fallout from the assassination of Hariri.
It may be that Damascus fears the tribunal — prompted by pressure from the United States and others — is out to undermine it as Assad battles for his survival amid growing difficulties. The United States was instrumental in setting up the UN investigation, and the subsequent tribunal, in 2005 at a time when Syria was aiding al-Qaeda insurgents in Iraq. Nowadays, the Americans would just like to get rid of Assad once and for all.
The first to die was Major-General Ghazi Kenaan, the powerful head of Syria’s Military Intelligence in Lebanon from 1984 to 2002 who became the de facto ruler of the country. He was accused of eliminating dissident Lebanese, including Sunni Grand Mufti Hassan Khalid, in 1989. Hariri associates testified to the tribunal that Hariri personally paid Kenaan millions of dollars over the years to keep him sweet.
Kenaan was recalled to Damascus by Assad and promoted to chief of Syria’s Political Security Directorate, a key intelligence post, and in 2004 was appointed interior minister.
After the Hariri killing, Kenaan and other senior officials in Damascus were questioned by the combative chief UN investigator, German judge Detlev Mehlis.
In October 2005, Mehlis identified several top Syrians as suspects in his first report to the UN Security Council. The names were later deleted — but not before the original version had been posted on the United Nations’ website and circulated on the internet.
Mehlis was convinced Damascus was behind the assassination but his successors abandoned that line of inquiry for reasons never specified and eventually the United Nations concluded that Hezbollah, Syria’s long-time ally, carried out the actual bombing.
Both Hezbollah and Syria deny involvement in the assassination. Kenaan was also linked to shady financial dealings in Beirut, which, given his near-absolute power in Lebanon, surprised nobody.
But after being questioned by UN investigators, Kenaan phoned Voice of Lebanon, a Christian radio station in Beirut on October 12, 2005, and in a long, rambling discourse denied any corrupt dealings or involvement in Hariri’s murder — a highly uncharacteristic act by a senior official in a regime paranoid about security. Kenaan indicated that he felt in danger, without specifying what that might be. He finished by saying, “This is the last statement I can make.” An hour later, Syrian news agencies announced he had shot himself in the head with his service revolver at his office.
Three other ranking Syrian officials who played key roles in dominating Lebanon before 2005 have also died in murky circumstances.
Major-General Assef Shawkat, a linchpin of the regime and Assad’s deputy defence minister, was killed in a bombing in the national security headquarters in Damascus on July 18, 2012, with three other generals.
Syrian rebels claimed responsibility but given the immense difficulties involved in getting a bomb into such a heavily guarded building, many security experts suspect it was an inside job with Shawkat possibly the primary target because, as a former head of Military Intelligence, he would have had inside knowledge of the Hariri operation.
He was married to Assad’s sister Bushra despite family opposition, so he was not popular with everyone in Syria’s first family. However, as head of Military Intelligence he had been in charge of many clandestine operations, including some in Lebanon. Shawkat was one of several Syrian commanders named by Mehlis in his first report.
The next to die was Jameh Jameh, who had served in Lebanon as deputy to Kenaan’s successor as Syria’s pro-consul, General Rustum Ghazaleh. Jameh was a colonel then and was in charge of Syrian intelligence in Beirut when Hariri was assassinated. Jameh was also named by Mehlis as a suspect.
Jameh was reported to have been killed in October 2013 by a rebel sniper during fighting around the remote eastern city of Deir ez-Zor, where he had been appointed military chief.
Ghazaleh himself was the next fatality. He had been Syria’s supremo in Lebanon from 2002 until Syrian forces withdrew in April 2005 — ironically because of international outcry over the Hariri murder. He died April 24th in the al Shami hospital in Damascus.
He had been severely beaten and tortured in February by eight bodyguards of Major-General Rafik Shahadeh, head of Military Intelligence, who had succeeded Ghazaleh several months earlier.
The word was that they had differences over Iran’s growing influence in Syria but it’s unlikely that Shehadeh would order the savage beating of another security chief without sanction from the top. No official explanation for his injuries or death has been forthcoming.
Ghazaleh was in charge of all intelligence operations in Lebanon at the time Hariri was assassinated and emerged as central figure in the intrigue shrouding the assassination plot during the UN investigation. He was questioned by Mehlis’ investigators in Vienna on December 6, 2005.
According to a leaked US diplomatic cable, Ghazaleh panicked when investigators said they wanted to interrogate him a second time and barged into a meeting at the Syrian Foreign Ministry in early 2006 apparently seeking assurances he would not be arrested if he went back to Vienna.
Hariri’s son and political heir, Saad Hariri, said Ghazaleh was beaten the day after he contacted authorities in Beirut. “Rustom Ghazaleh called us before his death and wanted to appear on television and announce something we don’t know,” Hariri said.
This has raised suggestions that he planned to defect amid a series of major regime defeats and was silenced by Assad’s loyalists who feared he might seek to testify before the tribunal in The Hague as it shifts the focus on Syria’s role in the Hariri assassination.
Whatever information that might have been, Ghazaleh took it to the grave with him. “Will Ghazaleh be the last or will the Lebanese curse continue?” mused Jean Aziz.
It seems it might. In early May, reports filtered out of Damascus that Major-General Ali Mamlouk, head of the Ba’ath Party’s National Security Bureau and a close ally of the Assads since the 1970s, was under house arrest on suspicion of plotting a coup with Turkey, or had been admitted in mysterious circumstances to the al Shami hospital in Damascus, where Ghazaleh had breathed his last.
As far as is known, Mamlouk has never been linked to the Hariri assassination, although as a senior intelligence officer he probably had some knowledge of it.
But in August 2012, Lebanese authorities issued arrest warrants for him and one of his officers, identified only as Colonel Adnan, on charges of plotting bombings in Lebanon and the assassination of Syria’s opponents there.
Mamlouk was indicted following the August 9, 2012, arrest of Michel Samaha, a former Lebanese information minister who was once adviser to Bashar Assad and, some say, an operative of French intelligence. He was charged with smuggling explosives from Syria into Lebanon in his car “to carry out bombings in north Lebanon”.
The Lebanese have been unable to arrest Mamlouk in Damascus, which delayed Samaha’s trial. But on April 20th, Samaha, who faces the death penalty, appeared before a military tribunal and admitted the charges, although he claimed he was set up by Lebanese intelligence.
The prosecution is expected to stress the involvement of Mamlouk, and through him the Assad regime, in the plot. Unlike the Hariri case, this time an alleged co-conspirator is pointing the finger directly at the Assad regime — and Mamlouk, which could make him a liability that Damascus cannot afford.