Syrian National Intelligence Agency head Brigadier General Rustom Ghazali has died in Damascus, a television channel reported on Friday. Reports had simmered for weeks that he was severely beaten in an internal government dispute.
The Syrian government did not immediately issue a statement, and the cause of Ghazali’s death remained unclear. However, the report that he had died, carried by al-Mayadeen, a Lebanon-based pan-Arab satellite channel with access to Syrian officials, raised questions about whether he was a casualty of new rifts in Syria’s power structure after more than four years of conflict.
Confirming parts of recent accounts from Lebanese and Arab news outlets, Syrians with close ties to the security forces said in separate recent interviews that Ghazali had been beaten by guards at the office of Syrian Military Intelligence boss General Rafiq Shehadeh. Both men were said to have been later relieved of their posts.
Ghazali had been Syria’s intelligence chief in Lebanon during Syria’s long occupation of the nation, and was feared and despised by Lebanese critics of the Syrian government. Many speculated that he helped plan the car-bomb assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut in 2005, which prompted protests that led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops. Syria and the militant group Hezbollah, its Lebanese ally, have denied any involvement.
A Lebanese news anchor who survived an assassination attempt that she said was the work of the Syrian government, May Chidiac, said on Facebook that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had “gotten rid of” Ghazali for fear that he would give evidence to a UN special tribunal on the Hariri killing. A confidant of Hariri recently testified to the tribunal that before his death, the former prime minister had been forced to pay millions of dollars to Ghazali.
However, others suggested that Ghazali’s death was related more to disputes within and among Syria’s strained security forces. One Syrian with close ties to security officials said the dispute was over fuel smuggling, after Shehadeh had seized a truckload of fuel being shipped by a relative of Ghazali to armed groups.
Arab and Lebanese media had earlier reported another version: That the two generals had tangled over the role of Hezbollah and its patron, Iran, in southern Syria. Ghazali was from the southern Syrian province of Daraa. Hezbollah fighters and Iranian advisers have taken a more prominent role lately in the area, which is a strategic region for both of them because it is near the Israeli-held Golan Heights.
A video clip released this year showed what was said to be of Ghazali’s large house in the town of Qarfa being blown up, and the general declaring that he had done it so that no soldier could be redeployed to Daraa merely to defend his house.
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