FM Shalom: Syrians feel ‘noose tightening’ over UN report

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said Thursday that he hoped the suicide Wednesday of Syrian Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan would not make Kanaan a scapegoat for Syrian President Bashar Assad. “The Syrians feel the noose tightening around their necks,” Shalom said. “The [UN investigator Detlev] Mehlis report is closing in on direct Syrian involvement in Hariri’s murder.” A UN panel is expected to report soon on its probe of the death of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Shalom also said the Syrians “apparently have a connection, which they are having difficulty hiding, to Hariri’s assassination. As long as Assad continues to support terror, the international community will give his regime no rest.” The circumstances surrounding Kanaan’s death remain unclear. Damascus is reportedly concerned that the special UN investigation into the assassination of Hariri will link senior Syrian officials to Kanaan’s gunshot death. There is also concern in Syria that the death of an official as senior as Kanaan (who was in charge of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon) will upset the regime’s stability. Rumors have been rife in Syria recently that former Syrian vice-president Abd al Halim Khaddam and former chief of staff Hikmat Shihabi have been in touch with the U.S. administration about toppling the regime in Damascus. Both men deny the charge. Kanaan was recently questioned by the panel working under Mehlis, and Arab pundits say his suicide raises the possibility that the Syrian regime would accuse him of personal involvement in Hariri’s killing. The night before Kanaan died, a Lebanese television station reported that he had been questioned by the Mehlis commission, and that he had admitted receiving millions of dollars from Hariri. However, two hours before his death, Kanaan gave a telephone interview to the Voice of Lebanon radio station in which he denied the report. The Israeli security establishment sees Kanaan’s suicide as another serious complication for Syrian President Bashar Assad. Security sources said Thursday that the chain of events that brought about Hariri’s assassination jeopardizes the Assad regime. Israel does not discount the possibility that Kanaan took his life after being pressured to do so as a scapegoat, deflecting any blame from Assad. Israel is taking care not to become publicly involved in the probe of the Hariri assassination, although the UN did ask it to provide intelligence material. The security establishment and the government have been considering whether or not complications for Assad are necessarily good for Israel. U.S. pressure on Syria is good for Israel, some say, but others believe that the Syrian president’s losing control would be a negative development for Israel – a weak regime in Damascus takes pressure off Israel to renew negotiations with the Syrians and makes it unnecessary for the Sharon government to offer concessions such as the return of the Golan Heights. A senior Israel Defense Forces officer told Haaretz this week that Israel “should hope that Assad buckles to American pressure and the demands of President George W. Bush to stop supporting anti-American terror in Iraq and Palestinian terror in the territories.” The officer said it was important that this process take place without Israeli involvement.