Blanford’s Hariri Book. Syria Talks Urged by Britain

Britain Urges US Talk to Syria

Tony Blair, according to the Guardian, is to urge the US administration next week to open talks with its great adversaries Syria and Iran, as a way to break the impasse in Iraq and the wider middle east.

He is due to give video link-up evidence to the independent bipartisan panel in Washington headed by James Baker, seen as the vehicle whereby George Bush can change course on Iraq. The evidence, on Tuesday, is regarded as a vital opportunity for the prime minister to influence thinking in Washington at a rare time of flux….

Mr Blair's senior foreign policy advisor, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, travelled to Damascus three weeks ago. It is thought the US administration was supportive of his visit, and Downing Street awaits a fuller response from Syria. 

Both Iran and Syria have an interest in preventing civil war in Iraq, since they oppose its break-up and do not want to see permanent sectarian warfare that might spread. Speaking separately to a British diplomat and a British business mission in recent weeks, Mr Assad affirmed that he wanted "to come in from the cold". But both sources formed a clear impression that, while this was what he personally would like to do, his freedom of action was limited by factions inside his government. One faction, emboldened by the success of the Lebanese-based Hizbullah militia against Israel this summer, argues this is a time to maintain pressure on Israel, not negotiate.

Mr Blair faces an uphill battle to persuade Mr Bush to include a big initiative on Palestine in any revised Iraq strategy. The resurgent Democrats are as supportive of Israel as the Republicans, and there is little support in Israel for talks with Syria, seen as Hamas puppet masters. Israel's prime minister Ehud Olmert is due in Washington next week. He rejected offers by Mr Assad after Israel's invasion of Lebanon to relaunch long-suspended peace talks…

Nick Blanford's new book, Killing Mr. Lebanon is reviewed by Rayyan al-Shawaf: The assassination of Rafik Hariri: Lebanon's Shakespearean tragedy. He writes that:

Blanford's insights into the secretive, mercurial Syrian regime are intriguing. Contrary to expectation, Bashar al-Assad's rise to power created a more sectarian atmosphere among the ruling clique than had been the case under his father, Hafez.

The Syrian Baath Party has always been based on a nucleus of loyal Alawites, a heterodox Muslim sect accounting for 11 to 15 percent of Syria's population and historically oppressed by the Sunni Muslim majority. Under Mr. Assad, the Baath regime has apparently further cemented its Alawite character. Hariri, a Sunni, was seen by the paranoid Assad and his acolytes as a threat not only to their control of Lebanon, but to Syria itself, where a Sunni majority chafes under minority Alawite rule.

Yet Blanford resists the temptation to depict Hariri as a saint, pointing out that "the trademark of the Hariri [prime ministerial] era was the domineering manner in which he ran the country as if it was an extension of his personal business empire."  

According to Blanford, Hariri worked hard to accommodate Syria's demands, …. Try as he might to allay Syrian fears, Hariri was rebuffed at every turn. A severely blinkered Assad became convinced that the former Lebanese premier had enlisted the aid of the Americans and the French to eject Syria from Lebanon.

Here is an extract from Blanford's book that gives us a good idea of Syrian-Lebanese realations in 1997, well before Bashar al-Asad became president. The depth of hostility and mistrust between the coterie of family members and close Alawite supporters that Bashar al-Asad relied on and the "Old Guard" supporters of Hariri such as Kanaan, Khaddam, and Shehabi was already obvious and palpable. Blanford writes:

Fares BoueizThe depth of hostility among the Alawites for Hariri and the older Sunni leaders in Damascus was made clear to Fares Boueiz, the [Lebanese] foreign minister, during an incident at the Islamic Conference in Tehran in December 1997. Boueiz’ relationship with his prime minister [Hariri] was going through one of its periodic low points because of what he considered unwarranted meddling by Hariri in foreign affairs. Boueiz was in Tehran with Hariri and Hrawi. Assad and a large delegation of military officials was also attending. As Boueiz walked down a corridor past the large salons where delegations were gathered, he heard a voice call behind him, ‘You hero! You are the man of courage!’ He turned to see Adnan Makhlouf, the head of Syria’s Republican Guard and cousin of Bashar, striding towards him, his arms outstretched. Makhlouf grabbed the startled Boueiz, kissed him on both cheeks and congratulated him for standing up to Hariri.

‘That son of a bitch is buying up the regime around me,’ Makhlouf grumbled, referring to Hariri. ‘He’s bought Khaddam, Shehabi and his dog Ghazi Kanaan.’

Boueiz, stunned by the outburst from the Syrian general, mumbled that his problems with Hariri were different and walked away.

‘These men Makhlouf was talking about were just 50 metres away in the next room. It told me how much the Alawites really hated them,’ Boueiz says….

