After general’s mysterious death, is Assad’s inner circle coming apart?

Friday 01/05/2015
Major-General Rustom Ghazaleh

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.