General Bahjat Suleiman, a former chief of the Syrian intelligence services and member of the charmed circle of Bashar Assad’s father, President Hafez Assad, retired on a pension in early 2005. Instead of the golden handshakes and fat jobs handed out by some regimes, Gen. Suleiman was given a sinecure; he was made Special Adviser in the Syrian President’s Bureau.
But the ageing general decided to make the most of his privileged position. Since early this year, Syrian high-ups and foreign officials, Arab or Western, have encountered two solid, elderly figures blocking their path to the president.
General Suleiman has roped in an old comrade from the old days, another retired general called Ali Younes. Their goodwill must be petitioned to gain access to Assad.
So pleased was the president with this new arrangement, that DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources report he recently put the pair of old stalwarts in charge of his team of senior advisers, bureau chief and staff.
Bashar Assad had surrounded himself with an impenetrable wall.
There was not the faintest chance that this situation would be taken lying down by Syria’s strongmen Gen. Assaf Shawqat, chief of military intelligence and husband of the country’s strongest woman, the president’s sister, Bushara.
Shawqat and his clique of high officers, business tycoons and financiers believe the president is deliberately cutting them out of his A-team. Give Assad’s discreet meetings with Americans and other Westerners, they are beginning to wonder if the president is not planning to throw his closest relatives to the wolves when the trial comes up for suspects in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
This trial is drawing near as the UN moves to shape an international tribunal.
Both UN investigators of the crime, Detlev Mehlis and Serge Brammertz fingered senior Syrian military intelligence officers as suspects involved in the planning of the assassination.
A game of who purges whom first
Gen. Shawqat, who has good grounds for apprehension on this score, is not idle.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources, he is busy cooking up various schemes for getting Generals Suleiman and Younes kicked out of the presidential palace. Assad must not only be accessible to his brother-in-law but wholly dependent on military intelligence for his safety and freedom of action.
1. A large development project in Damascus in which the two generals are heavily invested suddenly lost their license over “national security” concerns – a painful blow in a country where status in high circles is determined by the size of one’s business holdings and control of the media. In addition, the Syrian censor gave notice of closure to a periodical called Baladna (Our country), which is owned and published by Gen. Bahjat Suleiman’s son, Mejad Suleiman.
2. A smear campaign was launched against the pair and their loyalty to the president and country impugned.
One of these rumors charged that the Syrian-born American Abe Suleiman who lives in Washington DC and visited Jerusalem last April is a family connection of Gen. Suleiman and traveled to Israel at his behest. This connection is non-existent, but the elderly general found himself accused of running an independent policy inimical to the national interest during a period of high war tension, while acting as a senior presidential adviser.
The whispers against Gen. Younes suggested he was secretly in contact with Rifat Assad, the president’s hated uncle, a leader of the opposition who aspires to take his nephew’s place in the presidential palace.
3. Shawqat’s people are intriguing against two high officers whom they are trying to replace with their own loyalists. Our intelligence sources name the two officers in their sights as Gen. Ali Hattar, head of the international security department of the Syrian army and Gen. Ahmad Aboud, head of the officers department of Syrian intelligence, who organizes surveillance to determine the loyalty to the regime of army officers.
Shawqat is therefore scheming to wrest control of the Syrian military from the president as a step in a broader bid for power.