It was the younger Alawite component of the Syrian regime that tended to favour Lahoud. This group allegedly was centred around Basil al-Assad before his death and included his siblings, Bashar, Maher and Bushra, the headstrong daughter and Assad’s eldest and favorite child. Also part of the group was Assef Shawkat, an ambitious military intelligence officer who used his charm and good looks to court and then marry Bushra al-Assad, overcoming the initial objections of the Assad family. Others included Mohammed Nassif, a senior intelligence officer, known affectionately as ‘uncle’ by the Assad children, and the powerful Makhlouf family headed by Adnan Makhlouf, the then head of the Syrian Republican Guard and brother of Anissa Assad, the president’s wife. Adnan Makhlouf’s son, Rami, a cousin of the Assad children, would become the most powerful businessman in Syria. Then there were members of the Shaleesh family, related to the Assads, who would later be accused of earning millions of dollars in weapons and oil smuggling to and from Iraq respectively.

Ammar Abdulhamid, laments the collapse of the West's anti-Asad policy. He points to the ugly underbelly of the regime and the "mysterious death of Ali Kanaan, the brother of Ghazi Kanaan.

Meanwhile, and according to Syrian officials, the country has no prisoners of opinion, the mysterious death of Ali Kan’an, the brother of the late and very much suicided General Ghazi Kana’an, was just another suicide, and the cancellation of a public conference attended by American religious leaders critical of the Bush Administration, who went to Syria “bearing a message of peace to the Syrian people” was meant to actually “encourage deeper bilateral dialogue” with Syrian counterparts. Oh yeah, this lot is engageable.

Comments (10)

ivanka said:

Speaking of books around the Hariri murder. Le Grand Retournement by Richard Labeviere is quite interesting. It is not about how the crime took place but about the relationship of Chirac and Hariri and how it changed Chirac’s stance towards Syria. It is very very critical of both men and also of Syria. The book says that “UN resolution 1559 armed the murderers of hariri”.

November 11th, 2006, 9:17 pm


t_desco said:

In my opinion, the most important quote from Blanford’s book is this:

“I interviewed over 70 people for the book, many of them close to Hariri either professionally or personally.” (p.ix)

There is no analysis, or at least I didn’t detect any signs of analysis. It seems that he simply annotates what his sources have told him. This may also explain the hagiographic tone of some passages or why some sentences simply make you cringe. Was it really necessary to mention those famous Iraqi WMDs and their alleged transport to Syria?

I also don’t understand why he omits a report by his own newspaper (!) from the day of the first big rally (Syria says it will withdraw troops from the Lebanon,
 The Times, February 21, 2005).

Instead he writes:

“And it (the rally/campaign; t_d) was having an effect. Three days after the rally, on February 24, Walid Muallem … grudgingly announced that Syria would redeploy into the Bekaa valley in accordance with the Taif Agreement.” (p.153)

One example of what I mean by complete lack of analysis: On p.108/109 he recounts the story of the plot against the Italian embassy in Beirut and gives ample room to rumours that Syrian intelligence was behind the planned attack. He fails to mention the name of the plotter, Ahmed Salim Miqati, and his long history of Islamist militancy. He also fails to mention the long history of Islamist militancy in Majdal Anjar or the fact that the extremists are still there while Syrian intelligence is long gone (I quoted one very interesting article on Majdal Anjar here).
Any attempt at analysis would have to take these facts into account.

Having said that, the book is certainly an excellent starting point for analysis, and, in this sense, it is indeed “required reading for anyone interested in today’s Middle East” (Joshua Landis)…

I’m afraid that Labévière’s book is deeply flawed by his tendency to give credence to certain conspiracy theories. Most of his information is based on anonymous sources and in order to believe these sources you have to believe him first…
Having said that, his interview with Jamil al-Sayyad is very interesting and also the DGSE report on Syria from 1996. More on that later.

November 11th, 2006, 11:48 pm


ivanka said:

I agree about the conspiracy theories, but in Labeviere’s defense he does not develop them but only mentiones them as related to things he is explaining.

I agree with you T-Desco that he always sites anonymous sources. It is irritating when he goes “an important Israeli general told me …” why would he tell you anything?

The important part of the book is it’s description of the Chirac-Hariri relation. This part was quite interesting to me.

It remains that this is a book by a journalist who wants to tell exciting stories and show us all how well connected he is. No analysis either.

November 12th, 2006, 12:13 am


RoxieAmerica said:

I believe Syria has an opportunity to lead, and to become a significant voice in the Middle East, but as you stated, there is a risk to the Syrian President.

I am not so certain about Iran, as my information shows a very long history of Iran exporting its Islamic revolution. I do not believe Iran would lead any direction but to the Islamic world-order they seek. Syria is more inclusive in my opinion.

November 12th, 2006, 2:10 am


ivanka said:

T-Desco, I was re-reading your comments and I would like to add something : It is not a conspiracy theory to say that it is possible that Syria had nothing to do with the hariri murder or to say that someone else did it. We do not know in advance who did it.

Now this is not the only thing in the book that can be called a conspiracy theory. My opinion on the book as a whole is just as I said in my second comment.

