On April 24, the storied life of the head of Syria’s Political Security Directorate Rustum Ghazaleh seems to have come to an end. While the precise reasons and results of his demise are impossible to judge, this curious affair has been a rude shock to supporters of President Bashar al-Assad—and the mysteries of Ghazaleh’s death are sure to fuel speculation for years to come.
Rustum Ghazaleh was born in 1953 in Qarfa, a village north of the city of Daraa in the Houran region. This Sunni Arab tribal area was a stronghold of the Syrian Baath Party and the army when Ghazaleh came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, and Hourani officers and politicians were well-represented in the regime of former Syria president Hafez al-Assad. However, the region suffered from economic neglect from the 1990s onward, and relations with Damascus were further strained by Bashar al-Assad’s purges of several prominent old guard Baathists from Houran in the 2000s. In 2011, Daraa became the cradle of the Syrian uprising.
As a young man, Ghazaleh trained in armored warfare at the Homs Military Academy. Stationed in Lebanon during that country’s civil war as part of a Syrian expeditionary force that would eventually turn into an occupation army, he was transferred to military intelligence. After a brief spell under the powerful intelligence chief Ali Hammoud, he ended up under the patronage of Ghazi Kanaan, a military intelligence official who ran Lebanon from his headquarters in Anjar in the Bekaa Valley on behalf of Hafez al-Assad. By the 1990s, Ghazaleh had become a colonel and worked as Kanaan’s enforcer in Beirut, where he held court in the infamous Syrian intelligence headquarters at the Beau Rivage Hotel.
When Bashar al-Assad began to take over Syrian politics from his ailing father in the late 1990s, he stripped then vice president Abdul Halim Khaddam of the Lebanon file. In 2002, two years after becoming president, Bashar al-Assad recalled Kanaan to Damascus. This allowed Ghazaleh to step up to the top slot as head of military intelligence operations in Lebanon, which at the time was essentially Syria’s wealthiest and most politically volatile province—in other words, an enormously important job. Ghazaleh enjoyed strong support from the young president, who used him and other allies in the Syrian-Lebanese network that ran Beirut (as well as a considerable chunk of Syria’s economy) to edge out the old guard around Khaddam, Kanaan, and others.
The Bashar-era reshuffling of politics in Damascus and Beirut was an important reason behind surging Lebanese political unrest and public anger at the Syrian military presence in the early 2000s. The hardening political climate ultimately led to the February 2005 assassination of the Saudi-Lebanese billionaire Rafic Hariri, formerly the prime minister of Lebanon and known to be a close associate of Khaddam and other Hafez-era strongmen. This, in turn, led to Syria’s expulsion from Lebanon and a crisis within the Baathist regime that resulted in Khaddam’s exile and Kanaan’s death.
Ghazaleh’s role in Beirut came under scrutiny during UN investigations into the Hariri assassination, and he is widely alleged to have been involved in the murder, but nothing was proven. Although rumor had it that some of his closest associates were transferred to weaken him, he seems to have remained in good graces in Damascus. After leaving Lebanon, he was put in charge of the Military Intelligence Directorate’s operations in the Rif Dimashq Governorate, near the capital. At the time, Syrian military intelligence controlled the suburbs and countryside around Damascus, up to and including the border with Lebanon and, some say, Lebanon itself. He was also promoted to lieutenant general.
Ghazaleh During the Syrian Conflict
When the Daraa uprising began in March 2011, Ghazaleh was dispatched from Damascus to negotiate with opposition leaders and clan elders, with no great success. In July 2012, an explosion tore through the National Security Office in Damascus, killing several top regime strongmen. This forced a reshuffling of posts. Ghazaleh was appointed head of the Political Security Directorate, one of the “big four” intelligence services that have ruled Syrian politics since the 1970s, albeit one that saw its role shrink after 2011.
Recently, signs began to emerge that all was not well with Ghazaleh, whose home province was gradually being taken over by antigovernment forces. In December 2014, a bizarre video was released online in which Ghazaleh’s palatial mansion in Qarfa was blown up, apparently to prevent it from falling into the hands of rebels.
Then, in March 2015, something happened. According the most popular account, which exists in several versions and has not been confirmed, a dispute erupted between Ghazaleh and Lieutenant General Rafiq Shehadeh, head of the Military Intelligence Directorate. Ghazaleh is supposed to have gone to Shehadeh’s headquarters in the Kafr Souseh neighborhood of Damascus, either alone or with a group of bodyguards, to confront Shehadeh. There, Ghazaleh was arrested and Shehadeh proceeded to savagely beat him to the point of losing consciousness.
Lending credence to this version, Bashar al-Assad reportedly removed Shehadeh from office in mid-March, appointing Lieutenant General Mohammed Mehla as the new head of military intelligence; Lieutenant General Nazih Hassoun was allegedly tasked with filling in for Ghazaleh as head of political intelligence, at least temporarily.
After weeks in a Damascus hospital, the Beirut-based, pro-Assad television channel al-Mayadeen finally reported that Rustum Ghazaleh had passed away on April 24.
