Syria’s confirmation of Brigadier General Mohammed Sulieman’s death today has fueled the fire of speculation as to what it all might mean.
It is nearly impossible to determine who is responsible for Sulieman’s reported assassination by sniper fire at his villa along the Syrian coast. In the absence of hard facts (often a cornerstone of reporting in Syria), research and media outfits focused on Syria are spinning different theories based on their reading of the current Syrian political context and snippets known of Sulieman’s background. I’m starting to form my own theory as well, based on my trip last week to Damascus, which was abuzz of talk of indirect peace talks with Israel and Bashar's shake-up of the country’s security chiefs.
One line of speculation comes from the “Debka File” – an information source close to former members of Israel’s intelligence service – which claimed that Sulieman was Bashar’s liaison with North Korea, Iran, and Hezbollah, and had been questioned by the IAEA’s Olli Heinonen on his recent visit to Syria. While the report did not say why Sulieman might have been killed, it claimed the assassination was not related to the 2005 assassination of Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al Hariri.
Another comes from Saudi-owned media, most notably the London-based Arabic daily Asharq al Awsat. It reported on August 3 that Souliman was President Assad’s “right hand in the armed forces and he knows everything… He has all the files; security, financial and [army] reform" files. It added that Sulieman was summoned for questioning by UN investigator Detlev Mehlis’ first investigation into Hariri’s murder. I didn’t find his name among the six Syrians Mehlis questioned in Vienna in 2005, so perhaps this is why this fact dropped out of the newspaper’s story the following day. This report warned Syria watchers to wait for a few days to see what shakes out.
The third line of speculation, and the one that seems to make the most sense based on my trip to Damascus last week, attributes the assassination to an internal power struggle closely linked to the regional crossroads Syria now finds itself (it’s best summed up by Nicholas Blanford’s piece today in the Times). It explains the assassination as payback for Bashar by Assef Shawkat, Syria's Military Intelligence chief and Bashar's brother-in-law, following the Feb 13. assassination of Hezbollah operative Imad Mughniyyah by a car bomb near the headquarters of Syria's security agencies. Following the assassination, there were reports that Bashar stripped Shawkat of his powers and placed him under house arrest.
I don't usually give much credence to such rumors (after all, how could you verify them?). But what I did find interesting was how Mughniyyah’s assassination functioned in Western policy circles this spring. The assassination was a major bit of evidence used by US, European and Israeli policy wonks to prove that Syria is not comfortable with its “one-sided” relationship with Iran and ready to “deal.” There have been lots of "real" signs this spring that Syria was distancing itself from Iran, as I outlined in my op-ed piece last week. This has been “confirmed” by a number of intellectuals close to the regime as well, most notably Samir Al-Taqi and Sami Moubayad (both of whom were part of the “unofficial” Syrian delegation to Washington).
I've still skeptical of Syria’s willingness to break away from Iran, and even more its ability to do so. But my trip to Damascus last week opened my mind to the possibility. When I asked my contacts why Assad would change his security chiefs now, most said it was clear that Syria was soon approaching a crossroads in its regional relations. Indirect negotiations with Israel is something you can probably sell to Tehran as a “tactic” to buy time for Iran’s nuclear program. But direct negotiations with Israel is something else. It would be hard for Damascus to reconcile those talks while its signing military and security agreements with Tehran - especially with the folks benefiting most from those agreements.