February 18, 2005

Syria-Lebanon: New Syrian Military Intelligence Chief

On February 14, former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri was assassinated. Blame was immediately assigned to neighboring Syria - after all, Syria has had troops in Lebanon and has virtually ruled what many Syrians merely call "the province" since 1976.

On February 18, Syrian president Bashar Al-Asad replaced the chief of Syrian military intelligence, Hasan Khalil, with his brother in law Brigadier General Asif Shawkat. It appears that this is in response to increased political pressure on Syria, but it remains to be seen if this personnel change will be cast as addressing a "rogue" operation in Lebanon.

Removing Hasan Khalil serves other purposes as well. Hasan Khalil was regarded as fairly weak, hence his ability to remain in power. He replaced the legendary strongman Lieutenant General 'Ali Duba - probably the most feared man in Hafiz (father of Bashar) Al-Asad's Syria after the president himself.

When I was posted in Damascus as the air attache to the American embassy, my Syrian iqama (residence card) that indicated my diplomatic immunity, was signed by 'Ali Duba. Military attaches usually are accredited to the host nation director of military intelligence - in the United States, all foreign military attaches are accredited to the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Every time I was asked to show my iqama, as soon as the guard saw Duba's name, he normally turned white and almost threw the card back.

Hasan Khalil succeeded Duba after Hafiz's death since he was not regarded as a threat to Bashar. Bashar was probably afraid of Duba and didn't trust him.

Shawkat's promotion from deputy director to chief of military intelligence reflects a shift on the part of the president. Many thought that he would be a moderating influence after he succeeded his late father. However, possibly in response to increased pressure from the United States and the West, Bashar appears to be siding with Ba'th Party hardliners - two of the most prominent being Shawkat and Bashar's younger brother Mahir.

Syrian military intelligence has always had the portfolio to execute Syrian (meaning Bashar's) policy in Lebanon. It will be interesting to watch how Shawkat handles increased Lebanese popular calls for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country.