News / Middle East

Assassinations Leave Void in Syrian Military Leadership

Syrian Ministers Killed in Damascus
Syrian Ministers Killed in Damascus
The high-level assassinations on Wednesday of at least three top Syrian officials targeted President Bashar al-Assad's national security team, leaving a large void in the country's military leadership.
The casualties include Defense Minister Daoud Rajha; General Asef Shawkat, the Syrian military's deputy chief of staff, who is married to Assad's elder sister; and Hassan Turkmani, a former defense minister and senior military adviser.
They are the first prominent officials killed in the 16-month anti-government uprising and represent a turning point in Syria's increasingly violent civil war.  The men were from Syria's core leadership team attempting to suppress the revolt and, experts say, the president might have trouble replacing them.
Syrian state television called the blast a "suicide terrorist attack," while Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander Riad al-Asaad said rebel forces planted a bomb in the room and detonated it.
Brian Sayers, director of government relations for the Syrian Support Group, a U.S.-based lobbying organization of FSA supporters, quoted sources in Syria as saying the attack was most likely carried out by an opposition sympathizer working in the Assad government.
That view was echoed by Fabrice Balanche, director of the French research center Gremmo and a Syria expert, who said "[The bombing] demonstrates complicity inside the Syrian government, and shows that [dissidents] are staying in government to destroy it from within."
New Military Leader Named
The government moved quickly to assert control, naming General Fahed Jassem al-Freij, the military chief of staff, as Syria's new defense minister.  In a statement on state television, Freij said the military would not be deterred from "cutting off every hand that harms the security of the homeland and citizens."
Nadim Shehadi, a Middle East expert with Chatham House in London, said targeted killings could damage the opposition's position and that the lack of decisive international intervention is forcing rebels to use military action to oust Mr. Assad, a tactic he said could prove costly in the future.
"The more militarized the conflict gets, the more difficult the transition will be later," Shehadi said.  "All the people now being armed will have to be disarmed when the regime falls.  The international community's non-position on this, and non-interference, is something that will cost it a lot later."
Shehadi called Wednesday's bombing "a double-edged sword" because he said he does not believe opposition rebels can defeat the government with military force alone.
Analyst Fabrice Balanche agreed, saying the rebels are "trying to kill the heart of the Syrian [government] because they are not capable of effectively fighting Assad's official army.  They are attempting to decapitate the government [and] demoralize the Syrian army."
Attacks Target Inner Circle
Former U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams, who served in President George W. Bush's administration, said the assassinations offer a sharp warning for the inner group of loyalists from President Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
"The defense minister was a Christian and not part of the Alawite elite that rules the country.  But [General Asef] Shawkat was part of that elite which now understands that it itself is vulnerable," Abrams said.  "Assad can continue to rule without one individual or another.  But I think this does shake the regime and suggest to everybody in it that really the handwriting is on the wall [i.e., the future is clear] and that they are going to fall," he said.
The Syrian Support Group said the FSA has about 50,000 fighters and controls large portions of Syria.  Syrian Canadian Louay Sakka, a co-founder of the support group, said that as of last month, President Assad's army consisted of 350,000 troops, but was actively using only 60,000-70,000 troops.
Assad in a Bind
Damascus-based journalist Farhad Hama told VOA's Kurdish Service that the killings have put Mr. Assad's government in a precarious position.  "Damascus is now in a chaotic situation security-wise because those who were killed had direct influence and control over security forces and the army," he said.
The attack has increased tensions between government soldiers and the opposition, with fierce clashes reported in several Damascus neighborhoods.
Activists in the Syrian capital said traffic is thin and almost all shops are closed.  A series of defections from government forces also has been reported, including two brigadier generals who fled to Turkey.

Mark Snowiss

Mark Snowiss is a Washington D.C.-based multimedia reporter.  He has written and edited for various media outlets including Pacifica and NPR affiliates in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @msnowiss and on Google Plus

You May Like

Video Russia’s Syrian Escalation Tests Obama’s Crisis Response

Critics once again question whether president has been slow to act on Syrian conflict, thus creating opening for powers like Russia More

Ancient African DNA Shows Mass Migration Back Into Africa

First genetic analysis of ancient human remains in Africa suggests massive migration from north around time of Egyptian empire More

NASA: Pluto Has Blue Sky

New photos also reveal the presence of water ice More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Anonymous
July 19, 2012 1:10 PM
With these three military men out of action, wouldn't now be the time to group up and storm the Presidential Palace? The quicker Assad is stopped, the faster the war and innocent killing would be over.

by: Anonymous
July 19, 2012 1:09 PM
One would assume that the Syrian army is at its weakest point right now losing these three military members. It is unfortunate this tragic chaos happening in Syria has had to happen, unfortunate for all the families who have lost loved ones on both sides. It is unfortunate it is all caused by Assads initial decision to follow his fathers footsteps by indiscriminately shelling helpless innocent people who want a say, in regards to their country and fellow citizens they so love. We as westerners are disgusted in the Syrian Leaders decision to try and annihilate civillians.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugeesi
Henry Ridgwell
October 08, 2015 8:02 PM
Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

VOA Blogs