Friday, December 19, 2014

Bleak House - Rustom Ghazaleh’s residence goes bang

Thanks to the advice of my friend Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch, I recently watched a revealing video on YouTube. It purportedly shows the destruction of the home of Rustom Ghazaleh, the last head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon.

It is not easy to verify the authenticity of the video, allegedly taken near Daraa, from where Ghazaleh hails. It seems that Ghazaleh blew up his residence rather than allow it to fall into the hands of rebels, who have made major gains in the south of the country. He chose to put the scene on film, showing the interior of his home, with gas bottles and jerry cans of gasoline placed all around in preparation for the explosion.

If the video is real, then it is rich in symbolism and salutary lessons. Above all, it underlines that the last nine years have not been particularly good to Ghazaleh, after a period when he had Lebanon’s political class at his feet, and even found time to earn a doctorate at the Lebanese University.

After his departure from Lebanon, Ghazaleh was uncertain what the future held for him. In late 2005 he was interviewed in Vienna by the United Nations team investigating the assassination of Rafik Hariri, and apparently worried that he, as a Sunni, would be thrown to the wolves to safeguard the Alawite elite. Indeed, the first commissioner of the investigation, Detlev Mehlis, had intended to arrest Ghazaleh for the crime, but preferred to leave that to his successor Serge Brammertz.

However, Brammertz did nothing of the sort. In fact he did not do much at all, wasting two years at his post by failing to develop any new leads or identify and arrest new suspects. For his inconsequential exertions, Brammertz was rewarded by the UN with an appointment as chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

Ghazaleh could breathe again and apparently was given a military intelligence position in Rif Dimashq, the area around Damascus, before heading the Political Security Directorate. On occasion after the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in 2011 he was rumored to have been killed, though he was very much alive.

As a Sunni, Ghazaleh plays a significant role for the regime. His loyalty has not been in question, perhaps because he has benefited immensely from the positions of responsibility in which he has been placed. To Bashar Assad and his clique someone like Ghazaleh shows that not all Sunnis are opposed to the regime.

Moreover, his status as a traitor to his sect means he may be twice as harsh in implementing Assad’s directives.

That may explain the purpose of the video. In the pitiless realm of Syrian regime politics, officials worry most about how other regime figures might exploit their weaknesses. Ghazaleh knew that the rebels would have used his home for propaganda purposes. He would have been humiliated by scenes of bearded gunmen diving into his pool or jumping on his furniture, highlighting his extravagance and opening him up to ridicule and condemnation. Rivals could have used this against him.

The essence of survival in a dictatorship is overcompensation. The more zealous and craven the functionary, the longer he or she lasts. With Joseph Stalin, it was Vyacheslav Molotov who illustrated this truth best — continuing to serve the Soviet regime even after Stalin had his wife arrested. In Syria, evidently Ghazaleh has followed the same example by obliterating something he held dearly, the fruit of countless intrigues.

But if anything it was the symbolism of the gesture that was most significant. Ghazaleh was, simply, informing the rebels that he would prefer to destroy what is his rather than see them benefit from it. That is precisely what Bashar Assad has been telling Syrians since 2011: Syria is mine. If anyone tries to remove me from power, I will not hesitate to annihilate Syria.

The selflessness in destroying a part of oneself can be powerful. There is madness in it, suggesting to an adversary that he can never take victory for granted. But as the fate of Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi showed, one can catch even the most determined despot and slaughter him in the street.

Perhaps that is an unintended third message in Ghazaleh’s destruction of his home. Syria’s orgy of obliteration is inching ever closer to those who put the country to the sword. It wasn’t meant to be. The savage repression was supposed to silence Syrians for decades, in the way that Hafez Assad’s leveling of Hama in 1982 did. Yet the furies have been unleashed and now they’re in the garden. Before long they will be in the room.

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