A suicide bomber yesterday struck at the heart of Syria’s security apparatus, killing the country’s defense minister and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law, state television said.
The attack, which for the first time in a 16-month anti-regime uprising targeted members of al-Assad’s inner core, came hours ahead of a UN Security Council debate on Syrian sanctions, when a showdown between Western powers and Russia and China is expected.
Officials said the bomber struck as ministers and security officials were meeting at the heavily guarded National Security headquarters in Damascus.
Syrian Defense Minister General Daoud Rajha and al-Assad’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, were killed, while Syrian Interior Minister Mohammed al-Shaar and General Hisham Ikhtiyar, head of National Security, were wounded, security officials said.
Syria’s rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) claimed responsibility for the deadly attack.
The FSA command “announces the good news of the outstanding operation this morning that targeted the National Security headquarters and the killing [of the officials] responsible for barbaric massacres,” it said in a statement.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights called Shawkat’s death “a severe blow to the Syrian regime, since he played the main role in operations by regular forces to crush the revolution.”
State television reported that al-Assad had appointed Fahd al-Freij as the new defense minister, while Syria’s army vowed to “continue fighting terrorism.”
“The terrorist act increases the armed forces’ determination to clean the country of terrorist groups,” it said in a statement.
Rajha was defense minister, deputy army chief and deputy head of the Council of Ministers. Al-Assad is overall commander of the military. Shawkat was deputy defense minister and a former military intelligence chief.
The National Security branch, headed by Ikhtiyar, is a linchpin of Syria’s security apparatus.
The brazen attack on regime insiders came as battles raged across Damascus and after the FSA — comprising defected soldiers and civilians who have taken up arms — warned the government to “expect surprises.”
Columns of black smoke rose over the capital, with the Local Coordination Committees, which organizes anti-regime protests on the ground, reporting that Qaboon and Barzeh neighborhoods were bombarded by loyalist forces.