THE WORLDPOST
07/18/2012 08:43 am ET Updated Sep 17, 2012

Assef Shawkat Dead: Assad's Brother-In-Law Pillar Of Family's Rule

By Erika Solomon

BEIRUT, July 18 (Reuters) - The world saw only a handful of pictures of Assef Shawkat. Few knew what he really did, or what power he wielded.

But any Syrian would have told you that President Bashar al-Assad's 62-year-old brother-in-law, reported to have been killed in a suicide attack in Damascus on Wednesday, was one of the pillars of Assad family rule.

Despite a difficult entry into the Assad clan, Shawkat was widely seen as a member of the president's inner circle. After years as deputy head and then chief of military intelligence, he had become deputy defence minister, another position that allowed him to wield power out of the limelight.

U.S. diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks described him as both a clever, well-read officer and as part of Syria's "killing problem".

Washington imposed sanctions on Shawkat in 2006 on suspicion that he orchestrated the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri and other officials seen as threats to Syrian influence.

"Shawkat has been a key architect of Syria's domination of Lebanon, as well as a fundamental contributor to Syria's long-standing policy to foment terrorism against Israel," the U.S. Treasury said at the time.

Activists fighting to topple Assad saw Shawkat as the iron fist of the establishment, pushing for a ruthless approach to the rebellion. But Lebanese security sources close to the Assads said Shawkat had always acted as part of a powerful, close-knit inner circle.

"Shawkat prefers force but he is just one part of the decision-making group. This regime is like a network," said a Lebanese security source close to the Damascus centre of power.

The "network" is mostly from Assad's minority Alawite sect, which dominates Syria's elite but is now confronted with an uprising led by the underdog Sunni Muslim majority.

INNER CIRCLE

When president Hafez al-Assad died in 2000 after almost 30 years in charge, Shawkat was believed to be one of a handful of people who helped to run the country before Bashar took power.

During Bashar's election campaign, critics made mock posters with caricatures of him, his brother Maher and Shawkat. The caption read: "For the first time in Syria: Vote for one president, get two more absolutely free."

The joke highlighted the shift in Syrian governance after Hafez's death, from a personality cult carefully led by one man to a group of co-captains.

Opposition figures say the lack of transparency in government and the secrecy that shrouds top figures is one reason for their difficulty in trying to negotiate with Syria's rulers.

They say Shawkat appeared in public only twice after the revolt grew into an armed insurgency. He went to Zabadani, a mountain resort near the capital, when the rebels temporarily seized it. Later he went to the city of Homs, centre of the uprising, when the army launched an assault on rebel-held areas.

Hundreds were killed in both places.

"Both times, the same thing happened. He met with some rebels, he told them: 'Move out of the area and we will turn the lights and water back on. The assault will stop'," said one activist, who asked not to be identified.

"Both times, the rebels withdrew from their positions. The lights and water went back on. And both times, the shelling started the next day.

"This is what puzzles us: Did he trick the rebels? Or had he simply lost the authority to tell the army what to do?"

BIG BREAK

Shawkat's marriage into the Assad family brought him mixed fortunes, and his life read in some ways like something out of the soap operas he was said to write as a hobby.

Shawkat was a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam that has dominated the elite since Hafez al-Assad took power in 1970. But other than religion, he had little in common with the Assad children, born into the ruling class.

He left his modest home in the coastal Tartous province and joined the army, working his way up through the ranks.

But his big break came when he divorced his first wife and married Bushra, Bashar's older sister.

The move took nerve and nous, given that both the late president and his eldest son and heir apparent Basil both disapproved of Shawkat, according to diplomats and members of the security services.

Basil considered Shawkat too lowly to join the Assad clan and even jailed him in 1993 to keep him away from Bushra, according to security sources and to U.S. diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks.

Then a year later Basil died in a car crash, and the couple married. Hafez al-Assad made Shawkat deputy chief of military intelligence, and in 2005 Bashar appointed him to head the unit. positions that enabled him to pull strings in Syria's dealings with its troubled neighbours, Iraq and Lebanon.

One leaked American cable called him "the comeback player of the regime".

But Shawkat's relationship with the new generation of Assads appears to have been tempestuous.