November 12th, 2006, 10:45 pm


keller,USA said:

Blanford’s book is an introduction, but little else. Disappointing to get such a generic rehash of mostly known material with significant data left out. Where is the deep exploration of the US-Israel current role in the troubles in Syria? Just once it would be great to see a western reporter play devil’s advocate and look at the region from the Arab side. West rarely gets that except through arab translations- and then its dismissed as “arab bias or conspiracy theory.” Tired. Israel and US have had Syria/Hezbollah in their sights for decades and that needs to be fully and fairly investigated. Instead we get ‘experts’ like NYT’s Slackman who couldnt even get the date for the end of the recent Lebanon war correct: in his last piece he sites it as September. etc etc.

November 14th, 2006, 10:02 am


aussamaa said:

When I think about the Harriri incident, a couple of things come to my mind:

One: Who is the beneficiary? Clearly, and especially as the assassination happened in the aftermath of 1559, the war on Iraq, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the clear signals that the US was out for BLOOD in the area, then that not only “leads”, but forces me to exclude Syria.

Two: Syria is run by a Group of highly calculating individuals and with an Iron grip. Such a combination does not give high value to the possibility of something happening without the regime knowing about it.

Three: Bashar Al Assad in his first speech said clearly: WE Did NOT do it. No matter if what faith anyone can have in any president of any country, yet when a President goes out in full publicity and commits his integrity to such a statement, then that is an indication of something to say the least.

Four: When Syria wanted Hariri to say yes to Lahoud, and despite all the talk about his being Saudi and America’s Man as some try to portray him, despite their backing, he raised his hand like an obedient student and agreed to Lahoud extension. So he towed the Syrian line, so he was not effectively been an impediment against Syria’s policy when he was most needed by the Syrians. Again, he could have abstained, traveled, took ill, but abstained from that CRUCIAL vote.

Five: And supposing whatever court, or proof, any court comes out with that Syria was involved at a lower level, which is totally doubtful except in the case of a huge “false Flag Operation”, then there is no way the crime “could” be pinned on the Syrian Government. You need either iron clad evidence or admittance by a top man supported by evidence. Even Khaddam, could not provide that despite his hatered of the ruling regime in Syria.

Six: If somewhat or even circumstantial evidence comes out under some circumstances that Syria was involved, that would not lead to serious actions against the regime.
Seven: When one comes to examine how the threads lead to Syria, three factors comes to mind: 1) the immature behavior of the immature Hariri Family, 2) the role the media played, and 3) the selection of a known “anti Syria” lead investigator being Mehlis who tried his best against Syria in Germany years before, and who despite all his best efforts, had to depart in shame and left things with in more difficult situation than he started.

Eight: Again, even if some anecdotal evidence was fond directing some fingers at Syrian personnel, what do you think will happen??? Eight years in an international court? During which the conspiracy theories would be as wild as one can imagine? Followed by Syrian statement saying something to the effect of: Screw your investigation, Go Drink the Sea…

Nine: And finally, if nothing has been found so far despite the hectic atmosphere, the fabricated statements, the money and the resources at the disposal of the revenge/truth seeking coalition, then you should really forget Syria by now and look somewhere else… nothing against Syria ever will ever be found because nothing was there expect political motives, heard mentality, corrupt and cheap Lebanese politicians gambling with the stability of Lebanon, supported by a take no prisoners US approach to the whole area…… and … otherwise Detleve Mehlis would have gladly stayed around and tried to “follow up on it”….

Have a nice investigation…..or an international court, or an exciting aftermath of both….for which someone has to pay a price……and surely, it would not be Damascus.

Is it not time we leave this to the law and start worrying about the living, or is Al Harriri life worth more than the lives lost so far on account of this fiasco….to me; it is not.

November 14th, 2006, 11:45 am


ivanka said:

I agree Aussama the court would take very long to reach anyone high in the hierarchy. The tribunal was created to try people from the bottom up, starting with field operatives and ending with higher officials. Well it will take 2 years for it to get through the people who directly participated. Then it will be officers, then maybe low ranking government employees, etc, etc,…

November 14th, 2006, 4:03 pm


why-discuss said:

I also agree with Aussama,the shameful report of Mehlis and the oil it has spread on the fire of the syrian-lebanese relationship. In addition I believe the international tribunal mostly pushed and financed by the Hariri family may open a can of worms where the Hariri family and many lebanese politicians reconverted to “anti-syrian” wont not be spared. It may take years for that tribunal to deal with that complex event. In the meantime we are seeing an opening from the E.U and soon from the US toward Syria and Iran. Lebanese are trapped again and may become loosers again, unless they accept to share the power with anti-american lebanese.. difficult pill to swallow..

November 14th, 2006, 6:20 pm


shadi said:

to me, the whole topic is a matter of collecting money. no real truth than what is going on the ground these days. the criminals will reveal themseleves throughout the course of time.

The discussion here is like a one taking place in any pseudopinion free webpage that are run by the syrians.

never let your personal life interfere with your professional work dear admin. by the way, I do’nt agree with many of what you have written aboutyour personal life though this is not my interst or right to discuss.


November 15th, 2006, 10:40 pm


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