Rumors and Conspiracy Theories
Conspiracy theorists and rumor mongers are now rushing to fill the void. Many in the opposition claim that Ghazaleh was in fact assassinated, perhaps poisoned, although other reports say he was injured in an explosion in Daraa, presumably by rebels.
Even among those who agree that Ghazaleh’s hospitalization was due to a conflict with Shehadeh, narratives diverge on the nature of their dispute. A favorite theory in the Syrian opposition is that Ghazaleh—who happened to be one of the regime’s most powerful Sunni Muslim officers—was opposed to the growing role played by non-Syrian Shia forces. This would also have been why he blew up his mansion: to prevent it from being confiscated and used as a battlefield headquarters by Iranian officials and Lebanese Hezbollah commandos during the Iran-backed offensive in southern Syria this spring.
Other accounts put the Ghazaleh-Shehadeh quarrel down to a conflict over smuggling profits.
Rustum Ghazaleh’s Funeral
Whatever the case, the regime seems to have been deeply embarrassed by Ghazaleh’s death.
A funeral ceremony for Ghazaleh was reportedly held at the Lala Mustafa Pasha mosque on Baghdad Street, a wide, leafy thoroughfare that cuts straight through Damascus. The street was shut down for the occasion, along with the Seven Seas Square—site of the central bank and many pro-Assad demonstrations—and Revolution Street, another well-known boulevard. These locations are all smack in the middle of central Damascus and hardly away from the public eye—it is rather like having a funeral in Times Square in New York City.
Even so, the official Syrian Arab News Agency, which typically reports on the funerals of well-known senior regime figures, has made no mention of Ghazaleh—either dead or alive. Opposition groups are circulating private pictures from what seems to be the funeral procession along Baghdad Street, showing a small entourage of family members and a few men in uniform, but a distinct lack of official pomp and circumstance. It all fits with the idea that Ghazaleh died after falling out of favor with the regime.
The Ghost of Ghazi Kanaan
The Saudi-owned news channel al-Arabiya has reported a claim by the Lebanese Sunni leader Saad Hariri (son of Rafic Hariri) that Ghazaleh got in touch with his associates just before he was beaten up in order to broadcast a statement on Hariri’s al-Mustaqbal television station.
Hariri is clearly trying to evoke the mysterious death of Ghazaleh’s former boss in Lebanon, Lieutenant General Ghazi Kanaan. After serving three years in Damascus as head of the Political Security Directorate (2002–2004) and minister of interior (2004–2005), Kanaan passed away in October 2005, just as the United Nations was about to issue a report on the Hariri assassination that seemed to implicate the Syrian regime. Hours before his death, Kanaan had called up a Lebanese radio station to deny any involvement in Hariri’s death, saying that this would be his “last statement.” Then—according to the official story—he stuck his revolver in his mouth and blew his brains out. Assad’s critics in Syria and Lebanon, including members of Kanaan’s family, have maintained that the interior minister was in fact murdered to get the Assad regime off the hook in the Hariri probe, or to prevent his defection alongside the recently purged vice president Abdul Halim Khaddam.
Now, ten years later, Hariri and pro-Saudi media are making every effort to paint Ghazaleh as a latter-day Kanaan, hinting with no great subtlety that Ghazaleh was on the cusp of defection. “He wanted to reach out and say something, but he never got the chance,” Hariri lamented, adding for the benefit of those who still did not got it: “It was just like Ghazi Kanaan who killed himself with five bullets.”
Al-Arabiya has proceeded to spice up the story even more, claiming that Ghazaleh had smuggled a trove of documents to Lebanon just before his death, in order to give them to “an Arabic newspaper belonging to one of the Gulf states.”
Of course, there are some problems with this version. If Bashar al-Assad’s security services had really caught Ghazaleh preparing his defection, the public scandal surrounding his death makes no sense. There could have been a swift arrest, a disappearance, an execution, or an unfortunate accident. But while being beaten to death and dying after weeks in a hospital is not an unheard of way to go in Syrian regime circles, it is a rather unusual method of assassination.
The State of Syria’s Regime
Former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford has published a widely read article saying that Ghazaleh’s death, as well as Assad’s battlefield reversals in southern and northwestern Syria, may signal the “beginning of the end.” He points out that the death of Ghazaleh, along with the dismissal of Shehadeh and the reported sidelining of Assad’s cousin, Colonel Hafez Makhlouf, last year, seem like a sign of serious crisis within the regime.
It is true that Syria has not seen such unrest at the regime core since July 2012, when the blast at the National Security Office killed its director, Lieutenant General Hisham Ikhtiyar, in addition to Assad’s brother-in-law, General Assef Shawkat, as well as the defense minister, General Daoud Rajha, and Rajha’s predecessor, General Hassan Turkmani; in the same month, Brigadier General Manaf Tlass of the Republican Guard defected.
However, the simple truth is that we do not know how serious the events of this spring are for Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian regime remains a black box, virtually impenetrable to outsiders. During four years of conflict, the regime has displayed remarkable cohesion under extraordinary pressure, and while it is certainly possible that the recent upheaval is a sign of an emerging split, it is equally possible that the regime will simply rearrange its top brass and proceed like nothing happened, just as it did in July 2012.
The rest of us can only watch and wonder.