Update from original publication: Former Syrian Defense Minister Gen. Ali Habib on Aug. 9 denied reports about why he stepped down from his post, including reports that he had died, SANA reported. He said in a broadcast statement that his health prevented his continuing to work, and that he received treatment in a hospital for several days.
Former Syrian Defense Minister Gen. Ali Habib was found dead in his home Aug. 9, a day after Syrian President Bashar al Assad replaced Habib in a reshuffle under the pretext of health concerns. There are a number of reasons to suspect that Habib may have been assassinated as the Alawite-Baathist regime comes under greater strain.
Former Syrian Defense Minister Gen. Ali Habib, a senior member of the Alawite regime, was found dead in his home Aug. 9, a day after Syrian President Bashar al Assad replaced him with Gen. Dawood Rajiha. On Aug. 8, Syrian state media emphasized that the president's decision to replace the 72-year-old general was based on Habib's deteriorating health. Syrian state television reports on Aug. 9 stressed that Habib had been sick for some time and attributed his sudden death to natural causes. Habib was advancing in age and was experiencing health problems, but there are reasons to suspect that he may have been assassinated by elements within the al Assad regime. Habib disagreed with the regime about the use of force against protesters in Hama, which could be a sign of Alawite disunity. If the al Assad regime is indeed facing the threat of both Alawite infighting and dissent within the upper echelons of the army elite, its sustainability has now come into serious question. According to a STRATFOR source in Syria, a Syrian intelligence team visited Habib in his residence under the pretext of wanting to check on his health. The source, whose information could not be verified at this time, claims that an attending physician delivered a lethal injection to Habib. As STRATFOR explained in the wake of the announcement of Habib's ouster as defense minister, both Habib, an Alawite, and his Christian replacement, Rajiha, were engaged in quiet talks with the United States and were opposed to sending the army to crack down on protesters in Hama. Both generals have commanded a high level of authority among the armed forces, and when considering the possibility of a military coup, the al Assad clan — especially the president's younger brother Maher, who leads the Republican Guard and the army's elite 4th Armored Division — saw these two generals as the most serious threats to the regime. It will thus be important to watch how Rajiha handles the crackdowns as defense minister in the coming days and weeks, or if he too will be isolated by the regime. Suspicious deaths among dissenting high-level officials are not uncommon in Syria. Perhaps the most apt comparison to Habib's death is the mysterious "suicide" of former Syrian Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan in 2005. Kanaan's death, coming shortly after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, followed the discovery by the al Assad leadership of a coup plot involving Kanaan and former Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam, who fled the country in 2005 and now lives in exile in Paris. The al Assad regime could be sending a deliberate message with Habib's death: Dissent among the upper ranks of the armed forces comes at the expense of one's life. The danger for the regime is that such a show of force may not carry as much weight as it has in the past now that the government is in crisis in its efforts to put down the protest movement. Habib's death now raises the stakes for those who have been committed neither to siding with the regime nor challenging it. A close eye must be kept on the president's brother-in-law, army deputy chief of staff and former military intelligence chief Asef Shawkat. Shawkat has pledged loyalty to the al Assads and carries significant clout among the Syrian intelligence services, but he has a long-standing dispute with the president's younger brother and has been charged with dissent in the past. The Syrian president has been relying heavily on both Shawkat and Maher to lead a heavy-handed crackdown on protesters. The key pillars sustaining the al Assad regime thus far have rested on the unity of the al Assad clan, unity of the army and unity of the Alawite minority population overall. Syrian Alawites, who have only been in power for roughly four decades at the expense of the majority Sunni population, are facing an existential crisis should the al Assads' grip on the regime slip. This dynamic has played a key role in maintaining Alawite cohesion since demonstrations broke out in primarily Sunni strongholds in the country. If, however, the Alawites succumb to infighting and if the al Assads face serious dissent among officers within the army, the foundation of the regime will erode rapidly. It is unclear whether the regime is at such a breaking point at this stage, but the circumstances leading to Habib's death certainly raise such a prospect. STRATFOR will be watching closely for signs of fracturing among the al Assad clan, the upper ranks of the military and the Alawite community overall in assessing the durability of the regime.