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Suspect in Syria

October 17, 2005

THERE IS CONSIDERABLE SKEPTICISM that Syrian Interior Minister Ghazi Kenaan fired a gun into his own mouth last week, as the Syrian government maintains. Even Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh made a slip of the tongue during his eulogy, twice referring to Kenaan's death as an assassination, and in one case neglecting to correct himself.

Whatever the cause of Kenaan's death, it comes at a difficult time for Syria, which had just started to comply with long-standing international demands that it disentangle itself from the government of its neighbor, Lebanon. Damascus' response to Kenaan's death, and an ongoing U.N. investigation into another death -- the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri -- will demonstrate whether Syria is committed to reform or is content to be a rogue state.

Kenaan played a significant role in engineering Syria's control over Lebanon, which Syria had occupied since 1976 with the ostensible purpose of helping to end the country's civil war. His crowning achievement was to manipulate the 2000 Lebanese election to secure the power of pro-Syria factions.

That control diminished with the assassination of Hariri, an outspoken anti-Syria billionaire who died in a February 2005 car bombing. Hariri's death provoked anti-Syrian outbursts in Lebanon and abroad, leading Damascus to pull out its armed forces in April. Kenaan was found dead just two weeks before the United Nations is scheduled to release a report on Hariri's death, leading many to speculate that the Syrian government seeks to use Kenaan as a (conveniently silent) fall guy.

Syria may have pulled its troops from Lebanon, but it still heavily influences Lebanese politics. And even as it offered up its senior officials to the U.N. for questioning, the government of President Bashar Assad demanded that they only be questioned as witnesses, not as suspects. Syria claims Kenaan killed himself because he couldn't handle the pressure of the U.N. investigation, and it has denied supporting terrorists throughout the region, stretching its credulity with the international community.

Whatever the U.N. report reveals when it is released on Oct. 25, it is clear that Damascus still exercises undue influence in Lebanon and condones terrorists who organize in Syria to launch attacks in Israel and Iraq. And whatever the cause of Kenaan's death, the United States and the international community cannot let up on the heavy sanctions against Syria unless it offers sweeping policy changes. Scapegoating a few bureaucrats will not be enough.

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