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Jul 18, 2012 | 11:44 GMT

2 mins read

In Syria, Attack Kills Senior Government Officials

In Syria, Attack Kills Defense Minister

Update, July 18, 2012: The following piece has been modified to reflect new casualty reports from Syria. 

Syrian Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha reportedly was killed July 18 in an attack on the National Security building in Damascus' Rawda Square. According to Syrian state media, Deputy Defense Minister Assef Shawkat and former Defense Minister Hassan Turkmani also were killed in the attack, and Interior Minister Mohammad al-Shaar and National Security Council chief Hisham Biktyar were injured. In addition, unconfirmed reports have indicated that General Security Directorate chief Hafez Makhlouf was also killed.

The attack occurred as several senior defense leaders and security officials met at the National Security building. Republican Guard troops have surrounded nearby al-Shami Hospital, where some officials were taken for treatment. Opposition sources have reported that the Free Syrian Army planted a device composed of TNT and C-4 inside the building prior to the meeting and then detonated the device remotely.

That a security or intelligence target was attacked inside Damascus is not uncommon. In fact, rebels attacked the Intelligence Directorate in Damascus in November 2011. However, if reports are accurate, the July 18 attack would mark the first time rebels were able to circumvent security measures to enter a building and carry out an effective attack so close to high-value targets.

The National Security building has a strong security presence, so for a rebel to have been able to plant an explosive device within the building demonstrates the armed opposition's growing capability. But given the tight security, it is also possible that the device was planted by an insider or a member of Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime. This would suggest a growing opposition movement composed of disenchanted regime members — a trend Stratfor has noted over the past few weeks.

Site of July 18 Attack in Syria

Site of July 18 Attack in Syria

Shawkat and Rajha were key members of al Assad's inner circle, but their loyalty to the regime has also been questioned. Shawkat, an Alawite like al Assad, was considered one of the president's top security chiefs. He was also married to al Assad's sister. However, he had an acrimonious relationship with Maher al Assad, Bashar's brother and head of the Republican Guard. Shawkat had been missing from the public eye for weeks, and rumors have been circulating that he had been killed by the regime. A Christian, Rajha was promoted to his post relatively recently to curry the favor of the Christian minority. Notably, he was not considered a hard-line supporter of al Assad. For his part, al-Shaar was the former chief of the military police in Aleppo and reportedly maintained a good relationship with the Alawites and also had contact with members of the Sunni-led rebel insurgency. Al-Shaar topped the list of inner circle regime members who would be suspected of carrying out a palace coup.

A Sunni of Turkish descent, Turkmani is believed to have been one of al Assad's strategists. Biktyar, the only Shia in al Assad's inner circle, provided security and intelligence advice directly to the president. Makhlouf, a Sunni, was al Assad's cousin and childhood friend, and he was also close friend of Maher.

Such an operationally successful attack on a hardened, high-level security target is a largely symbolic attack that could make some al Assad supporters question even further their support for the regime. This would likely lead to continued high-level defections, setting up an ideal scenario for a palace coup. However, it should not be ruled out that the deaths of these inner circle members could convince other inner circle members and al Assad supporters to hold even more steadfast to the regime.

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