Syrian President Bashar Assad's unquenchable thirst to destroy his opponents has changed his country's landscape unalterably since the uprising against him broke out five months ago. Tank silhouettes hulk over street scenes of buildings reduced to rubble, torn-up roads, the untended wounded and the bodies of about 50 civilians killed day by day in cities, townships and villages up and down the country.
Yet the indiscriminate killing and destruction goes on. The Assads, one of most sinister ruling families the Middle East has ever bred, have thrown all caution and shame to the winds. They have only one answer for international denouncers and the threat of foreign intervention: more naked brutality.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources report that Tuesday, August 9, Damascus relayed through backdoor channels a special message to the Kremlin. It denied that Gen. Ali Habib (72), who was fired as defense minister a day earlier, was gunned down and found dead in his home and claimed that two weeks ago, he underwent surgery for prostate cancer and is under doctors' orders to take two months of complete rest.
This account may be true but it does not fit all the facts or reveal the scenario leading up to this pivotal incident in Assad's cruel war on his foes.
The disappearing general
There is no record of the general undergoing surgery in late July, as claimed – or even that he was indisposed. Sunday, Aug. 7, the day before he was sacked by Assad, he was seen in his office performing his duties as defense minister, unaware of any axe over his head.
Gen. Habib had indeed been diagnosed with prostate cancer, but much earlier this year. He had flouted his doctors' recommendation to rest even before the anti-Assad revolt sprang up in mid-March and worked even harder thereafter.
Yet at some point this week, he dropped out of sight from his well-secured home without a trace. No informed Western or Middle East intelligence source is ready to say what happened to him – or even if he is still alive and resting as his doctors recommended.
But events were meanwhile moving fast.
There is evidence that something happened on that fateful Monday which spurred President Assad to act in haste. Why else would he appoint the completely unsuitable Chief of Staff Gen. Dawood Rajha as new defense minister?
Gen. Rajha, 64, the only Christian in the senior ranks of the Assad regime, is revealed by our military sources as never having been directly involved in the military operations taking place on his watch. Far from field combat, his specialty is the development of missiles and unconventional weapons. He is credited with developing the M-600 long-range missile, the Syrian version of the Iranian Fateh-110, as well as upgrading and lengthening the range of the various Scuds in the Syrian armory and outfitting them with chemical and biological warheads.
Moving obstacles out of Asif Shawqat's way
But he is not qualified by background or experience to manage a military campaign against civilian revolts in Syrian cities – much less step into the shoes of a faithful member of the ruling Alawite sect as defense minister.
His hasty appointment Monday would seem to indicate therefore that Gen. Habib's disappearance, whether forced or voluntary, occurred in the hours before his "dismissal" and after he was seen in his office.
Assad has been a lot slower off the mark in appointing a new chief of staff. One would imagine that this would be his top priority at a time when the armed forces are fully engaged in shelling, shooting and bombing a revolt into submission in the bloodiest week of the conflict, one which also saw an onslaught of international pressure to desist from the violence.
So what would explanation would cover both the Syrian ruler's sudden urgency to change horses in the middle of a major crackdown on dissent and his tardiness in filling a gaping vacancy at the top of the armed forces?
The answer to this apparently irrational behavior is to be found in the status of his powerful brother-in-law and former intelligence strongman, Maj. Gen. Asif Shawqat, as Deputy Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces.
Since his appointment in May, Shawqat's iron fist has been pushing the savage crackdown on protest alongside the president's younger brother Gen. Ali Maher Assad. Our military sources report that the two men are in complete rapport on the no-holds-barred tactics for crushing the revolt.
Ali Habib and Gen. Rajha stood in their way – the former because he was uneasy with the brutality and the latter because of his irrelevance to the business at hand.
Assad has a history
Bashar Assad may well have resorted to a typically ruthless maneuver for killing two birds with one stone. He purged them both and cleared the way for Shawqat to assume full charge of the armed forces.
This would explain why the chief of staff was removed and not replaced.
His deputy is now in charge, but the president does not want it to be too obvious that the war on protest is completely under the thumb of the Assad clan's top trio and that outsiders who might question their methods have been shut out of positions of authority.
If that is what happened this week, it augurs even more savagery and defiance. It would also be completely in character.
President Assad is known to have engineered a host of disappearances and more than one "mysterious" death of a high-ranking Syrian officer who happened to be in his way. Close friends and loyal servants of the ruling clan enjoy no immunity.
The Assad government used Gen. Muhammad Suleiman as the repository of its innermost secrets and executor of undercover missions of state, including the sensitive nuclear ties with Iran and North Korea.
In August 2008, a speedboat zoomed up to his private villa in Latakia near the sea and snipers aboard shot Suleiman dead.
Rumors abounded at the time about the culprits. Some tied the murder to Assad, claiming he had suspected Suleiman of betraying information about the Syrian plutonium reactor which Israel attacked and destroyed in September 2007. Damascus accused Israel of being behind the assassination.
State TV's Ali Habib production
But DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources confirm that the president suspected his loyal henchman of accumulating too much influence and power. Assad and his kinsmen have little tolerance for people around them becoming strong enough to be independent and threaten their grip on power and have no qualms about disposing of them.
Gen. Suleiman did not live long enough to enjoy the fruits of his service to the Assad – any more than did another loyalist, Ghazi Kenaan.
In 2005, after a year as Syrian Interior Minister and long service at the head of Syria's security apparatus in Lebanon, Kenaan died suddenly during an investigation into the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February of that year.
His death was convenient for the House of Assad because it removed a key witness and severed a possible lead to a Syrian hand behind the assassination.
This week, Damascus took the trouble to demonstrate that the sacked defense minister was alive.
Tuesday night, Aug. 9, Syrian state television broadcast an audio statement read by someone said to be Ali Habib, who said. "My state of health made it impossible for me to carry on working. I have been admitted to a hospital for treatment and it will take a few days."
The purported Gen. Habib thanked President Assad for the trust he vested in him in the course of his military service. He attached great importance to the role played by Syrian Army's soldiers and officers in defending the homeland.
No one has authenticated the voiceover as Ali Habib's nor has a date been put on the photo accompanying the sound.