Monday, August 11, 2008

The least Mysterious Downfall of Assef Shawkat; Murderer par excellence takes an unceremonial exit before more befalls down on him from UNIIIC.

The least Mysterious Downfall of Assef Shawkat; Murderer par excellence takes an unceremonial exit before more befalls down on him from UNIIIC.

In recent months, there has been a whirlwind of regional and international speculation regarding the fate of Brig. Gen. Assef Shawkat, the head of Syrian military intelligence and brother-in-law of President Bashar Assad. Long considered to be the most powerful member of the regime, Shawkat's influence has declined over the past six months, though the extent of and reasons for his fall from grace are not yet clear.
Shawkat's troubles came in the wake of two spectacular intelligence failures. The first was Israel's bombing of a Syrian nuclear facility in September 2007, followed by the Bush administration's release of damning photographic evidence of a reactor gathered by spies on the ground. The second incident was the February 2008 assassination of notorious Shiite terrorist mastermind Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus, an operation that almost certainly required the complicity of someone in the Syrian intelligence apparatus.

It was soon evident that Shawkat had lost favor with his brother-in-law. He was excluded from the investigation into Mughniyeh's assassination, which Assad put under the charge of his cousin Hafez Makhlouf (the brother of Rami Makhlouf). In early April, exiled former Syrian Vice-president Abdul Halim Khaddam told the Lebanese daily Al-Mustaqbal that Shawkat was under house arrest.[1] There were also credible reports that Shawkat's wife, Bushra Assad, and children had left Syria for Paris. The London-based Arabic daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat quoted a high-level French source as denying that Bushra had requested asylum and saying that she was residing in an unidentified Arab country (widely believed to be the UAE).[2]

There were numerous reports in the Arab press that Shawkat was under suspicion of being involved in the assassination of Mughniyeh, though this claim was initially confined to press organs known for publishing hearsay as fact, such as the Kuwaiti daily Al-Siyassa.[3] Some, such as the Algerian daily Ech Chorouk, reported that Shawkat had been arrested for plotting a coup.[4] According to the Lebanese weekly Al-Shiraa, two Syrian military intelligence officers were executed for their involvement in the plot.[5] In June, the German newspaper Die Welt reported that Shawkat had plotted to overthrow Assad and was arrested in February after Mughniyeh tipped off the Syrian president to the plot. Mughniyeh was killed a few days later, according to the report, possibly by associates of Shawkat.[6]

Other explanations have been offered for Shawkat's fall from favor. In early June, French journalist Georges Malbrunot reported in Le Figaro that Shawkat was under house arrest, though he argued that the likely cause had more to do with Shawkat's confirmed involvement in the 2002 assassination of Mr. Elie Hobeika , January 24th 2002 and that of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005 and outside pressure on Assad to demote him.[7] According to Syrian sources cited by Basel Oudat, Shawkat's downfall was due to non-political reasons.[8] It's possible that Bushra departed Syria because of her own personal dispute with Assad. Having risen to his position largely due to her influence, Shawkat's downfall may have been the result (rather than the cause) of her estrangement from her brother.

Since the revelations came out, Syrian state television has broadcast footage of Shawkat attending military graduation ceremonies at least three times (most recently on July 3) and there are some reports that Shawkat has been seen going to his office frequently,[9] However, there is a fairly solid consensus among informed Syrian observers that he has effectively (if not yet officially) been removed as head of military intelligence, with his second-in-command, Maj. Gen. Ali Younis (who is not close to Shawkat), effectively running things. According to the opposition Reform Party of Syria (RPS), Shawkat has been appointed head of a newly created (and toothless) National Security Council.[10] If so, it would appear he has merely been obliged to take an early retirement.


[1] Al-Mustaqbal (Beirut), 6 April 2008.
[2] Al-Sharq al-Awsat (London), 10 April 2008.
[3] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), 16 March 2008.
[4] Cited in Olivier Guitta, "What's going on in Syria?", The Middle East Times, 14 April 2008.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Die Welt (Germany), 7 June 2008.
[7] Georges Malbrunot, "En Syrie, Bachar el-Assad redistribue le pouvoir," Le Figaro (Paris), 3 June 2006.
[8] Basel Oudat, No internal threats, Al-Ahram Weekly, 19 - 25 June 2008.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Assef Shawkat Restored to Honorary Status, Reform Party of Syria, 15 July 2008.