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

Isolation, Despair Weigh on Refugees in Remote German Camp

Refugees resettled near village of Holzdorf deep in German forestland say there is limited interaction with public, mutual feelings of distrust

Britons Divided Over Bombing IS

Surveys show Europeans generally support more military action against Islamic State militants, but sizable opposition exists in Britain

Russia Blacklists Soros Foundations as 'Undesirable'

Russian officials add Soros groups to a list of foreign and international organizations banned from giving grants to Russian partners

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?i
Carol Pearson
November 29, 2015 1:23 PM
The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video Political Motives Seen Behind Cancelled Cambodian Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle and Kimlong Meng report from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs