General Fahad Jassim al-Freij is sworn in as Defence Minister by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (R) in Damascus in this handout photo distributed by Syrian News Agency (SANA) 19 July 2012. (Photo: Reuters – SANA – Handout)
By: Ibrahim al-Amin
Published Thursday, July 19, 2012
The blow was heavy. The bombing itself may not have been a surprise given the course the crisis in Syria has been taking. But its successful targeting of pillars of the Syrian regime makes it a major development – though the hierarchical structure of the state and army, and a supportive popular backlash, could help President Bashar al-Assad contain the damage.
Attention now focuses on the inevitable question: what will the next stage of the Syria crisis bring? There will be much talk of plots and scenarios, conspiracies and infiltrations, and long arms that can reach all the way to the top of the Syrian leadership.
The bombing was, ultimately, a well-executed security operation. Previous experience has shown that small groups are capable of staging such attacks, especially as security measures at the premises appear not to have been as one might have expected given current conditions in Syria.
But while the perpetrators may have been highly professional, their task may have been facilitated by the extensive intelligence activity that is being carried out in Syria – in which the whole world seems to be involved – in pursuit of the goal of toppling the regime by killing its leaders.
It has been clear for many months that this is the objective. That is due to the failure of efforts to achieve a breakthrough in the form of a high-level split in the Syrian leadership, or significant defections among the many Syrian diplomats and other officials based abroad.
Defections from the army, meanwhile, were limited to individual cases at the officer level, and insufficient among the rank-and-file to make a qualitative difference. The armed opposition does not need fighting men from the army as such. It has thousands of young Syrians it can call on who have had military training. It needs entire army brigades and companies to defect, and bring their weapons and materiel with them, but this has not been happening.
Several months ago, the Syrian leadership received a warning that direct attacks were being planned, specificall, attempts to assassinate Assad himself and top security chiefs. The success of yesterday’s attack is evidence of perseverance on the part of the perpetrators. It also provides further evidence that those making the decisions – in foreign capitals and intelligence agencies as well as in some sections of the Syrian opposition – are intent on taking the crisis through to a bloody conclusion.
The message from Wednesday’s bombing was too clear to have to spell out. Parts of the opposition, and their Arab and Western supporters, do not want a political settlement. They are telling the people of Syria that the regime-change they want is total. The war currently underway is therefore an existential war as far as they are concerned, so they are uninterested in any initiatives or attempts to establish dialogue. The same message has been sent out by the armed activities of the opposition, including during the presence of the Arab observers and then the UN monitors.
Given this qualitative escalation in the military confrontation; And given the fresh influx of “foreign fighters” into Syria (We have witnessed this in Lebanon. Over the past two weeks, hundreds of trained fighters, including Syrians and nationals of other Arab states, have transited Lebanon for Syria); Given, also, the applause and the welcomes that greeted yesterday’s crime, as shown on the TV screens of the countries sponsoring the Syrian opposition, and as expressed in public statements or leaked remarks; Given all the above, one can only expect one response from the Syrian leadership, a response that will cost Syria yet more blood and tears.
One of the victims of yesterday’s crime was the object of much security, political and media interest over the past decade. The powerful functions Asef Shawkat exercised made him a controversial figure.
There have been incessant attempts to demonize Shawkat, which can invariably be traced to the US, Israel and their clients in the region. But there was also a side to him that was hidden, for reasons related both to his position, and the nature of the tasks he undertook, far from the prying eyes of friends and foes alike.
Asef Shawkat played a major role in resisting Israeli occupation in and around Palestine. Right to the end, he took practical charge of meeting the needs of the resistance forces in Palestine and Lebanon, and of their members and cadres in Syria.
He oversaw everything from their accommodation and transportation, to their training camps and provisions, and arranging for cadres from inside Palestine to come to the country secretly for training.
For the resistance in Lebanon, Shawkat was a true partner, providing whatever assistance was needed without needing orders or approval from the leadership. He was a central player in the July 2006 war. He spent the entire time in the central operations room that was set up in line with a directive by Assad to supply the resistance with whatever weapons it wanted, notably missiles, from Syrian army stocks.
Shawkat and other officers and men of the Syrian army – including Muhammad Suleiman who was assassinated by the Mossad on the Syrian coast in 2008 – spent weeks coordinating the supply operation which helped the resistance achieve the successes that led to the defeat of Israel.
Despite the accusations levelled against Asef Shawkat regarding security, political or other matte rs, for Imad Mughniyeh, the assassinated military leader of Hezbollah, he was just another comrade, a modest man who would bow when shaking hands with Hassan Nasrallah, and liked to hear the news from Palestine last thing at night.
Ibrahim al-Amin is editor-in-chief of Al-Akhbar. This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.