May 20, 2012

Syria: Assif Shawkat dead?

According to claims of the Free Syrian Army, eight senior officials of the Bashar al-Asad regime were killed in Damascus yesterday, including deputy minister of defense Major General Assif Shawkat. In addition to being the deputy minister and fellow 'Alawite, Shawkat sits on Bashar's Crisis Cell.

It goes further: Shawkat is also Bashar's brother in law - he is married to Hafiz al-Asad's only daughter Bushrah. See my October 2010 article, Syria - the rise of Asif Shawkat. In that article, I noted that Asif was to be promoted to lieutenant general (in Syrian Arabic, 'imad), but also note that in the current report, he is listed as a major general (liwa').

The Middle East Live blog of the UK's The Guardian newspaper today carried an article titled Syria: Damascus clashes prompt claims of high-level assassinations in which I was quoted:

The most interesting move here is the promotion of Asif Shawkat to lieutenant general and the news that he may be the next minister of defence. Shawkat owes virtually all of his good fortune to the fact that he is married to Bushra Hafiz al-Asad. If he becomes the minister of defense, al-Asad will have an absolutely loyal and trustworthy ally in that key position. While almost all of the senior officers in key positions are from the 'Alawite minority of the Latakia region, Shawkat is one better, he's family.

Shawkat, now 60-years-old, has been the chief of Syrian Military Intelligence since early 2005, shortly after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in Beirut. Most Middle East observers (including me) believe there was a Syrian hand in the murder. We also believe Shawkat was involved in the planning, if not the execution.

The regime has denied the opposition claims about this alleged operation. It is not unusual for the opposition to make such claims, nor is it unusual for the regime to deny such claims, even when true.

It remains to be seen if Shawkat was killed as claimed. He may surface later today or in the next few days for no other reason than to make a proof of life. However, if the opposition claims are true, this is a major success for the opposition. As I said in the 2010 article, this is not just an attack on a senior official, this hits the very heart of the al-Asad family.