What don’t we know about Syrian security?


As expected, the summit between the Lebanese and Syrian presidents, Michel Sleiman and Bashar Assad, yielded statements redolent with platitudes and elusiveness. At the end of the day we couldn’t even be sure of whether the two leaders intended to convene the Syrian-Lebanese Higher Council, as many expected they would.

Lebanon and Syria are conducting the bulk of their bilateral work today in closed quarters or committees, the results obscured by laconic communiqués. When it comes to sensitive matters such as security cooperation, the reality is that we know next to nothing about what the two sides are cooking up, and this is deeply unsettling.

On Monday, Al-Hayat reported that it had asked Lebanese sources about the nature of security and military cooperation in the committee meetings held in Damascus last weekend. While Lebanon and Syria addressed the topic, the unnamed sources refused to provide any information. This evasiveness from the Lebanese side was enlightening, since it suggested that Beirut didn’t want to embarrass Syria, which holds the strong cards when it comes to security.

Since we are offered no answers, here are a few questions. What has the head of the Internal Security Forces’ Information Department, Wissam Hassan, been discussing during the past months with Rustom Ghazaleh, the former head of Syria’s military intelligence network in Lebanon? Hassan is considered close to Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and was the leading security figure aligned with the March 14 coalition, along with his nominal boss, Ashraf Rifi, the ISF’s director general. The Hassan-Ghazaleh meetings evidently began after Hariri’s December visit to Damascus, although one has to be careful in affixing specific dates when it comes to such exchanges.

News of the Hassan-Ghazaleh meetings, while circulating in some circles earlier this year, was publicized in the daily Al-Akhbar, which is close to Hizbullah and Syria. The paper also noted that Hassan had been granted an audience with Bashar Assad. It is almost unheard of for the head of a department in Lebanon’s security forces to meet a foreign president, which leads to the rather obvious conclusion that Hassan did something to earn such a high honor. It’s useless to speculate what he did, but Hassan has access to some of the most sensitive dossiers of the Lebanese state, including the Hariri investigation and the Sunni Islamist groups in the north.

So, while we can only guess what ground Hassan and Ghazaleh are covering in their frequent get-togethers, we have a right to wonder whether Saad Hariri has any control over their agenda, and whether Hassan’s collaboration with the Syrians has not become, in some respects, a form of cooptation? The sit-down with Assad was perhaps designed to send precisely the latter message.

This is interesting in light of the fact that Syria, like Hizbullah, initially sought to dismantle the Information Department, at the height of the conflict between March 14 and the opposition – principally to weaken Hariri and the majority. That demand appears to have been dropped, and the only possible explanation for this is that the department and the Syrians are now on the same wavelength.

What should concern us above all is how security cooperation with Syria affects Lebanon’s sovereignty and the rule of law, but also what passes for human rights in our country.

Sovereignty first. If the parameters for military cooperation continue to be defined by the Lebanese-Syrian Defense and Security Pact of September 1, 1991, then they offer both Beirut and Damascus a wide berth for abuse. The agreement echoes the infamous Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation, and Coordination, the founding instrument of Syrian hegemony over Lebanon, in affirming that “Lebanon should not be a source of threat to Syria’s security and Syria should not be a source of nuisance and threat to Lebanon …”

The pact goes on to outline measures each side must implement to fulfill that condition, including “banning any activity or organization in all military, security, political, and information fields that might endanger and cause threats to the other country.” Under that broad formulation, even this article might qualify as “causing threats” to Syria, by virtue of its casting doubt on the very legitimacy of a security pact that is consciously, therefore dangerously, vague, and its questioning of security cooperation conducted without any accountability.

That Lebanon and Syria should cooperate over security is not the issue. Of course they should, since that’s what neighboring countries do. However, this must respect the letter and spirit of the law. The Lebanese are entitled to know, for example, whether cooperation covers the ongoing investigation of Rafik Hariri’s assassination, since the Lebanese security forces are among the executors of decisions taken by the prosecutor of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, Daniel Bellemare.

Does coordination mean that the Lebanese security forces are expected to collude with Syria’s allies in elections – parliamentary, municipal, or other? If requested to do so, are the Lebanese obliged to silence, or even hand over to Syria, Syrian opposition figures living in Lebanon? Does coordination mean that Lebanese citizens sought by the Syrian authorities can be denied due process by being arrested in Lebanon and handed over to Syria’s intelligence services? The government has offered no clarity whatsoever on any of these queries.

If we’re in a new Lebanon, as some officials persist in saying, then they have to convince us. Yet nothing suggests that anything has really changed in the country when it comes to security issues. Those who called the shots before 2005 are now doing the same once again, and a Sword of Damocles continues to hover over the rule of law, due process, human rights, and freedom of expression, because of a lack of transparency by the Lebanese state. New Lebanon indeed.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. His “The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle” (Simon & Schuster) has just been published.

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