It is, literally, a bomb. What kind of wily actor managed to get the precious intel needed to penetrate, disrupt and destroy a meeting at the National Security building in Damascus — killing Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha and his deputy Assef Shawkat, Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law?
What really happened is still murky. Reuters said it was a suicide bomber working as a bodyguard for Assad’s inner circle. Agence France-Presse reported it was a suicide bomber detonating his belt. Beirut’s Al-Akhbar said it was a planted bomb. Same for Lebanon’s Al-Manar TV — detailing it was a 40-kilogram bomb.
So who was it? The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)? The MI6? Saudi intel? Turkish intel? Or that oh so pliable ghost — al-Qaeda?
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, five months ago, came up with a non-denial denial by in fact admitting that Washington was working side by side with al-Qaeda in Syria supporting the Not Exactly Free Syrian Army (FSA).1
And then there was Hillary “We came, we saw, he died” Clinton only 10 days ago warning there was still “a chance to save the Syrian state from a catastrophic assault.”2 Just like her prophetic warning only a few days before Muammar Gaddafi was captured, sodomized and executed, how could she be certain of this “catastrophic assault”?
The FSA — out of its Turkey digs — wasted no time in claiming responsibility; it was an improvised explosive device (IED) planted inside the room. There were no suicide bombers. Yet the FSA have been lying through their teeth for months. Anyway, FSA spokesman Qassim Saadedine insists this is “the volcano” they promised to awake a few days ago.
Much juicier, in parallel, is the Liwa al-Islam (“The Brigade of Islam”) saying in its Facebook page that it “targeted the cell called the crisis control room in the capital of Damascus.” That would be the al-Qaeda-style connection. In this case, where are they getting their intel from? Their good pals, the CIA?
Time to round up those canolis
The Assad family saga does read like a ready-made script for Godfather IV, as evoked in this collective foreign-policy blog discussion before the bombing.
Assad’s brother-in-law, General Assef Shawkat, was a big security honcho — widely viewed as the actual ruler of Damascus. He was born out of a poor Bedouin family who settled in Tartus — where Russia keeps its naval base. Shawkat was the leader of a special brigade during the 1982 Hama massacre — whose victims were essentially from the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (MB).
Then Godfather Hafez al-Assad put him in charge of protecting his daughter Bouchra. They sort of fell in love with each other. Bouchra’s brother, the unruly Bassel al-Assad, was violently against it; he had Shawkat, who he dismissed as a country bumpkin, arrested at least four times. Bassel died in 1994 in a car accident; conspiracy theorists blamed it on Rifaat al-Assad, Hafez’s brother, who lived in France and who badly wanted to be Hafez’s successor.
Bouchra and Shawkat had to flee to Rome to make the Assad family face the inevitable. Patriarch Hafez ended up giving them his blessing, and they finally got married. Hafez then put Shawkat in charge of preparing Bashar to become president. From 1998 onwards they got really close; that’s how Shawkat became the most powerful man in Syria. Inevitably another blood feud crept up — this time with Maher, Bashar’s younger brother, the commander of the 4th Division, who even shot Shawkat; he had to recover in a hospital in Paris.
WikiLeaks cables have shown how Shawkat was very close to the French security establishment.3 They’ve also shown that Shawkat was in charge of everything related to US-Syria security exchanges. So Shawkat was not exactly a persona non grata in Washington; he was “one of our bastards” as well.
The key point is that since becoming president in 2000, Bashar has always relied on Shawkat. He was Bashar’s Richelieu — even though he had no popular base, nor even full support among the Alawite elite.
And that may be a clue to what comes next. Many at Assad’s inner circle were extremely antagonistic towards Shawkat. Now that he’s gone, this might eventually point to a white coup in Damascus — with some of the inner circle finally deciding to “decapitate” Assad as a means of keeping their grip on the system. Sort of a Syrian version of the Hosni Mubarak/SCAF (Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) scenario.
I love the sound of an IED in the morning
It remains to be seen what Moscow has to say about all this. Now all bets may be off. It’s crucial to examine what Russian President Vladimir Putin will be telling Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip “Assad must go” Erdogan — as in “don’t start getting any funny ideas.”
What seems to be certain is that Assad’s inner circle won’t fold. On the contrary; it will respond with all guns — and tanks — blazing. It has already threatened to “confront all forms of terrorism and chop any hand that harms national security.”
The FSA and FSA-related gangs all rely on the same tactic; they get entrenched in residential neighborhoods, even in Damascus, and wait for the regime to attack. The regime’s tactic is monolithic; they tend to level any area, even ultra-urban, wherever the gangs are holed up. The result is inevitable; enormous “collateral damage” and massive internal displacement. This may start happening now in Damascus itself — assuming the FSA can keep their sleeper cells active, which they can’t.
And then there’s the newfound Western love story with suicide bombers.
Donald Rumsfeld’s former Chief of Staff at the Pentagon, Keith Urbahn, tweeted, “for once we should call a suicide bomber — the one that took out a major fraction of Assad’s cabinet — a martyr.”
It doesn’t matter that he got it wrong — it was not a suicide bomber but an IED. But there we have it — straight from a neo-con horse’s mouth (and plenty other conservative and liberal mouths as well).
If you use suicide bombers or IEDs to kill government officials of a “rogue state,” you can get away with it; you’re “one of our bastards.”
But don’t even try to do it against the Green Zone in Baghdad, or the Afghan government in Kabul, or against any of our “trusted” allies such as the House of Saud and King Playstation in Jordan; then you’re just an evil “terrorist.”
- Clinton: Arming Syrian rebels could help al Qaeda, February 27, 2012, CBS. [↩]
- Clinton: Syria must end violence to avoid “catastrophic assault“, Reuters, Jul 8, 2012. [↩]
- See here. [↩]