This morning in Damascus, rebels set off a bomb at a meeting at the national security headquarters, killing, most notably, Bashar Assad’s brother-in-law, the nation’s defense minister, the interior minister, and a former minister of defense, now head of the “crisis cell” responding to the revolt; their deaths have been quickly confirmed by the state media (the national security chief was also wounded wounded).
The government has claimed that it was a suicide bombing, likely perpetrated by a bodyguard of one of the men present, while the rebels have averred that it was a planted bomb, detonated remotely. While the former possibility arouses more paranoia among government officials and suggests deeper cracks in the regime, the latter suggests greater tactical proficiency and helps play down tell-tale terrorist (and al-Qaeda) tactics that are worrying to the West.
On those who died: Assad’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, is considered a key regime figure, respected within the regime for his ruthlessness and the trust the Assad family placed in him. According to Foreign Policy, he was considered an effective figure both by the West, who made him an intelligence liaison after 9/11, and by Assad, who deployed him as a brutal enforcer, and thus, his loss will be acutely felt by the Syrian regime, above and beyond what it says about the inability of the regime to protect even its closest members. The defense minister, Dawoud Rajiha, despite his position, was not seen as particularly close to Assad or powerful in his own right, but he was a member of Syria’s Christian minority, and considered a possible transitional political figure. He was widely considered to have been appointed to placate the generally pro-Assad Christian minority, a group which seems to have remained largely loyal to Assad during the conflict.
Meanwhile, as part of intensifying attacks on key figures, there are reports that the headquarters of the 4th Division, an elite army unit headed by Assad’s brother, Maher Assad, have also been attacked by rebels.
A vote on new Security Council resolutions scheduled for today has now been delayed, while Russia and China are sure to cite the attack as evidence for their obstinate position that both sides must agree to halt violence, and agree to a political transition. The U.S. response so far? Financial sanctions on Assad’s inner circle. Cutting off funding for murderers’ funerals — now that’s leading from behind.
UPDATE: Conspiracy theories, not least because the original report came from state TV, have abounded, but this is indeed peculiar: A BBC correspondentwalked around the building where the bombing supposedly occurred, and she reports that it appears as if nothing had happened.