President Bashar Assad’s brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, who held the post of the military’s deputy chief of staff, was killed in a suicide bomb blast in Damascus on Wednesday.
Also killed was defense minister Daoud Rajha and Hassan Turkmani, a former minister of defense and military adviser to Vice President Farouk Sharaa. Two others were injured including the interior minister.
The troika were members of a crisis group set up by Assad to deal with the 15 month old uprising against his rule.
There were no details released about the suicide bomb but some Middle East news outlets were reporting that the bomber was a member of the detail assigned to guard the group.
The attack came despite a huge security presence to isolate embattled neighborhoods 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 Mr. Assad might find to replace them.
“If a bodyguard blew himself up, then there was a major internal security breach,” said Elias Hanna, a retired Lebanese military officer and a military analyst knowledgeable about Syria.
“Who will replace these people?” Mr. 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 Asef Shawkat can get to Assad.”
“Everyone, even those close to the inner circle, will now be under suspicion,” he said.
An Army statement quoted by state television said in part: “This terrorist act will only increase our insistence to purge this country from the criminal terrorist thugs and to protect the dignity of Syria and its sovereignty.”
The information minister, Omran al-Zoubi, also went on a talk show to reject claims by those calling it the beginning of the end.
“The morale of our people is very high and our armed forces are at their highest level,” he said.
The death of Shawkat was a huge blow to Assad. A former military intelligence chief, Shawkat was widely seen as Assad’s hatchet man. During the occupation of Lebanon, he was reportedly the point man for several high profile assassinations, including the killing of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. He also functioned as a mafia capo, funneling wealth extorted from Lebanese businesses back to Assad, who then used the money to cement the loyalty of Baath Party members and the Alawite community.
But in a gangster state like Syria, it was Assad’s absolute trust in Shawkat that made him such a valuable aide. Shawkat married Assad’s sister — a courtship opposed by Assad’s brother Basil to the point that he jailed the young Shawkat 4 times to keep him away from her. But after an elopement and a reconciliation with Hafez Assad, Bashar’s father, Shawkat reached out to the young ophthalmologist who was designated heir apparent following Basil’s death in a car crash, and the two became friends and confidants.
Shawkat was irreplaceable. The Syrian opposition believes he was responsible for the brutal tactics being used in the crackdown, especially around Homs where artillery and tanks shelled civilian buildings at point blank range. It is clear that Assad has leaned on his older friend for advice in this crisis, calling him back from retirement to form the crisis group. Bashar Assad will be hard pressed to find someone who can provide both counsel and companionship — an aide he can trust completely.
Is this the beginning of the end for Assad as many in the opposition are saying? That may be more wishful thinking than reality talking. Assad still has a sizable number of Alawite troops who are loyal, as well as the cruelly effective shabbiha militia. The Baath Party is still on his side, and many minorities in Syria prefer the devil they know to the devil they don’t. Assad may be a tyrant but Christians, Berbers, and other minorities fear a Sunni majority even more.
In short, the infrastructure of oppression and tyranny are still in place and don’t appear to be wavering. That may change, but for the moment, the death of Shawkat and the others appears to be a bump in the road rather than a tipping point.