After general’s mysterious death, is Assad’s inner circle coming apart?
Beirut - The mysterious death of a general, who was once considered a stalwart supporter of Syria’s beleaguered President Bashar Assad and one of the country’s most powerful intelligence chiefs, has aroused speculation that Assad’s inner circle may be cracking.
Major-General Rustom Ghazaleh, until recently the chief of Military Intelligence and latterly head of the much-feared Political Security Branch, died in Damascus’ Al Shami hospital, reportedly on April 24th.
The circumstances of the death of this influential regime insider remain unclear. State media have made no mention of his passing and the regime issued no statement.
But a variety of Syrian and Lebanese sources report that Ghazaleh, 62, had been clinically dead for some weeks after being mercilessly beaten by the bodyguards of a rival, Major-General Rafik Shehadeh, who succeeded him as head of Military Intelligence.
Both men were dismissed from their posts by Assad on March 21st because of their feud.
A report by the al-Hadath News website, which is close to the regime, said Ghazaleh died from a massive trauma caused by severe head injuries. Several Lebanese politicians connected to Ghazaleh, who was Syria’s pro-consul in Lebanon in 2002-05, confirmed that.
The savage beating reportedly took place over several hours in Shehadeh’s office in late February. Several sources attributed the animosity between the men to differences over Iran’s domination of the Damascus regime after coming to Assad’s rescue when the civil war erupted in March 2011.
The Ghazaleh-Shehadeh feud apparently went toxic earlier in the month when Iran’s Lebanese Shia proxy, Hezbollah, and Iraqi Shias deployed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to prop up the regime, mounted an offensive in southern Syria to take control of the disputed Golan Heights that would advance Iranian forces to Israel’s northern border.
That would bolster Iran’s long-range objectives in the Levant but it would dash Assad’s hopes of retrieving much of the strategic volcanic plateau Israel captured in the 1967 war.
Ghazaleh, who hailed from the southern province of Daraa where the recent Iranian-led regime offensive is centred, wanted a greater Syrian involvement in the operation. Ghazaleh reportedly blew up his own mansion in his hometown of Qarfa after the Iranians said they wanted it as their headquarters.
The anti-regime Syrian Observer newspaper noted on March 25th, before Ghazaleh died: “The Assad government seems unable to control the internal conflicts that continue to destabilise the regime …
“When a man renowned for his ferocity in serving the head of the regime is stabbed in the back, it could mean Assad is no longer capable of protecting his men from the heavy grip of Iran.”
Ghazaleh had been long considered one of Assad’s most trusted generals and his death has probably weakened the president’s position. However, there is no indication that the regime is anywhere near collapse.
The workings of Assad’s inner circle are shrouded in secrecy and even more impenetrable than the paranoid opacity that eternally masks the regime.
But there have been repeated reports that Iranian domination of the regime does not sit well with some in Assad’s command group. Indeed, Iran’s influence in Damascus, which mushroomed after Bashar took power in 2000 when his father Hafez died, has long been a contentious issue within the regime — and the military.
Assad has had to deal with internal rifts within his core group and has shown he can be just as ruthless as his father.
In April 2008, he crushed what appeared to be a power struggle between his impetuous younger brother, General Maher Assad, and his ambitious brother-in-law, Major-General Asef Shawkat, following the February assassination in Damascus of Imad Mughniyeh, military commander of Lebanon’s Hezbollah. The killing of a key Iranian ally, supposedly by Israel, greatly alarmed the regime
Shawkat, married to the president’s equally ambitious sister Bushra, was sacked as chief of Military Intelligence. But, shielded by his marriage, he was not long out of favour.
Even so, that did not prevent him being assassinated too, on July 18, 2012, in a mysterious bombing inside National Security Headquarters, one of the most secure buildings in Damascus. Rebels claimed they smuggled in the bomb but suspicions linger that it was an inside job.
In an earlier crisis, triggered by the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon after the assassination of Lebanese statesman Rafik Hariri on February 14, 2005, Assad reportedly foiled a coup plot led by former Vice-President Abdul Halim Khaddam and former Interior Minister Ghazi Kenaan, Ghazaleh’s predecessor as Syria’s supremo in Lebanon.
Khaddam, a stalwart of Hafez Assad’s regime and widely seen as “moderate” in the Syrian elite, fled to Paris. The regime said Kenaan “committed suicide” by blowing his brains out in his office.