Friday, March 20, 2015

Beaten but not broken - Did Rustom Ghazaleh pay a price for his hostility to Iran?

The saga of Rustom Ghazaleh, the former head of Syria’s intelligence network in Lebanon, continues to attract attention. After Ghazaleh’s severe beating a few weeks ago in the offices of Rafiq Shehadeh, the head of Military Intelligence, the news on Thursday was that Shehadeh had been removed from his post.

It is unclear why Ghazaleh was beaten by Shehadeh’s men. The victim himself suggested, rather comically, that he had been injured while fighting the rebels. In a long blog post (in French) for Le Monde’s “Un Oeil sur la Syrie,” the person writing under the pseudonym Ignace Leverrier offered a fascinating overview of the different theories for what had happened.

A recurring hypothesis is that Ghazaleh was punished for his expressions of displeasure with Iranian and Hezbollah’s influence in Syria. Indeed, an incident in which Ghazaleh ordered the destruction of his own home, allegedly to prevent it from falling into rebels hands, may have resulted from his refusal to hand it over to the Iranians and Hezbollah, who had sought the high ground on which it stood to fight the rebels.

Leverrier also recounts what allegedly happened at a meeting several months ago between Hezbollah and Syrian officials. The Hezbollah representatives reportedly complained that the Syrian Army would invariably seek to draw publicity from Hezbollah successes in front of their media outlets, while preventing Hezbollah’s media from taking part.

This was hardly a negligible charge. Hezbollah needs to show its own supporters that the bloody intervention in Syria is bearing fruit, so denying its media the opportunity to highlight the party’s victories is a problem. The underlying tensions between Hezbollah and the Syrians have often been mentioned, and Ghazaleh’s reaction at the meeting seemed to bear this out.

According to Leverrier, Ghazaleh stood up and responded to the party by saying: “Without Syria, Hezbollah would quite simply not exist. What is happening today in Syria affects the survival of Hezbollah, which is also fighting on its own behalf.” Leverrier goes on to indicate that Ghazaleh accused Hezbollah of failing to do battle, preferring to “buy its victories by paying rebel groups to withdraw without exchanging fire.”

If all this is true and Ghazaleh was pulped to make him more amenable to Iran and Hezbollah, then how are we to interpret Shehadeh’s fate? Did Bashar al-Assad aim to signal his displeasure with what had happened to Ghazaleh? Perhaps, but there have been unconfirmed reports that Ghazaleh may himself have also been dismissed, suggesting the president had no choice but to impose a Solomonic decision.

Regardless of the truth, if there is disgruntlement in Syria with Iranian influence in Damascus, it is not something Assad can readily ignore. The legitimacy of his regime, like that of his father’s, was always tied to Syria’s image as a proudly independent Arab nationalist state. That is why Hafez al-Assad made a strong effort to limit Iran’s role in both Syria and Lebanon, and it is why, even with the Soviet Union, the late Syrian leader was careful never to show a hint of dependency.

Moreover, relations with Iran have a bearing on sectarian relations. Alawites do not want it said that they have willingly surrendered Syria to Iran because of their sectarian affinities (though Alawites and Shiites are far more different than their detractors suggest). Shehadeh is an Alawite and his actions against Ghazaleh, a Sunni, could easily reinforce such an accusation in the Damascus rumor mill. It could be that Assad had to dismiss him to put an end to this kind of speculation.

If Ghazaleh complained about Hezbollah and Iran, he doubtless was not alone. It is hard to believe that those who first built their careers under Hafez al-Assad can be anything but angry at the turn of affairs in Syria today. For Ghazaleh, who treated Hezbollah as a subordinate in the days when he ruled over Lebanon, it must be an especially bitter pill to have to bow and scrape before the party today. It’s very likely that the Ghazaleh affair has opened sensitive doors inside the Syrian regime, and particularly inside its murky security apparatus.

If so this casts light on the complexity of, and obstacles to, Iran’s expansion in the Arab world. Iran and its allies have doubtless paid a heavy price in both lives and money to save Assad’s regime, without any light at the end of the tunnel. But Ghazaleh is right in one regard: they didn’t do this because they had any particular fondness for Assad, but because his downfall would have represented a major setback for Iran’s agenda of domination in the Middle East.

The true reasons for what happened to Ghazaleh may never be known, but it is revealing how speculation has shifted to his purported displeasure with Iran and Hezbollah. There may be some momentum to that impression domestically; a feeling that somehow Ghazaleh is a courageous officer willing to challenge Syria’s descent into an Iranian protectorate.

It remains to be seen if Ghazaleh is still at his post or if reports of his removal are true. But Bashar al-Assad must know that when senior intelligence officers begin assaulting each other, it’s time to hit hard and reimpose order, or risk losing everything.

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