Several senior Syrian officials, including President Bashar Assad’s brother-in-law, were killed in a bomb attack targeting the National Security headquarters in the capital of Damascus Wednesday, representing the biggest blow yet to the Assad regime since the uprising began.
Gen. Assef Shawkat, who was married to Assad’s elder sister Bushra, was the deputy defense minister and part of the Assad inner circle and said to be one of the most feared officials in the country. Defense Minister Gen. Daoud Rajha, was also killed in the blast as was Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim al-Shaar and Deputy Vice President Gen. Hassan Turkmani.
Following their deaths, the Assad regime promoted Gen. Fahd Jassem al-Freij as general commander of the country’s army. He promised to chase down “criminal terrorist gangs … cutting off every hand that harms the security of the homeland and citizens,” state-run media quoted him saying.
The group Liwa al-Islam, which means “Brigade of Islam,” claimed responsibility for the attack, reported Al-Jazeera. The Free Syrian Army also claimed responsibility, with spokesperson Qassim Saadedine telling the network, “this is the volcano we talked about; we have just started.”
The Free Syrian Army reportedly dubbed the current offensive Damascus Volcano.
Maplecroft, a global risk and strategic consulting company, says the killing of two top officials is a significant blow to the Assad regime, which until recently has shown few visible weaknesses in the uprising.
“The upper echelons of the regime are likely to be alarmed that one or several assailants were able to target key political figures,” the company wrote in an analysis Wednesday. The direct attack on the regime’s core leadership could spark a number of defections from top-level officials in the coming days, it added.
It could also spark greater violence. “The response is nonetheless likely to be severe with casualties likely to spike,” according to the analysis.
In the past several days, the Syrian army has deployed a large number of helicopter gunships, tanks, artillery, and troops in central Damascus when the fiercest fighting of the uprising erupted between rebel forces and regime soldiers.
Noting the recent escalation, including the deaths of the officials, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said, “This is a situation that is rapidly spinning out of control,” according to a news release. He blamed Assad for refusing to step down from power despite intense international pressure.
Panetta noted the concern over Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons. Syria’s now ex-ambassador to Iraq Nawaf al-Fares recently defected and raised the possibility that Assad may use them against the opposition.
Assad’s regime has a “responsibility to safeguard their chemical sites and that we will hold them responsible should anything happen with regard to those sites,” Panetta said.
The Epoch Times publishes in 35 countries and in 19 languages. Subscribe to our e-newsletter.