Diplomats say Maher, Bashar's younger brother and head of the elite Republican Guard, once shot him. Some believe Bashar himself was wary of his brother-in-law and his sister, who was the favourite of their late father.

"We do know there was a certain amount of rivalry ... Shawkat and Bushra for quite a long time used to think of themselves as more presidential than Bashar and (his wife) Asma," said British historian Patrick Seale.

Whatever the personal tensions, Shawkat never seems to have wavered in his determination to keep the ruling clan and the Alawite establishment in power.

"They know their fate is shared and that could mean paying the ultimate price," said the Lebanese source with close knowledge of the Damascus government.

"If one of them falls, they all do." (Editing by Douglas Hamilton, Samia Nakhoul and Kevin Liffey)

09/09/2012 12:25 PM EDT

Syria Blasts Aleppo By Air

09/05/2012 7:50 AM EDT

Syrian City In Flames

08/25/2012 1:45 PM EDT

Lebanese Pilgrim Freed

lebanon

Hussein Ali Omar, 60, one of 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims that Syrian rebels have been holding for three months in Syria, hugs his mother, right, upon arrival at his house in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, 2012. Syrian rebels freed Omar on Saturday in a move aimed at easing cross-border tensions after a wave of abductions of Syrian citizens in Lebanon. The Shiite pilgrims were abducted May 22 after crossing into Syria from Turkey on their way to Lebanon. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

08/24/2012 12:22 PM EDT

Daraya, Syria

syria

This image made from video and released by Shaam News Network and accessed Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012, purports to show the funeral of children in Daraya, near Damascus, Syria. Syrian troops backed by tanks and helicopters broke into a Damascus suburb on Thursday following two days of shelling and intense clashes as part of a widening offensive by President Bashar Assad's forces to seize control of parts of the capital and surrounding areas from rebel fighters, activists said. At least 15 people were killed in the offensive on Daraya, only a few miles (kilometers) southwest of Damascus. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network SNN via AP video)

08/24/2012 11:05 AM EDT

Lebanon Sees Heaviest Clashes In Months

Clashes between Assad supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime killed two people in Lebanon on Friday, the Associated Press reports. 17 people were injured.

The AP gives more context:

Syria was in virtual control of its smaller neighbor for many years, posting tens of thousands of troops in Lebanon, before withdrawing under pressure in 2005. Even without soldiers on the ground, Syria remains influential, and its civil war has stirred longstanding tensions that have lain under Lebanon's surface.

Read more on HuffPost World.

08/24/2012 11:02 AM EDT

Tripoli, Lebanon

lebanon

A Sunni gunman fires a gun during clashes that erupted between pro and anti-Syrian regime gunmen in the northern port city of Tripoli, Lebanon, Friday, Aug. 24, 2012. The latest round of fighting first erupted on Monday in northern Lebanon and at least 15 have been killed in Tripoli this week and more than 100 have been wounded in fighting that is a spillover from Syria's civil war. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

08/24/2012 11:00 AM EDT

Refugee Numbers Soar

@ KenRoth :

UN reports 200,000 #Syria refugees, 30,000 in past week alone. Many more internally displaced not counted. http://t.co/BaM6u59j

08/23/2012 2:00 PM EDT

Azaz, Syria

syria

Syrian boy Musataf Alhafiz, 11, who fled his home with his family due to fighting between the Syrian army and the rebels, carries his brother Saif, 9 months, while he and others take refuge at the Bab Al-Salameh border crossing, in hopes of entering one of the refugee camps in Turkey, near the Syrian town of Azaz, Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012. Thousands of Syrians who have been displaced by the country's civil war are struggling to find safe shelter while shelling and airstrikes by government forces continue. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

08/23/2012 12:09 PM EDT

Heaviest Bombardment This Month

Helicopter gunships shelled Damascus on Wednesday as Syrian security forces intensified their assault on the capital. Activists report that at least 47 people were killed.

"The whole of Damascus is shaking with the sound of shelling," a woman in the neighborhood of Kfar Souseh told Reuters.

Read more on HuffPost World.

08/23/2012 10:56 AM EDT

Al Aan-Reporter Jenan Moussa Tweets:

@ jenanmoussa :

Graphic. We saw in a mosque in #Syria these 4 children staring at dead body. Pic by @HaraldDoornbos: http://t.co/lgq8IAmO #warsucks @akhbar