What is Happening at the Ministry of Interior?
Ghazi Kanaan was appointed to be Minister of the Interior in the last government reshuffle on October 4, 2004 in order to “strengthen” and consolidate the ministry. That was the word from on high. But what did it mean? Some said he was given the brief to bring order to the hydra-headed secret police that had slipped out of the President’s control. The various branch heads seemed to make their own decisions and carry out their own policies, uncoordinated by any central authority – at least that is how it seemed.
The multiplication of intelligence bureaus under Hafiz al-Asad in the 1970s seemed designed to sew chaos into the Syrian system of authority and undermine the rule of law. In many ways it was a classic exercise in divide-and-rule. In a security state, it was important to multiply the institutions of security so each could watch the other and ensure that no one security chief ever considered taking power for himself. It was a way to coup-proof the system that had been so prone to instability and putsches. But the indispensable link and organizing factor in this web of competing security branches was Hafiz al-Asad, for only he had authority over them all.
How was the young Bashar to impose his will on this hydra-headed monster? Kanaan had been the effective security chief in Lebanon for decades. He new the system well and had divided the Christian forces in Lebanon into a multitude of competing factions, all submissive to Syria. But why appoint him to the Ministry of Interior, which had escaped the disorganization of the intelligence community? How was Ghazi Kanaan, as head of the police, supposed to bring order to intelligence or strengthen the president’s hand in taking back control over internal affairs in Syria? It was confusing.
Two recent stories that have been told to me may help clarify the picture. One came to me from a general in the Interior ministry, who is in charge of the police in a governorate. He complained that the top Sunni officers in the ministry are all upset over how Kanaan has been manipulating the confessional balance in the ministry. It must be recalled that Kanaan was the first Alawi to be placed in control of the Interior – traditionally it was a post designated for Sunnis. The outward face of security had been left in the hands of Syria’s religious majority, whereas, the internal muscle of security - the intelligence branches - had been placed firmly in the hands of Alawi officers. Evidently Kanaan has been busy giving Alawis plum positions as heads of the sensitive governorates and “demoting” Sunni officers by placing them in desk jobs in out of the way corners of the country. This has confessional favoritism has caused an uproar in the ministry.
The second story is from Alawi villagers. They say that Kanaan “gathered together” simple villagers and appointed many to the coveted positions in the police academy, much to the irritation of the Sunni officers in charge of the professional training school. Recently, these officers expelled about 50 Alawis from the college who had only one year to graduation and were about to be commissioned. The Alawis were accused of being “lazy,” one of the charges against them was that they wasted their time making “matte,” a bark tea that is commonly drunk by the villagers of the Tartus region. It takes a long time to prepare and involves a time consuming ritual of repeatedly pouring boiling water over the bark to darken the tea. It is drunk from special glasses with a long glass straw with a special sieve on its bottom. Whether on not the matte problem factored into their dismissal or not, I have no clue, but it is invoked by the Alawi villagers as proof of the discrimination they encountered. They were also sensitive to the excesses of Kanaan’s policy of stuffing the police academy with Alawis, but they felt like pawns in a larger sectarian game that they never asked to be part of. Evidently the Alawis are bringing a court case against the Police Academy for dismissing them.
So what do these two stories add up to and can we draw any conclusions from them about larger state policy? It is important to place what is going on at the Ministry of Interior in the broader context of the President’s promise to change the relationship between the intelligence community and society. He has often stated that he wants to lift the hand of intelligence off the shoulders of the public and to bring security under the narrow strictures of the law. Perhaps we can understand this as part of the President’s “institution building” and “proper procedures” campaign?
This implies a shift of power from intelligence to the state police, who will theoretically assume a larger role in enforcing laws that relate to national security. Perhaps Kanaan is trying to beef up the Alawi component in the police bureaucracy in order to prepare it for this new national security role? This would also explain some of the competition and tension between Asef Shawkat and Ghazi Kanaan. Rather than trying to take control of the intelligence agencies directly in order to strengthen the President’s hand, he may be preparing to shift authority away from intelligence to the police.
What the President’s role in all this may be is pure speculation on my part. Is Kanaan doing this on his own authority, or is he responding to directives from above? I do not know. The President has been accused by members of the Alawi community of being less sectarian minded than his father and of “forgetting” his community, whose support is crucial to the regime. It may simply be a move to allay these concerns, whether on the part of the minister or the president? In the meantime, Kanaan’s policy of favoring his coreligionists has opened a can of worms in the Ministry of Interior and threatens to sour the relations of many loyal Sunnis officers to their superiors.
It has long been rumored that Ghazi Kanaan may be replaced as Minister of Interior in the impending government reshuffle that was to follow the Baath Party Congress in June. AlSeyassah, the rumor-mill Kuwaiti paper, wrote on July 11 that Kanaan was suspended from his ministerial duties, because he was the man behind Rustum Ghazaleh in Lebanon, but this was all hearsay. Such reports may just have been spin put out by his many opponents? We are still waiting for the announcement of a new government. Kanaan was recently socked with special financial sanctions by the US government, which may have jeopardized his tenure and usefulness to the President. One thing is for sure, many people will be waiting to see what happens at the Ministry of Interior in the next government.