Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Mystery Behind a Syrian Murder

Note: I usually do not post materials from the corporate press on this blog, much less so one coming from, of all things, from the Time/CNN cesspool. Still, this article was mailed to be my a friend (thanks M.!) and it is interesting. Take a look (my comments are italicized):

The Mystery Behind a Syrian Murder

By Nicholas Blanford / Beirut

Syria on Wednesday broke its silence over the recent mysterious assassination of a senior army general and top aide to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, a killing that has provoked a storm of speculation over internal rifts within the Assad regime.

Brigadier General Mohammed Suleiman, 49, was shot dead last Friday at his chalet in the Rimal al-Zahabieh luxury resort nine miles north of the port city of Tartous on the Mediterranean. Press reports in the Arab world claimed that the assassin had fired the shots from a boat out at sea, thus evading security at the prestigious holiday resort regularly frequented by top regime figures. Some analysts, however, suspect that the killer fired from close range — they note the fact that Suleiman was hit in the head, neck and stomach, and also the difficulty of firing that accurately from a bobbing boat. (Note: the sniper on the boat hypothesis is extremely unlikely not only because of the bobbing boat, but because of the difficulty of estimating the air motion over the sea water, the land and the boundary between the two. Also, placing three shots on target is not something which a sniper is likely to achieve. Thus, a close-up execution is far more likely. VS)

The slain general was buried on Sunday at his home village of Draykish, 15 miles east of Tartous, in a funeral attended by Maher al-Assad, younger brother of the President. Bashar al-Assad, who is said to be deeply upset by Suleiman's murder, stuck to his schedule and flew to Tehran on Saturday for talks with top Iranian officials, followed by a trip to Turkey. And the government initially remained silent on the assassination, while the Syrian media ducked the issue. But on Wednesday for the first time, Buthaina Shaaban, an advisor to President Assad, confirmed Suleiman's death.

"Mohammed Suleiman, an officer in the Syrian Arab Army, has been assassinated," Shaaban told reporters. "An investigation is underway." She offered no further details.

As for the identity and motive of the killer, there is no shortage of speculation in Syria. Nicknamed "the imported general" by his friends because of his fair complexion and foreign looks, Suleiman had been a key aide to Assad since the mid-1990s, when Bashar was being groomed to succeed his father, Hafez al-Assad, as president. Suleiman, who comes from the same Alawite religious sect as the Assad family, supervised several portfolios, and oversaw Syria's weapons research and development program. After Assad became president in 2000, Suleiman handled his intelligence affairs and was reportedly also in charge of arms transfers from Syria to Hizballah in neighboring Lebanon. (Elsewhere Suleiman is reported to be the intelligence liason officer to Hezbollah. VS)

Suleiman's murder comes at a critical time for Syria, which is presently engaged in a delicate balancing act of pursuing indirect peace talks with Israel and improved ties to the West, at the same time as maintaining its relations with Hizballah and Iran. In exchange for the return of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967, the Israeli government demands that Syria curtails its strategic alliance with Iran and its backing for Hizballah and for Palestinian militant groups. Still, since Syria and Israel revealed in May that they are negotiating via Turkish mediation, Damascus has paradoxically strengthened its military and economic alliance with Tehran (Nonsense. What Syria is doing is trying to placate Iran over its gradual sell-out of the Palestinians and Hezbollah. Futile. VS).

Some Syria watchers believe that while Assad has a firm grip on power, the pressure of juggling relations with Israel and Iran is causing stresses within the regime.

"There is talk now about moving to direct peace negotiations between the Syrians and Israelis, but it's hard to reconcile those talks when Syria's military and security apparatus is so heavily supported by Iran," said Andrew Tabler, a Damascus-based Syria analyst. "I can't imagine how they are going to square all that." (They are not. But the idea that there are two "currents" inside the Syrian elites is an interesting one. VS)

A well-informed Syrian source told TIME that Suleiman's death could be connected to the fallout surrounding the assassination in Damascus last February of Hizballah's top military commander, Imad Mughniyah, who was killed by a car bomb (You betcha! There is absolutely no way in the world Mughniyeh could have been killed without the assistance of the Syrian Mukhabarat. The only question is what part of the regime was involved. VS)

Regime insiders indicate that the Mughniyah killing, which caused the Syrian leader serious embarrassment with his Iranian and Hizballah allies, touched off a purge in the senior ranks of Syria's intelligence services. Some speculate that these purges may have created a revenge motive for Suleiman's killing (There is another option here: if Hezbollah's investigation revealed that Suleiman played a key role in the Mughniyeh murder he might have been killed by Hezbollah operatives in a revenge operation. Alternatively, he might have been made into the fall guy and executed on Assad orders, if only to make it look to Hezbollah that he is not personally involved. VS)

"It's a very delicate question. I think that how the regime reacts to the assassination will be more significant than the assassination itself," the source said.

Ultimately, the truth may turn out to be much simpler, or perhaps even more convoluted than the most convoluted conspiracy theory. With Syria, you can never tell. (Well gee, typical clueless journalistic conclusion. This is Time/CNN after all. VS)
Commentary: I am amazed that there is one factor which everybody assumes to be certain: Assad is personally untouchable. I don't believe that at all. My guess is that Hezbollah (and/or the Iranians) can reach deep inside Syria and Assad's regime and that an Assad assassination is not at all something impossible. Consider this: Hezbollah and Iran have been "preparing the battlefield" for, literally, *years*; Iran and Hezbollah have (by far) the most sophisticated intelligence capabilities of the Middle-East (both in analysis and operations); lastly, neither Iran nor Hezbollah could have any illusions at all about the loyalties of a Baathist like Assad. Add this all up and it is overwhelmingly probable that both Iran and Hezbollah have deeply infiltrated the Syrian regime and that they are ready, if needed, to strike at at. Do I know any of this for a fact? No, of course not. But this hypothesis is far more likely than the totally unbelievable idea that this would not have happened.

I believe that Assad was in a great deal of personal danger as soon as Mughniyeh was murdered, regardless of whether he personally was involved or not (and my guess is that he was). The assassination of Suleiman by a long sniper based on a boat is just nonsense. It is far more likely that he was executed by the Syrians themselves. If not, than the only one with the reach to kill him would be Hezbollah and/or Iran.

What do you think?

The Saker