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

    Beijing Warns Critics Over South China Sea Dispute

    Official warns critics that the more they challenge China's position regarding disputed territories in one of world’s busiest waterways, the more it will push back

    Will New Russian Force Be 'Putin’s Personal Army'?

    With broad powers to control riots, suppress dissent, National Guard may be aimed at sending a message to West as much as keeping peace at home

    Foreign Media in Pyongyang Barred From North Korean Party Congress

    Hundreds of international journalists invited to cover historic party meeting barred from entering actual event

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Image Recognition Market Seen Doubling by 2020i
    X
    Ramon Taylor
    May 05, 2016 10:05 PM
    From auto tagging on Facebook to self-driving cars, image recognition technology as it exists today is still in its beginning phases, experts say — and will soon change the way users and corporations interact with the physical world. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports.
    Video

    Video Image Recognition Market Seen Doubling by 2020

    From auto tagging on Facebook to self-driving cars, image recognition technology as it exists today is still in its beginning phases, experts say — and will soon change the way users and corporations interact with the physical world. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports.
    Video

    Video Child Labor in Afghanistan Remains a Problem

    With war still raging in Afghanistan, the country also faces the problem of child labor as families put their school-age children to work to help make ends meet. But, thanks to VOA's Afghan Service, two families whose children had been working in a brick-making factory - to earn their livings and pay off family debts - now have a new lease on life. Zabihullah Ghazi reports.
    Video

    Video Kurdish Troops Recount Firefight Which Killed US Navy SEAL

    A U.S. Navy SEAL killed Tuesday, when Islamic State fighters punched through Kurdish lines in northern Iraq, was part of a quick reaction force sent to extract other U.S. troops trapped by the surprise offensive. VOA's Kawa Omar spoke with Kurdish troops in the town of Telskuf -- the scene of what U.S. officials called a "dynamic firefight."
    Video

    Video British Lawmakers Warn EU Exit Talks Could Last A Decade

    Leaving the European Union would mean difficult negotiations that could take years to complete, according to a bipartisan group of British lawmakers. While the group did not recommend a vote either way, the lawmakers noted trade deals between the EU and non-EU states take between four and nine years on average. Henry Ridgwell reports on the mounting debate over whether Britain should stay or exit the EU as the June vote approaches.
    Video

    Video NASA Astronauts Train for Commercial Space Flights

    Since the last Shuttle flight in 2011, the United States has been relying on Russian rockets to launch fresh crews to the International Space Station. But that may change in the next few years. NASA and several private space companies are developing advanced capsules capable of taking humans into low orbit and beyond. As VOA's George Putic reports, astronauts are already training for commercial spacecraft in flight simulators.
    Video

    Video US Worried Political Chaos in Iraq Will Hurt IS Fight

    The White House is expressing concern about rising political chaos in Iraq and the impact it could have on the fight against the Islamic State. The U.S. says Iraq needs a stable, central government to help push back the group. But some say Baghdad may not have a unified government any time soon. VOA's White House correspondent Mary Alice Salinas reports.
    Video

    Video Press Freedom in Myanmar Fragile, Limited

    As Myanmar begins a new era with a democratically elected government, many issues of the past confront the new leadership. Among them is press freedom in a country where journalists have been routinely harassed or jailed.
    Video

    Video Taliban Threats Force Messi Fan to Leave Afghanistan

    A young Afghan boy, who recently received autographed shirts and a football from his soccer hero Lionel Messi, has fled his country due to safety concerns. He and his family are now taking refuge in neighboring Pakistan. VOA's Ayaz Gul reports from Islamabad.
    Video

    Video Major Rubbish Burning Experiment Captures Destructive Greenhouse Gases

    The world’s first test to capture environmentally harmful carbon dioxide gases from the fumes of burning rubbish took place recently in Oslo, Norway. The successful experiment at the city's main incinerator plant, showcased a method for capturing most of the carbon dioxide. VOA’s Deborah Block has more.
    Video

    Video EU Visa Block Threatens To Derail EU-Turkey Migrant Deal

    Turkish citizens could soon benefit from visa-free travel to Europe as part of the recent deal between the EU and Ankara to stem the flow of refugees. In return, Turkey has pledged to keep the migrants on Turkish soil and crack down on those who are smuggling them. Brussels is set to publish its latest progress report Wednesday — but as Henry Ridgwell reports from London, many EU lawmakers are threatening to veto the deal over human rights concerns.
    Video

    Video Tensions Rising Ahead of South China Sea Ruling

    As the Philippines awaits an international arbitration ruling on a challenge to China's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, it is already becoming clear that regardless of which way the decision goes, the dispute is intensifying. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
    Video

    Video Painting Captures President Lincoln Assassination Aftermath

    A newly restored painting captures the moments following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. It was recently unveiled at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, where America’s 16th president was shot. It is the only known painting by an eyewitness that captures the horror of that fateful night. VOA’s Julie Taboh tells us more about the painting and what it took to restore it to its original condition.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora