– President Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law and his defense minister (Wall Street Journal, July 18, 2012):
BEIRUT—Three top military and security leaders in the Syrian regime, including President Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law and his defense minister, were killed in a bombing in Damascus on Wednesday, in the biggest blow to the country’s rulers since the start of the uprising 17 months ago.
The attack, which and appeared to have been more a targeted assassination than an Islamist militant-style bombing, was executed by insiders collaborating with the opposition, according to rebel leaders. That account raises questions about the cohesiveness of the military and security forces and their ability to continue buttressing a regime already hit by crippling sanctions and important defections in recent weeks.
After the attack the U.S. said Mr. Assad’s regime was losing control of the country and introduced new sanctions intended to accelerate the Syrian president’s exit. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said it was critical for the international community bring “maximum pressure” on Mr. Assad to step down.
Just hours after the attack in Damascus, there were signs that both the regime and rebels were gearing up for a significant escalation in the conflict that risks plunging the country into civil war, drawing in regional players and triggering a refugee and humanitarian crisis with far-reaching repercussions. Several civilian and military regime officials vowed after the attack to do everything possible to snuff out the armed insurrection. Fighting raged for a fourth day in several Damascus neighborhoods, with residents fleeing districts in the capital’s northeast that have been the setting of pitched street battles involving helicopter gunships starting this week.“This cowardly terrorist act will not dissuade the men of our armed forces from continuing their sacred duties to pursue the remnants of the terrorist criminal gangs and cut off the arm that extends to harm the security of the nation and the people,” said Gen. Fahed Jassim al-Freij, who was appointed by President Assad to succeed the slain defense minister, in a televised statement.
Gen. Freij, a 62-year-old career army officer from the restive central province of Hama, confirmed in his statement the deaths of his predecessor, Gen. Dawoud Rajha, and of President Assad’s brother-in-law Assef Shawkat. Mr. Shawkat, who also held the rank of general, was deputy defense minister and before that head of the feared military intelligence.
The killing of Mr. Shawkat, one of the most powerful figures in Mr. Assad’s security apparatus, is a major coup for the opposition, more so than the death of Gen. Rajha, a Christian, who occupied what was largely regarded as a ceremonial post. Mr. Shawkat was married to the president’s only sister, Bushra, and was rumored to have survived an assassination attempt by rebels earlier this year through the poisoning of grilled meat served during a meal with his aides.
Like the president and many in his inner entourage, Mr. Shawkat hailed from the minority Shiite-linked Alawite sect.
A separate statement from the army confirmed the killings. Neither the army nor the statement read by Gen. Freij said anything about how the attack was carried out, only labeling it a terrorist act.
State media said later that Gen. Hassan Turkmani, a former defense minister and Syria’s assistant vice president, died in the hospital after being severely wounded in the attack, and that Interior Minister Maj. Gen. Ibrahim al-Sha’ar and Gen. Hisham Ekhtiyar, the national-security chief, had also been wounded but were both “well and in stable condition.”
Information Minister Omran al-Zughbi didn’t give any details about the attack, but said it targeted a meeting of key military, security and intelligence leaders that Syrian officials call a “crisis cell,” an ad hoc committee of the president’s top advisers who have met regularly in recent months as the crisis escalated. The meetings are usually attended by the defense minister, interior minister, senior ruling Baath Party officials, and security department chiefs.
The meeting was held at the national-security council headquarters in the tightly secured Rawda Square, several buildings away from the U.S. Embassy and from the private residence and office of Mr. Assad. The Greek, Italian, Lebanese and Turkish embassies are also nearby.
It isn’t clear how many officials were at the meeting or inside the building, or whether President Assad was in attendance. Residents said security forces sealed off the al-Chami hospital, where victims of the bombing were being taken.
Mr. Zughbi accused the intelligence services of Western countries and Gulf Arab states, as well as Turkey, of helping plot the attack.
“They committed a crime and they will pay for it,” he vowed, referring to these countries that strongly back the Syrian opposition.
Rebel commanders with the Free Syrian Army claimed responsibility for the attack, which they said was planned in coordination with informants in the Republican Guard—an elite military unit tasked with defending the capital—and security personnel at the building on Tuesday. Military defectors say they have secured contact in recent weeks with an array of army and intelligence officers who help them plan attacks.
One rebel commander in Damascus said the attack involved explosives but wasn’t a suicide attack. He called it a “complex, elaborate, precise operation” and said the group planned more “major operations” on Wednesday and Thursday.
“These were major decision makers in the killing of innocent Syrian civilians,” said the Damascus rebel commander. “Besides overseeing major military decisions, they were also involved in supporting and directing the shabeeha,” he said, referring to pro-government agents who have taken part in some of the most gruesome killings in opposition strongholds.
The attack came on the fourth day of an offensive by rebels in several Damascus neighborhoods that has triggered heavy clashes and significant mobilization by government troops inside the capital.
Residents of the capital said Syrian government military planes were buzzing over Damascus after the bombing, which occurred in one of the most upscale and secure parts of the city.
“The developments today are one part of the battle of the Syrian people and their revolution,” George Sabra, spokesman for the Syrian National Council, an umbrella group for the political opposition, told pan-Arab television. “Two days ago we told our people Damascus will witnesses the final, decisive battle. It seems some observers didn’t take us seriously,” he said.
A United Nations Security Council meeting on Syria sanctions was postponed on Wednesday following a request by Syria envoy Kofi Annan.
Mr. Annan said through his spokesman that he asked for the delay to give time to the council to “unite and take concerted and strong action that would help stem the bloodshed in Syria and build momentum for a political transition,” according to his spokesman.
Mr. Annan “condemns all bloodshed, and violence in all its forms, and feels that today’s violence only underscores the urgency of decisive Council action,” the statement said.
The Colombian ambassador, president this month of the Security Council, told reporters that it wasn’t only Mr. Annan’s request but also the Council felt it should take an extra day to try to find consensus.
U.S. President Barack Obama called Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday and discussed the need to support a political transition as soon as possible, the White House said. Russia, an ally to Syria, is seen as a significant obstacle to efforts among some on the Security Council to threaten asset freezes and international travel restrictions against senior Syrian officials.
Both the Syrian defense minister and Mr. Assad’s brother-in-law, who were killed on Wednesday, were already on the U.S. and EU targeted sanctions list, meaning their assets were frozen in Europe and the U.S. and they were banned from traveling to either place.