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Foreign Correspondent
by international syndicated columnist & broadcaster Eric Margolis


Copyright: Eric S. Margolis, 2005

November 7, 2005

WASHINGTON - Syriaís regime is in deep, deep trouble. The Bush administration has been busy undermining Syria for over a year and has clearly targeted the isolated government of President Bashar Asad as its next candidate for regime change.

Instead of the excuse used to invade Iraq Ėnon-existent weapons of mass destruction - the US is using the murder last February of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri as its primary weapon against Syriaís embattled government.

On the surface, the Hariri murder case appears open and shut. The US-British-French-UN version: Syriaís regime, furious at politician and business mogul Rafik Hariri for seeking to end Syriaís lengthy occupation of Lebanon, sent agents to Beirut last February to blow him up.

The UN Security Council opened an unprecedented investigation of Haririís murder because the strategic interests of three of its most important members, the US, Britain and France, became aligned.

The US and Britain wanted to oust the Asad government and replace it with a compliant regime of generals that would stop supporting the Palestinian independence movement and cut all support to Iraqís resistance. France wished to restore its political and commercial influence in Syria and Lebanon, both former colonies.

Russia and China allowed the process to continue because they did not want to be associated with any guilty finding against Syriaís leadership, and because of the stunning ineptitude of the Syrian defense against accusations of terrorism and murder.

The UN Security Councilís special investigator, German magistrate Detlev Mehlis, claims Haririís murder involved two of Syriaís most powerful figures, military intelligence chief Assef Shawkat, and President Asadís brother, Maher.

Syria denied any involvement. But few believed its unloved regime. Syria and Israel had waged a long, dirty war over Lebanon in the 1980ís using car bombs and assassinations.

Washington denounced Syria for terrorism and demanded Damascus hand over guilty officials. US State Secretary Condoleeza Rice even threatened `serious consequences,í diplomatic jargon for war. This came as no surprise since Syria has long been a primary target of Bush administrationís neoconservatives whose primary objective is to use Americaís military and economic power to destroy enemies of Israel.

Syria certainly seemed cornered. Though Asadís regime is in dire peril, its officials have continued to mount a truly pathetic defense.

Worse, Syriaís powerful former proconsul in Lebanon, Gen. Ghazi Kenaan, mysteriously shot himself in Damascus, raising all sorts of conspiracy theories. Kenaan may have been involved in the Hariri plot, or was being set up to be framed by his many enemies in Damascus - a sacrificial lamb to the UN investigation. Meanwhile, some of Bashar Asadís wealthy relatives were decamping for Dubai.

But in the Mideast, things are rarely what they appear. The facts do not yet quite add up, as detective Hercule Poirot would say.

Mehlisís accusations were apparently based on a single source: a Syrian exile in Lebanon, who was exposed as a convicted embezzler and fraudster Ė just like the paid liars that supplied the phony information used to sell the war against Iraq.

This informer was reportedly handsomely paid to implicate the Asad regime. So far, no hard evidence of Syriaís guilt has been produced. But that did not stop Washington, London, and Paris or the western media from trying and condemning Syria.

A key suspect in this Levantine intrigue is Basharís ambitious uncle, Rifaat, the brother of the Syriaís late, iron-fisted ruler, Hafez Asad. He expected to become leader, but was packed off to Paris exile by party leaders to make way for his brotherís favorite son, crown prince Basil. But Basil died in a car crash.

Younger brother Bashar, an eye specialist, was named leader of Syria as a compromise candidate who would avoid a ruinous power struggle between Syriaís generals, spy chiefs and Baíath Party bigwigs. Rifaat, brooding in exile, has long tried to get the French and Americans to put him into power.

So who killed Hariri? As I wrote after the murder, there was no benefit for Bashar to kill old Syrian ally Hariri, an act certain to bring a storm down on Syria. In fact, Haririís murder forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon.

Bashar is primarily a figurehead ruler and may well have been unaware of the murder plot, even if Syria was behind it. Real power is held by his relatives and Baíath Party Old Guard, most of them members of the secretive Alawite sect that makes up 11% of Syriaís multi-religious population.

Many of Syriaís powerful political and military figures were partners with Hariri and key Lebanese generals and politicians in multi-billion dollar real estate, trade, banking, port , smuggling, and some rather questionable deals. Senior figures in Lebanon and Syria have long been deeply involved in the lucrative hashish trade from the Bekaa Valley.

Lebanese sources insist huge business deals gone sour, and missing billions in loans, not Syrian troops in Lebanon, lay behind Haririís murder. They could be right.

Syria expert Patrick Seale writes this crisis offers Bashar a golden opportunity to grab power from his relatives and fatherís cronies by staging a mass purge and seizing control of the military and multi-layered security forces.

To survive, Bashar may also have to bow to US demands to seal Syriaís with Iraq, cease backing non-PLO Palestinian militant groups and Lebanonís Hezbollah militia, and give up hope of regaining Syriaís strategic Golan Heights, which Israel seized in 1967 and shows no sign of relinquishing. All this would be a huge victory for Israelís PM, Ariel Sharon and largely make up for his defeat in attempts to turn Lebanon into an Israeli protectorate by Syria and Hizbullah.

The trail of murder could also lead back to Beirut. Lebanonís shadowy intelligence service, the Deuxieme Bureau, has long freelanced for foreign powers. In the 1980ís, it was reportedly hired by CIA to blow up Hizbullahís leader with a truck bomb. He escaped, but over 80 civilians died.

In 2002, Lebanese fascist militia leader Elie Hobeika was blown up by a car bomb just days before he was to testify in Belgium that Israelís then Defense Minister, Ariel Sharon, had directed the 1982 massacre of 2,200 Palestinian civilians at the camps of Shatilla and Sabra. This crime remains unsolved, like 26 previous assassinations in Lebanon.

There is little sympathy for the Asad family in the Arab World, but great concern for Syria. If its regime collapses, civil war looms between the long-persecuted, vengeful Sunni majority and the Alawi-minority dominated government. I was in the Syrian city of Hama in 1982 when the Asad regime slaughtered 10,000-20,000 Sunni opponents. Welcome to Iraq II.

Today, the only real political alternative in Syria aside from a new military junta is the underground militant Muslim Brotherhood. That prospect, at least, is giving the Bush Administration pause for thought.

Published at since 1995 with permission, as a courtesy and in appreciation.

To read previous columns by Mr. Margolis: Click here

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