Massive Bomb Strikes at Assad’s Inner Circle
By SAM DAGHER and NOUR MALAS, BEIRUT(WSJ): President Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law Asef Shawkat and the country’s defense minister were killed in a massive bombing in central Damascus on Wednesday, Syrian state media said.
State television said Mr. Shawkat and Defense Minister Maj. Gen. Dawood Rajha were killed in an attack against the so-called national security building in the capital’s Rawda Square, while they and other senior security and defense leaders were meeting inside.
Syria’s information minister Omran al-Zughbi, who confirmed the deaths of Mr. Shawkat and Gen. Rajha, said it was a terrorist act plotted in collaboration with the intelligence services of Western countries and Gulf Arab states as well as Turkey.
“They committed a crime and they will pay for it,” said Mr. Zughbi, referring to these countries that strongly back the Syrian opposition.
Rebel commanders with the Free Syrian Army claimed responsibility for the attack, which they said was planned in coordination with informer Republican Guard soldiers—from an elite military unit tasked with defending the capital—and security personnel at the building on Tuesday. Military defectors say they have secured contact in recent weeks with an array of army and intelligence officers who help them plan attacks.
The killing of Mr. Shawkat, a deputy defense minister and one of the most powerful figures in Mr. Assad’s security apparatus, is a major coup for the opposition. He was married to the president’s sister Bushra, and was previously the head of the country’s feared military intelligence. Like the president and many in his inner entourage, he hailed from the minority Shiite-linked Alawite sect.
State television said that there were other serious injuries among those who were at the meeting but didn’t give further details. Later it said Interior Minister Lt. Gen. Mohammed Ibrahim al-Sha’ar, who also attended the meeting, was “well and in a stable condition.”
One rebel commander in Damascus said the attack on Wednesday involved explosives but wasn’t a suicide attack. He called it a “complex, elaborate, precise operation” and said the group planned more “major operations” on Wednesday and Thursday.
The bombing targeted a meeting of key military, security and intelligence officials that Syrian officials call a “crisis cell,” an ad hoc committee of the president’s top advisers who have met regularly in recent months as the crisis in the country escalated. The meetings are usually attended by the defense minister, interior minister, senior ruling Baath Party officials, and security department chiefs.
“These were major decision makers in the killing of innocent Syrian civilians,” said the Damascus rebel commander. “Besides overseeing major military decisions, they were also involved in supporting and directing the shabeeha,” he said, referring to pro-government thugs that have taken part in some of the most gruesome killings in opposition strongholds.
The attack came on the fourth day of an offensive by rebels in several Damascus neighborhoods that has triggered heavy clashes and significant mobilization by government troops inside the capital.
Residents of the capital said that Syrian government military planes were buzzing over Damascus after the bombing, which occurred in one of the most upscale and secure parts of the city.
It wasn’t clear how many officials were at the meeting or inside the building, or whether Mr. Assad was in attendance. Residents said security forces sealed off the al-Chami hospital, where victims of the bombing were being taken.
“The developments today are one part of the battle of the Syrian people and their revolution,” George Sabra, spokesman for the Syrian National Council, an umbrella group for the political opposition, told pan-Arab television. “Two days ago we told our people Damascus will witnesses the final, decisive battle. It seems some observers didn’t take us seriously,” he said.
The site of the bombing is only several buildings away from the U.S. embassy and from the private residence and office of Mr. Assad. The Greek, Italian, Lebanese and Turkish embassies are also nearby.
Gen. Rajha, a Christian and a former chief of staff of the army, was named defense minister in August last year, a mostly ceremonial government post in Syria. He replaced Ali Habib, an Alawite commander. Analysts at the time said the move was a sign Mr. Assad was consolidating power by moving less trusted commanders into ceremonial posts.