(Left) Defence minister Daoud Rajha and President Assad’s brother-in-law Assef Shawkat
Beirut, July 18: President Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law and Syria’s defence minister were killed today when a suicide bomber attacked a crisis group of senior ministers and security chiefs set up to counter the 17-month uprising as it met in central Damascus after three days of fighting on the streets of the capital, according to state television and activists.
The assassinations were the first of such high-ranking members of the power elite in 17 months of revolt and could represent a turning point, analysts said, confirming that opposition forces have been marshalling their strength to strike at the close-knit centres of state power.
According to state television, the dead included the defence minister, Daoud Rajha, and Assef Shawkat, the President’s brother-in-law who was the deputy chief of staff of the Syrian military. But it rejected reports by activists that the minister of the interior was also dead, saying he remained alive and in a stable condition.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said all the members of the crisis group set up by President Assad to try to put down the revolt were are either dead or injured. But there was no official confirmation of that account.
With tensions already high in Damascus after three days of clashes between the Syrian Army and rebels near the city centre, Sana, the official news agency, described the assault as a “suicide terrorist attack”. Opponents claimed a major victory.
“The Syrian regime has started to collapse,” said the activist who heads the Syrian Observatory. “There was fighting for three days inside Damascus, it was not just a gun battle, and now someone has killed or injured all these important people.”
Rumours swirled around Damascus that the bomber was the minister’s bodyguard, but there was no confirmation of those reports. The attack came despite a huge security presence to isolate embattled neighbourhoods of the capital.
The casualties were from the core team trying to enforce a security solution to the uprising in Syria, and in such a tense, suspicious climate, it was not clear who Assad might find to replace them.
“If a bodyguard blew himself up, then there a major internal security breach,” said Elias Hanna, a retired Lebanese military officer and a military analyst.
“Who will replace these people?” Hanna said. “They are irreplaceable at this stage, it’s hard to find loyal people now that doubt is sowed everywhere. Whoever can get to Assef Shawkat can get to Assad.” “Everyone, even those close to the inner circle, will now be under suspicion,” he said.
The injured from the explosion were evacuated to the Alshame hospital, an elite medical facility used to treat the Assad family, ministers and other senior officials.
After word spread of the death of at least the defence minister, a series of cars were seen heading to the site of the bombing from the presidential offices. Republican guards and other security forces sealed off the entire area around the explosion and the hospital, activists said.
Gen. Rajha was appointed minister of defence in August. A Christian, he was one of the prominent minority figures used by the Assad government to put a face of pluralism on the military and security services dominated by the same Alawite sect the President belongs to.
The attack came as diplomatic manoeuvres to seek a ceasefire remained deadlocked by differences between Syria’s international adversaries and its sponsors, principally Russia, ahead of a UN Security Council vote scheduled for Wednesday on whether to extend the mission of 300 UN monitors. The work of the unarmed observers has been suspended because of the violence, and they have basically been trapped in their hotel rooms since last month.
In the confusion after the attack, and in the absence of an authoritative official account, there were conflicting reports about who was killed and who survived.
Activists and media reports spoke of fatalities among the most senior figures in the very inner circle of the Assad administration, a close group that includes the deputy chief of staff of the military, Mohamed Sha’ar, the minister of the interior and Hisham Bekhtyar, the head of national security.
Other members of the group include Gen. Ali Mamlouk, the chief of general intelligence; Abdel-Fattah Qudsiyeh, the head of military intelligence, and Mohammad Nassif Kheyrbek, a senior security adviser.
Since the uprising began in March, 2011, Syria has been run by an ever tighter circle of army and security officials close to the President, and their deaths would represent a serious blow to the heart of the power elite.
Even as state media reported the suicide attack in Damascus, the country’s Russian-armed military was reported to have suffered further defections among its top ranks, with two brigadier generals among 600 Syrians who fled to Turkey overnight, Reuters reported.
Their action brought to 20 the number of such high-ranking figures, who include a one-time close associate of Assad, Gen. Manaf Tlass, the son of a former defence minister. There was also new evidence, reported by Israel’s intelligence chief, that Assad was moving troops into Damascus.