Aug 14th 2008 | CAIRO
THOSE who speak do not know and those who know do not speak. That classic adage of how information flows in a dictatorship has always fitted Syria rather well. But the fog in the Syrian capital, Damascus, has rarely been thicker than now.
Take the mysterious death of a top general, Muhammad Suleiman, at a seaside resort earlier this month. Was he shot by a lone sniper from a passing yacht, as first alleged, or killed at closer range, perhaps even by a masked hit squad? Was he targeted because he had fallen out with Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, or because he had angered Israel by funnelling Iranian and Syrian arms to Hizbullah, the Lebanese Shia guerrilla group with which the Israelis fought a messy war in 2006? Or was he killed in revenge for his role in other assassinations, such as the lorry-bomb killing of the Lebanese leader, Rafik Hariri, in 2005, or, contrarily, in the death of Hizbullah’s elusive tactical mastermind, Imad Mughniyeh, whose car blew up last February inside a compound housing Syrian intelligence operatives?
Who was General Suleiman, anyway? Was the 49-year-old really the shadow of the regime, a behind-the-scenes operator whose powers were second only to President Assad’s, as some allege? Certainly, he came from the same Alawite religious minority as the Assad family, and had been a close friend of Basil, Bashar’s elder brother. Basil had been the anointed heir to the presidency seized in 1970 by their father, Hafez Assad, until he drove his Mercedes off the road in 1994. After Bashar Assad’s accession in 2000, the general is said to have taken responsibility for several sensitive files: the supply of arms to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and later to Hizbullah; military relations with Syria’s ally, Iran; and development of a mysterious, allegedly North Korean-designed nuclear facility on a remote stretch of the Euphrates river that Israeli aircraft destroyed last September.
The political and military murkiness in Syria covers larger strategic questions too. Unusually, Syria revealed earlier this year that it is engaged in secret talks with Israel. Mr Assad, who had been ostracised by fellow Arab and Western leaders for his suspected role in the Hariri killing, for meddling in other Lebanese matters and for sponsoring radical groups such as Hizbullah and the Palestinian Islamist movement, Hamas, has lately taken some less confrontational stances. Syria blessed the deal worked out in May to resolve a long-simmering constitutional crisis in Lebanon. This week it is hosting Lebanon’s new president, Michel Suleiman (no relation to the slain general), promising to establish normal diplomatic ties with the smaller neighbour it has long dominated. As a result, Syria’s relations with European governments have markedly thawed.
Yet on the day of General Suleiman’s death Mr Assad was on a state visit to Iran, where his officials stressed the strength of the two countries’ ties. Syria reasserted Iran’s right to seek nuclear technology, which does not endear it to those, including America and its allies, who feel threatened by Iran. Meanwhile, Israel says that Syria has increased its arms flows to Hizbullah, including an alleged supply of anti-aircraft missiles. And even as it promises to turn a new page with Lebanon, Syria is putting on trial a group of dissidents whose main crime was to call publicly for normal relations with its smaller Arab neighbour. Perhaps their fate merely proves that one should not speak until one knows.
6 months ago