Whatever happened to…Rustom Ghazaleh? The trajectory of Syria’s last emir in Lebanon

(AFP/Patric Baz) (AFP/Patric Baz)

By: Kai Kverme, University of Oslo.

Once he was the most powerful man in Lebanon. From the headquarters of the Syrian Intelligence in the small border town of Anjar he ruled the country on behalf of his masters in Damascus. Lebanese politicians would line up outside his door to seek his favors, as even the most minor decision demanded his approval.

In 2002 his predecessor, Ibrahim Kenaan, returned to Syria to serve as the head of the Directorate for Political Security, and subsequently as Minister of Interior. But in 2005, in the wake of the assassination of former Lebanese Premier Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, his fortunes turned. He was questioned by UN investigators, who perceived a Syrian role in the assassination. A month later he reportedly committed suicide in his office, hours after a taped recording was broadcasted by the Voice of Lebanon radio station. Here he denied having any role in the murder of al-Hariri, or to have received bribes from him, ending the statement with the words “This is the last statement I can make”.

The question now is whether Ghazaleh is about to meet the same fate as Kenaan. Surely, there are a number of differences between the two men. Kenaan was not known for his laxity in his dealings with the Lebanese politicians, but the ruthlessness of Ghazaleh made the former look like a mild breeze compared to the latter. Ghazaleh is reported to have been present at the infamous meeting between al-Hariri and Bashar al-Assad, where al-Assad threatened to break Lebanon on al-Hariri’s head.

After the Syrians were forced out of Lebanon in the wake of a popular uprising in 2005, Ghazaleh disappeared from public view for many years. Accusations that he had received large sums as bribery from al-Hariri, possibly without the knowledge of the Assad clan, persisted. Lately these accusations have resurfaced; the former director of the collapsed al-Madina Bank, Rania Qulaylat, has stated in interviews to the Lebanese magazine al-Shiraa that Ghazaleh received large payments via the bank on the orders of al-Hariri.

However, with the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in 2011, Ghazaleh reappeared as a stanch supporter of the regime. One would have thought that he could have become an important asset for the regime in its propaganda war with the opposition. Ghazaleh is a Sunni from Deraa, where the uprising started some four years ago, and could have served to counter the claims by the opposition that the regime is totally dominated by Alawis. But this did not happen, and the reasons for this might now start to appear.

In December 2014 a video clip was circulated on YouTube, showing Ghazaleh blowing up his enormous villa in the outskirts of Deraa. The opposition had made serious progress in the area, and rather than having the rebels capture his residence he destroyed it. The thought of rebels roaming around his house, exposing the fruits of his Lebanese looting spree, and possibly making use of the mansion for other purposes was too much to bear, it seems. Alas, the house was blown up, and two clear messages were sent. The first to the rebels, showing them that he’d rather destroy his house than having them benefitting from it in any way. The second to Assad himself and the close-knit circle around him, informing them of his total devotion.

But rather than being awarded for his devotion it seems that he is being punished, the reason being that he has criticized the Iranian influence over the regime. According to this view, the reason he blew up his house was that he refused to surrender it to military personnel from Hizballah and Iran, rather than fearing that the rebels might occupy it.

Then, around a month ago, rumors started to circulate in the Lebanese media that he was hospitalized following a fistfight with the bodyguards of Rafiq Shehadeh, the head of military intelligence. The reason, again, was a perceived criticism of the Iranian role in the country. This was denied by one of Syria’s main pawns in Lebanon, Baath-party MP Ali Qanso. He claimed the Ghazaleh was being treated for injuries after being hit by shrapnel while fighting in the Deraa-district.

The latest episode in the saga of Ghazaleh and his misfortunes came from the Iranian PressTV, an English-language TV-station sponsored by the Iranian state. In a short dispatch on March 20. it claimed that both Shehadeh and Ghazaleh had been fired from their posts following the above mentioned fistfight. It went on to state that Ghazaleh had indeed been “briefly” hospitalized following the fight, but that he was now readmitted following “complications”, and that his condition was critical.

Should Ghazaleh really pass away, it would mean that one of the persons who know most about the circumstances of the assassination of al-Hariri is gone. As the Special Tribunal for Lebanon continues to unravel the motives behind the assassination, yet another key witness is lost. Like the others, one of these being Ghazi Kenaan, it happens in what can best be described as murky circumstances.

The only thing that is sure is that not many Lebanese, if any at all, will shed any tears for Ghazaleh. He will be remembered as a brutal thug, the last Syrian emir over Lebanon.