General seen as iron fist of Syrian establishment

Thu, Jul 19, 2012, 01:00

GENERAL ASSEF Shawkat, one of the high-ranking officials in the Assad regime killed in yesterday’s bombing in Damascus, was considered one of President Bashar al-Assad’s top security chiefs.

However, he was replaced in 2010 as head of military intelligence and made deputy chief-of-staff of the armed forces and deputy defence minister. Although he appeared to have been promoted, opposition figures said he was seen to have been at fault in the 2008 assassination of Hizbullah military commander Imad Mughniyeh in an area of Damascus he was responsible for.

The US said Gen Shawkat was a fundamental contributor to Syria’s policy to foment terrorism.

Analysts disagreed, however, saying preparations were in fact being made to appoint Gen Shawkat chief-of-staff of the armed forces or defence minister.

Born in 1950 to a middle-class Alawite family in Tartus, a Mediterranean coastal city across the border from Lebanon, he studied law at Damascus University before joining the Syrian army in the late 1970s.

He rose through the ranks until his fortunes changed spectacularly in the mid-1990s when he married Bushra, the only daughter of then president Hafez al-Assad, the current president’s father – despite misgivings from within the Assad family because he was a divorced father of five who was 10 years her senior.

They eloped in 1994 after the death of Basil Assad, Bashar al-Assad’s elder brother, who had objected to the match.

Basil Assad is said to have died instantly when a car he was driving crashed into a motorway roundabout as he was speeding to catch a flight to Germany.

After receiving the blessing of Hafez al-Assad, Gen Shawkat was welcomed into the family and built a close relationship with the man who is now president.

Former vice-president Abdul Halim Khaddam said Gen Shawkat was a “smart, cultivated and courageous officer with great ambitions”, who had established ties with intelligence chiefs and other powerbrokers.

To others, however, he was a butcher.

US diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks described him as both a clever, well-read officer and as part of Syria’s “killing problem”.

In 2006, the US imposed sanctions on him on suspicion that he had orchestrated the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri and other officials seen as threats to Syrian influence.

“Shawkat has been a key architect of Syria’s domination of Lebanon, as well as a fundamental contributor to Syria’s long-standing policy to foment terrorism against Israel,” the US Treasury said at the time.

Anti-regime activists saw Gen Shawkat as the iron fist of the establishment, pushing for a ruthless approach to the rebellion.

But Lebanese security sources close to the Assads said Gen Shawkat had always acted as part of a powerful, close-knit inner circle.

“Shawkat prefers force but he is just one part of the decision-making group. This regime is like a network,” said a Lebanese security source close to the Damascus centre of power. – (Agencies)