Murder Mystery of Assad’s brother-in-law

Does the killing of Assad’s brother-in-law mark a turning point?

Sana / Reuters ; Khaled al-Hariri, Reuters / Landov

The Syrian crisis seems to have reached a turning point. Fighting continued inside the Damascus city limits for a fourth day, and the government there acknowledged that the Syrian defense minister had been killed, along with one of the dark eminences of the regime: former intelligence chief Assef Shawkat, who was President Bashar al-Assad's brother-in-law. The deaths reportedly were the work of a suicide bomber.

But what seems to be the case in Syria can be deeply misleading. And the mysteries big and small that surround almost every aspect of this conflict are what make it such treacherous ground for any attempt at diplomatic solutions.

Opposing the Assad regime in this increasingly bloody civil war is a ragged and disorganized collection of rebels, some of whom are fighting for their villages, some of whom are defectors from the Syrian armed forces, and a few of whom are al Qaeda–linked Syrian jihadists who once fought against the Americans and the Shiites in Iraq, and have now taken their war home.

The regime, too, is divided, but because the splits are within the tight circle of the Assad family and its longtime cronies, each new announcement of a defection or a death raises at least as many questions as it answers.

Further complicating this mix are the intrigues of multiple intelligence services that are arming and training some rebel factions, cultivating, cajoling, and trying to find some coherence in the exile leadership, and meanwhile working to subvert the Assad regime from within. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, the British, the French, the Turks, and the Jordanians all have a hand in this game. The Russians, meanwhile, are playing the other side, trying to find a way to preserve, or at least postpone the demise, of the Assad dynasty that Moscow has supported for more than four decades.

So let's consider for a moment just this latest incident. Syrian government sources told Reuters that while a core group of security officials were meeting in Damascus, one of their bodyguards staged a suicide attack that left Defense Minister Daoud Rajha and Shawkat dead, and several others seriously wounded. But one rebel group that claimed credit for the killings said it had actually planted explosives at the scene of the meeting.

If there was a suicide bomber, was he secretly affiliated with al Qaeda? Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told me last week that large numbers of fighters from al Qaeda in Iraq have been going to Syria, where many of them had come from in the first place. At the height of the Iraq War, the Syrian secret services aided and abetted jihadists fighting the U.S. Now, whether by design or deception, some of those jihadists may be serving the interests of the regime. Nawaf Fares, a senior Syrian official who served as ambassador to Iraq until his defection earlier this month, has said publicly that the suicide bombers in Syria are actually working for Assad security forces to sow terror and give the regime a rationale for its savagery.

Then there is the question of whether Assef Shawkat really died today, or in fact two months ago. In May, stories circulated that several members of the Assad inner circle had been poisoned and were hospitalized. Some opposition sources claimed Shawkat died back then. According to usually knowledgeable Lebanese and Syrian sources, people in Shawkat's home village of Al-Mahdama in Tartus province have been wearing black for the last several weeks as a sign of mourning for him. "Maybe this bombing was just a convenient way for the Assads to make the announcement of Shawkat's death official," said one Lebanese analyst who asked to remain anonymous.

But wouldn't the family have said something earlier? Perhaps not if the family played a role in the killing. Shawkat, who was married to Bushra Assad, Bashar's only sister, had a stormy relationship with other members of the clan. In the late 1990s his younger brother-in-law, Maher Assad, reportedly shot and wounded him in the stomach. Maher is now widely portrayed as the most brutal member of the family when it comes to attempts to crush the rebellion. Damascene gossip has it that Maher intimidates even his older brother, the president of Syria.

Shawkat may have been perfectly loyal to the clan, but anyone with the kind of extensive intelligence contacts he had accrued over the years in various security posts could fall under suspicion, with potentially fatal consequences. At least two former heads of Syria's security services are now living in exile in the West.

Another, Ghazi Kanaan, had served for decades as the Syrian master spy and proconsul in Lebanon, then became interior minister in Damascus, before suddenly and mysteriously turning up dead in his office in 2005 with a bullet (some accounts claim several bullets) in his head. The regime said he committed suicide. But other sources, including veteran Syria watcher Joshua Landis at the University of Oklahoma, have suggested Kanaan may have been talking to foreign intelligence services about a possible coup to take out the Assad regime.

Who can be trusted in the midst of so many Syrian intrigues? The answer is "nobody," or so it would seem.