On Wednesday, October 21, Rafiq Hariri, stepped down as Lebanese prime minister and dissolved his cabinet.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Beirut sources report that he was advised from Damascus to quit and not expect to form a new government except from the list of Syrian stooges presented him. One look at the list sufficed. It was made up entirely of Hariri’s political foes, a blunt hint that it was time for him to go for good.
This further step to tighten Syria’s grip on the regime in Beirut was taken by Bashar Assad amid a rising outcry from Washington and the UN Security Council and demands to stay out of Lebanon’s internal affairs and remove Syrian troops from the country. Indeed, the more insistent the demands, the deeper Syria dug its fingers into the Lebanese pie.
Assad appeared not only to put up backs in Washington and New York. The prime minister he has just removed is a protege both of the Bush administration and of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah. However, he went forward regardless, according to our sources, after he was tipped off by his intelligence that, three months ago, Hariri cut a secret deal with French president Jacques Chirac whereby France would help him get rid of his greatest enemy, the Syrian puppet Lebanese president Emile Lahoud, and replace him with a figure approved by Paris. This would place Hariri at the top of Lebanon’s political tree, from which eminence, and with backing from Washington, Paris and Riyadh, he would be in a position to push the Syrians out of Lebanon.
This scheme is the background to the rare US-French cooperation seen of late at the Security Council in the condemnations of Syrian domination of Lebanon.
When Assad got wind of the Hariri-Chirac pact, he reacted, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East sources, by taking certain steps.
1. He invited the Saudi world-class multi-billionaire Prince al-Walid bin Talal for a visit to Damascus. Bin Talal gained American notoriety with his contemptuous offer of $10 million as compensation for the victims of the 9/11 attacks. His offer, made at Ground Zero exactly one month after the attacks, was rejected on the spot by Mayor Rudolf Giuliani.
Prince al Walid has always been made welcome in the Syrian capital for a number of reasons. His fabulous wealth; his close kinship ties with the Saudi crown prince, one of whose wives comes from the Assad family; his close affinity to Lebanon through his Lebanese mother, daughter of a former prime minister Riyad al-Solh. His parents divorced when he was a child and he lived in Beirut with his mother until 1968 when, aged 11, he returned to Saudi Arabia. He therefore owns Lebanese as well as Saudi nationality.
The unexpected slip twixt cup and Assad’s lip
The Syrians could never stand Hariri. The notion of handing the Lebanese premiership to the tycoon-prince was formed in Damascus in 2002. Lahoud was told to ask him over to Beirut for a gala presentation of The National Order of the Cedar.
There was another obvious incentive behind the plan to appoint Prince al-Walid premier; Lebanon’s national debt has soared to an astronomical $37 billion. With his great fortune, he would be able to afford to break out of his predecessors’ model for getting rich quick at the expense of the national exchequer.
Two years ago, Hariri sat too firmly in the saddle to be easily removed and the Syrian ruler backed off. Now Assad saw a chance of vacating the job for the Saudi prince, a step that would at the same time hold out the hope of throwing off American pressure to remove his meddling hands and troops from Lebanon.
This does not mean that the Syrian ruler might not have second thoughts about planting a man as powerful as the Saudi prince in Beirut. As matters stand today, he is sitting pretty after disposing of all the politicians capable of standing up to him in the Lebanese capital. Hariri’s removal is good news for the Hizballah terrorist group which Damascus supports. A point in favor of granting the Saudi prince his wish would be the creation of the first link between Riyadh and the Iran-backed Hizballah.
As it turned out, the Syrian president had just pulled off the first part of his prince-to-prime minister scheme – Hariri’s eclipse – when he was caught out by an unforeseen domestic upset.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources, a major row has erupted in Damascus between Syria’s intelligence chiefs and the new Syrian interior minister Ghazi Kenaan, the veteran military intelligence strongman of Lebanon and latterly head of Syria’s political intelligence.
Kenaan accept the interior ministry earlier this month on condition that the appointment went with jurisdiction over all the national intelligence agencies, excepting military intelligence. What he was really after was control of the national security agency, which is the largest and most powerful of Syria’s civilian services, plus authority over the two intelligence chiefs closest to the president, Asaf Shueikat, a relative of Assad, and Bahji Suleiman, head of general intelligence.
The president accepted Kenaan’s conditions because he needed him in the interior ministry as a prop for his reform program and an efficient operator who keeps a low profile.
However, as soon as Kenaan began throwing his weight around and handing out commands to the various agencies and their czars, a wholesale revolt broke out. The rebels even gained encouragement from an unexpected quarter: the president’s younger brother, Maher Assad, who is de facto commander of the presidential guard. Maher supported the opposition against Kenaan. Thus did the first crack in Syrian intelligence, the Assad regime’s support system, begin to widen.
Former prime minister, ailing veteran Omar Karame, 70, has been named prime minister of Lebanon. He is seen as a stopgap until Assad has his next move ready. Karame will need the support of Hizballah’s deputies in parliament against the pro-Hariri bloc and therefore be forced to accede to the Shiite terrorist group’s demand for two or three cabinet positions. This will place the Hizballah in government for the first time in Lebanese history, and pose a crude provocation for Washington which lists Hizballah as a terrorist group. The Iran-backed Hizballah leadership is meeting late Thursday night to decide whether to go for cabinet seats.