- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 23, 2005

Some European and Arab intelligence services have concluded the late Ghazi Kenaan’s Oct. 12 death was homicide made to look like suicide.

President Bashar al-Assad and his immediate entourage, according to this latest theory, had decided to turn a page in their relations with the European Union, France and the United States. But Kenaan firmly opposed Syria doing a Col. Moammar Gadhafi, the ebullient Libyan leader who turned state’s evidence against himself, exposed apologetically his plans to acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and offered relevant materials for destruction.

Mr. Assad and cronies, nudged gently by Jordan’s King Abdullah, became convinced Kenaan, Syria’s most powerful man and feared by President Assad himself, had ordered the assassination of Lebanon’s equally powerful business and political figure, the anti-Syrian Rafik Hariri. The Lebanese multi-billionaire, largely responsible for Beirut’s reconstruction after a 15-year civil war, had been agitating for withdrawal of Syrian occupation forces from his country.

Proconsul in Lebanon for 20 years, Kenaan was recalled to Damascus in 2002 to head Syria’s political intelligence organization and two years later joined the Cabinet and became interior minister. He controlled the entire country, and its 14 different intelligence services reported to him.

After six months of probing the Feb. 14 bombing murder of Hariri, the U.N. inquiry, headed by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, was on the verge of a spectacular breakthrough. This provoked panic in Syrian presidential politics.

Fearless, Mr. Mehlis subpoened and detained four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals — one a presidential guard commander.

The trap was closing rapidly on Kenaan, mastermind of the Hariri plot, which involved a number of Syrian and Lebanese intelligence officials. They evidently ignored the golden rule of “wet” operations: a secret shared is a secret devalued.

Last month, Lebanese authorities arrested four men who sold mobile phone chips to the plotters. Next Mr. Mehlis and his team drove to Damascus to interview Kenaan and Gen. Rustum Ghazali, who succeeded Keenan as Beirut proconsul and intelligence chief. It soon became clear Mr. Mehlis had the goods on both of them.

In Damascus, according to Foreign Report, published by Jane’s Information Group in London, the U.N. investigators demanded data from Syriatel and Spacetel, Syria’s two principal mobile phone operators. Everything was provided with one glaring exception. It related to one particular transmission station serving Lebanon.

At this stage, the U.N. also suspects Kenaan was wasted as a sacrificial lamb that absolved Mr. Assad and his cronies from any responsibility in Hariri’s assassination.

A minority of European and Arab intelligence services cling to the theory Kenaan could not face publication of the Mehlis report, as he knew he would be fingered as the principal culprit. Officially, Syrian regime flacks say Kenaan’s suicide was an honorable exit for a man who could not bear to face phony allegations against him and his country.

Mr. Mehlis left ambiguous whether Mr. Assad himself gave a green light to the Valentine’s Day slaying. According to Hariri’s son, Mr. Assad warned Hariri that if he continued to oppose another three years for the pro-Syrian Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, “I will break Lebanon over your head.”

Fearing the Mehlis report, released Oct. 20, would be a pistol aimed at the Syrian regime’s heart and give the U.S. a pretext to bomb suspected relay points along the border for jihadis making their way to Iraq from Europe and other Arab countries, Mr. Assad decided a radical change in policy would be the better part of valor. He told recent diplomatic visitors he is anxious to stop “the underground railroad” of foreign jihadis using Syrian territory. And yet they keep trickling in.

Veteran jihadis also exfiltrate back to Europe, where French intelligence believes they pass on new terrorist skills to young Muslims, now jobless in the poorer neighborhoods of major European cities.

Most Syrian generals deeply resent Mr. Assad for caving in to international pressure to withdraw the Syrian army from Lebanon after Hariri’s assassination. Drug trafficking from the Bekaa Valley and black marketing made Lebanon a plum assignment for Syrian military.

Many high-profile anti-Syrian Lebanese have received death threats and tell friends they expect major street disturbances in coming weeks. Some have not yet returned from their annual vacations in their second homes in France.

Clearly, Mr. Mehlis pulled a few punches. More than 400 interviews and 16,000 pages of documents were boiled down to a 54-page report that did not declare any one person guilty. Such an indictment could have sparked a renewed Lebanon’s civil war and/or another coup in Syria.

Between the end of the French mandate over Syria after World War II and the 1970 coup by Air Force chief Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, the country experienced 21 military coups.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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