Syrian Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan committed suicide at his office yesterday, the official Syrian News Agency SANA said.
Kanaan, who was Syria's top official in Lebanon for two decades until 2002, had been interviewed two weeks earlier by UN investigators probing the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri.
"The minister of interior died in his office this afternoon after committing suicide and the authorities are investigating the incident," SANA said in a report.
Hours before the news broke, Kanaan spoke to a Lebanese radio station, denying reports in Lebanese media that he showed the UN investigators checks paid to him by the late Hariri.
"I think this is the last statement I might give," Kanaan said at the end of the phone interview with Voice of Lebanon.
The suicide comes as Syria is quietly preparing for the possibility that the UN investigation will implicate it in Hariri's murder. The regime is consolidating its power, preparing a public relations counteroffensive and even taking steps to guard against possible tough sanctions.
The moves are viewed by many opposition figures and analysts as a sign that the regime, while not very popular, is determined to stay in power even if the UN probe's outcome is unfavorable to it.
Many Syrians, however, wonder how long the regime can last, especially if the probe's findings, due to be released by Oct. 21, hit close to home.
Some believe President Bashar Assad would turn over officers who served in Lebanon during Syria's 29-year military presence there -- if the report offers irrefutable evidence of their involvement. But most believe he would stop at handing over family members.
"The family is a red line," said Joshua Landis, a University of Oklahoma professor who is spending the year in Damascus as a Fulbright scholar.
Despite gloating by some Syrians about the regime's current troubles, most believe it can survive, whatever happens. A weak opposition, and the fact that any revolt would likely be seen as spearheaded by the US, lead many Syrians and analysts to believe the regime is safe for now.
Many Syrians feel the US caused a disaster when it invaded neighboring Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein, leading to a bloody insurgency.
Iraq a deterrant
"Syrians do not want to have the same fate as Iraqis," said Yassin Haj Saleh, an outspoken dissident. "One of the regime's strongest points is the weakness of the Iraq model."
"Had that model succeeded," he added, "there would have been less hostility toward America and what it could offer."
But some say the danger to the regime could come from within -- from someone seizing power in a bloodless palace coup that would keep the minority Alawites in power.
Visitors who have seen Assad recently report he is relaxed, upbeat and confident the investigation will not find any criminal evidence against his country in the Feb. 14 Beirut bombing that killed Hariri and 20 others.
But he recently told Jihad al-Khazen, a senior columnist for the London-based, pan-Arab daily Al Hayat, that some countries may try to "politicize" the probe to step up the pressure on Syria.
He said if that happens, Syria will be targeted because the ultimate aim of those nations -- which he didn't name but are believed to include the US -- is Iran. Syria is Iran's closest Arab ally.