News / Middle East

Shawkat's Death a Blow to Syrian Regime

Assef Shawkat, brother-in-law of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (file photo)
Assef Shawkat, brother-in-law of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (file photo)
Cecily Hilleary
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 Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad.  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.

You May Like

Hezbollah Chief Says Does Not Want War But Ready for One

VOA's Jerusalem correspondent reports that with an Israeli election looming and Hezbollah's involvement in Syria, neither side appears interested in a wider conflict More

Multimedia VOA SPECIAL REPORT: Despite Danger, Best US Minds Battle Deadly Virus

Scientists at America's premier biological research center race in military confinement to find effective drugs, speedier tests and a safe vaccine amid the deadliest outbreak of Ebola in history More

Kurdish Poet Battles to Defend Language, Culture

Kawa Nemir's work is an example of what he sees as an irreversible cultural and political assertiveness among Kurds in Turkey More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Egypt's Suez Canal Dreams Tempered by Continued Unresti
X
Heather Murdock
January 30, 2015 8:00 PM
Egypt plans to expand the Suez Canal, raising hopes that the end of its economic crisis may be in sight. But some analysts say they expect the project may cost too much and take too long to make life better for everyday Egyptians. VOA's Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Egypt's Suez Canal Dreams Tempered by Continued Unrest

Egypt plans to expand the Suez Canal, raising hopes that the end of its economic crisis may be in sight. But some analysts say they expect the project may cost too much and take too long to make life better for everyday Egyptians. VOA's Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Threat of Creeping Lava Has Hawaiians on Edge

Residents of the small town of Pahoa on the Big Island of Hawaii face an advancing threat from the Kilauea volcano. Local residents are keeping a watchful eye on creeping lava. Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Pro-Kremlin Youth Group Creatively Promotes 'Patriotic' Propaganda

As Russia's President Vladimir Putin faces international pressure over Ukraine and a failing economy, unofficial domestic groups are rallying to his support. One such youth organization, CET, or Network, uses creative multimedia to appeal to Russia's urban youth with patriotic propaganda. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Mobile Infrared Scanners May Help Homeowners Save Energy

Mobile photo scanners have been successfully employed for navigational purposes, such as Google Maps. Now, a group of scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says the same technology could help homeowners better insulate their houses and save some money. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Filmmakers Produce Hand-Painted Documentary on Van Gogh

The troubled life of the famous 19th century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh has been told through many books and films, but never in the way a group of filmmakers now intends to do. "Loving Vincent " will be the first ever feature-length film made of animated hand-painted images, done in the style of the late artist. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Issues or Ethnicity? Question Divides Nigeria

As Nigeria goes to the polls next month, many expect the two top presidential contenders to gain much of their support from constituencies organized along ethnic or religious lines. But are faith and regional blocs really what political power in Nigeria is about? Chris Stein reports.
Video

Video Rock-Consuming Organisms Alter Views of Life Processes

Scientists thought they knew much about how life works, until a discovery more than two decades ago challenged conventional beliefs. Scientists found that there are organisms that breathe rocks. And it is only recently that the scientific community is accepting that there are organisms that could get energy out of rocks. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports.
Video

Video Paris Attacks Highlight Global Weapons Black Market

As law enforcement officials piece together how the Paris and Belgian terror cells carried out their recent attacks, questions are being asked about how they obtained military grade assault weapons - which are illegal in the European Union. As VOA's Jeff Swicord reports, experts say there is a very active worldwide black market for these weapons, and criminals and terrorists are buying.
Video

Video Activists Accuse China of Targeting Religious Freedom

The U.S.-based Chinese religious rights group ChinaAid says 2014 was the worst year for religious freedom in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution. As Ye Fan reports, activists say Beijing has been tightening religious controls ever since Chinese leader Xi Jinping came to office. Hu Wei narrates.
Video

Video Theologians Cast Doubt on Morality of Drone Strikes

In 2006, stirred by photos of U.S. soldiers mistreating Iraqi prisoners, a group of American faith leaders and academics launched the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. It played an important role in getting Congress to investigate, and the president to ban, torture. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Former Sudan 'Lost Boy' Becomes Chess Master in NYC

In the mid-1980’s, thousands of Sudanese boys escaped the country's civil war by walking for weeks, then months and finally for more than a year, up to 1,500 kilometers across three countries. The so-called Lost Boys of the Sudan had little time for games. But one of them later mastered the game of chess, and now teaches it to children in the New York area. VOA’s Bernard Shusman in New York has his story.
Video

Video NASA Monitors Earth’s Vital Signs From Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, is wrapping up its busiest 12-month period in more than a decade, with three missions launched in 2014 and two this month, one in early January and the fifth scheduled for January 29. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, the instruments being lifted into orbit are focused on Earth’s vital life support systems and how they are responding to a warmer planet.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid