Incredulity in Western and Eastern intelligence circles alike greeted the official Damascus bulletin of Aug. 2, which claimed that a lone sniper had been responsible for the unsolved murder of Gen. Muhammad Suleiman, 49, at his village in the posh Golden Sands neighborhood of Tartus, in northern Syria.
The general had dropped in at his home briefly, to take leave of his wife and three children and pick up fresh suits for his trip to Tehran with president Bashar Assad later that day.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources disclose that the general’s informal position behind the president’s shoulder had made him more powerful than of the government’s highest officials, including the defense minister, the chief of staff and the heads of the various security and intelligence agencies.
His journey to this exalted position began in the mid-1990s, when he served as an officer in the Syrian Republican Guard’s 41st Brigade. Suleiman was given this appointment by his close friend Bassel Assad, President Hafez Assad’s eldest son and appointed heir. They had been inseparable since they met as students at the Syrian military academy.
In 1998, when Bassel was killed in a road accident, the president appointed Bashar in his place, summoning him home from London where he was training as an optician.
Muhammad Suleiman, who was appointed his mentor, groomed him for the presidency.
Bashar has his mentor to thank for his thorough grounding in the ins and outs of domestic and regional politics. After instructing him in the ways of the Syrian military and its intelligence agencies, Suleiman became Bashar’s closest confidant.
Mentor to the unexpected heir
When he succeeded his father in Sept. 2000, Bashar Assad made his guru shadow emissary for special missions and privy to the regime’s most sensitive secrets. No Syrian official ventured to make decisions in such matters, or bring them before the president, without clearing them first with Gen. Suleiman.
The topics in which he was most deeply immersed in the period before his death were the Syrian-North Korean nuclear reactor at Al Kibar – he held all the strings of the Damascus-Pyongyang transactions – and Syria’s’ military and intelligence ties with Tehran and the Lebanese Hizballah.
Hours after the murder of his dearest confidant, President Assad set off for Tehran apparently without a care in the world. He was caught on camera beaming broadly and bursting with energy. He was still smiling two days later, when he turned up at the Turkish resort of Bodrum to meet the Turkish prime minister Tayyep Recip Erdogan.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources have traced three suspicious actions by Assad in the wake of the murder:
1. He did not appoint a replacement for his late lamented adviser. Instead, he informed his senior staff that he was taking personal charge of the subjects and areas the dead general had handled and would assign missions ad hoc to different aides.
2. He set up a secret military commission of inquiry of nine to investigate Suleiman’s murder. Our sources name its chairman as Gen. Abd-el Fatah Qudesiya, former air force intelligence chief.
This intelligence arm’s functions in Syria are not confined to air force missions, as in other countries, but focus on the most sensitive areas of national domestic and external policies.
Conspicuously absent from the panel is the president’s own brother-in-law, the chief of military intelligence, Gen. Asif Shawqat, a clear sign that Assad is anxious to keep his former close relative at arm’s length from the Suleiman case.
A faked scenario to cover an inside job
3. Without waiting for the commission to complete its investigation, Syrian security officials began rounding up suspects.
Among them, according to our sources, were members of the Navy and the Coast Guard responsible for security on the Tartus seafront.
A name that stands out is Col. Muraf Dayeb, naval commander of the Tartus sector. Arrested with him were the head of the security detail guarding the dead general and his family at the time of the murder and technicians on the maintenance staff of the exclusive Golden Sands neighborhood.
These arrests appear to be programmed to support the official claim that the general was shot dead by a lone sniper from a boat anchored or cruising opposite the windows of his villa.
But DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources do not buy it.
They do not credit a single assassin with the murder, but rather between three and five killers, who burst into the villa, separated the general from his wife and children whom they shut in different rooms, and then fired 30 bullets to his head and chest. The security officers guarding the house were not around.
The killers did not search the villa or remove any objects or documents.
These sources deduce an inside job, performed by a member of the Syrian establishment rather than the work of an outsider, a scenario officials in Damascus are trying hard to plant.
Various Middle East intelligence circles are beginning to suspect a cover-up for a crime of which the president himself may have been the author, whether because he felt threatened by his former mentor, or because Suleiman had stored up too many dangerous secrets about Assad’s private affairs and clandestine contacts.