Aron Lund writes: 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. [Continue reading…]