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Assef Shawkat's Death a Blow to Syrian Regime

Cecily Hilleary

July 18, 2012

Among those killed in Wednesday's blast is the brother-in-law of President Bashar Al-Assad, army deputy chief-of-staff General Assef Shawkat. Though little is known about Shawkat, and his public appearances have been few, he was widely viewed as the regime’s “enforcer.” David Lesch is Professor of Middle East History in the Department of History at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas and author of The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Asad and Modern Syria. VOA asked him about what impact Shawkat’s death could have on the Assad regime.

Hilleary: What do we know about Assef Shawkat?

Lesch: I don’t think he was the power behind the regime. I think that was certainly the impression early on in Bashar Al-Assad’s reign, which may have been more correct. But in recent years, everything I’ve seen suggests that while not being marginalized, he certainly was no longer in the inner circle. Particularly after the assassination of [Hezbollah military commander] Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus in 2008, it seems that Shawkat took the fall for that and was removed the following year as head of military intelligence.

I think that probably since the uprising and as the loyalty within the family and other elements of the Alawite community have gotten tighter more sectarian, that he had perhaps regained some of his lost authority. Although these deaths are certainly a body blow to the regime, I don’t see them as being fatal at this time.

Hilleary: So as general, he was in charge of military intelligence?

Lesch: Yes, he was until 2009. Again, a lot of the information around him is sketchy. Being in intelligence and in the military and being a member of the Assad family, there have been all sorts of different reports. There have been reports that he has died at least two or three times already.

Hilleary: Have we seen anything of him since the last report, which was last May?

Lesch: Yeah of some sort of poisoning or something like that. I have not seen anything from him, but the fact that the state media is saying that he has died, apparently he has finally died.

Hilleary: How is this likely to impact the regime?

Lesch: I think it is a more case of a severe psychological blow to the regime itself. And now, people who have been identified as close to the regime are either defecting—like [General] Manaf Tlas—or being assassinated. And this is certainly, on the reverse side of the coin, raising the hopes of the opposition that they are truly making serious inroads into weakening the regime.

Hilleary: There are parallels, back in the 80’s, when a similar attempt was made on the life of Bashar’s father Hafez—he turned around, and retaliation was brutal.

Lesch: Yes, Shakat had a number of loyalists within intelligence, within the security also, probably within the military, and the Assad family is not going to take this lying down. It’s a question of strength at this point. They could unleash themselves either in a series of assassinations against opposition figures or in a massive attack. Gloves are off, so to speak. But they also have to be careful not to do something that elicits an international response.

But they may also take the fight – I’m not confident about their ability to carry out assassinations beyond Syria, except in Lebanon. But if I were an opposition figure today, inside or outside of Syria, I’d be looking around corners, because I think the regime is going to respond somehow.

Hilleary: What do we know about the new Defense Minister, Fahd Jassem al-Freij?

Lesch: It’s the first I’ve heard of him. The thing is, the Minister of Defense under Bashar, certainly since Mustapha Tlas stepped down in 2002, really has not been a very strong position. It has been the military and security chiefs that have had the power. The Defense Minister is – I don’t want to say he’s a figurehead, but more along those lines in terms of having any real authority.

Hilleary: What do you think is next? The United Nations Security Council is debating what to do. Is Syria likely to crack down all the harder or are they likely to hold back?

Lesch: I think they are going to come out strongly against the opposition somehow in response to this. They have to be very careful. I mean, unfortunately, there has been this calibration of blood-letting from the regime’s point of view. They have to do enough to stamp out the uprising, but not enough that it culls the international community into action because of some humanitarian disaster or massacres or so forth, some of which have been happening anyhow. So I think they are probably having this discussion, but there may be elements within the military-security apparatus that may convulsively react to this and carry out some type of strong response that leads to something close to a Hama of 1982.

Hilleary: If such an event were to occur, do you think that would be the trigger for international intervention?

Lesch: Certainly if something were carried out on a level of Hama 1982, then I think the international community would have to respond much more assertively than they have. If that means direct military intervention, probably not yet, but probably much more overt support in terms of funding and aiding in terms of ammunition, weapons and so forth.

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