BEIRUT, Lebanon — In the biggest security breach of the Assad regime’s four-decade iron grip on power, a bomb ripped through a meeting of Syria’s top security chiefs in Damascus Wednesday, killing the serving and former defense ministers and President Bashar al-Assad’s powerful brother-in-law.
The rebel Free Syrian Army claimed responsibility for the blast that killed Assef Shawkat, husband of Assad’s sister, as well as Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha and Hassan Turkmani, a former defense minister and Assad’s top security advisor, making it the single most devastating blow to the regime of the 16-month rebellion.
“It was an explosive device planted inside the meeting room and triggered with a remote control," deputy head of the FSA, Col. Malek al-Kurdi, told CNN.
Syrian state TV said the explosion had been a suicide bombing, as did a security source quoted by Reuters who said the bomber was the bodyguard of one of the security chiefs.
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Hisham Ehketyar, the head of National Security and another leading architect of the regime’s crackdown, was reported to be seriously wounded in his legs, while Interior Minister Mohammed Shaar was also wounded but in a stable condition, according to state-run Syria TV. The final death toll from the bomb is not yet known and there may be other high-profile casualties yet disclosed by the regime.
Ayman Abdel Nour, a former advisor to Assad, who defected in 2007 but maintains close contacts within the ruling elites, said his sources corroborated the Free Syrian Army’s claims that the bomb had been placed inside the offices of the National Security headquarters in central Damascus, one of the most heavily guarded buildings in the country.
Whether a suicide bombing or detonated remotely, analysts said the explosion marked a critical blow to the survival of the Assad regime.
“It’s a tremendous blow to the regime, Shawkat was family,” said a Damascus-based Syria expert, who asked for anonymity to speak freely.
“That a successful and spectacular attack occurred in the heart of the nexus of regime control shows how arrogantly confident the regime is and how they have completely underestimated the strength and maturity of the opposition.”
Unlike a string of bombings in Damascus earlier this year, in which massive truck bombs exploded near the gates of security buildings, killing dozens of civilians but never any senior officials, today’s bomb was a precisely targeted assassination.
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Eyewitnesses described an explosion that blew out windows of the building, but which left it standing and reports suggested the bomb was around 40 kilograms, rather than the roughly one ton truck bomb used in the attack near the Palestine Branch of Military Intelligence in May.
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The bomb appears to have been set off either within or very close to the room in which the top security chiefs Assad had personally appointed to a Crisis Unit were holding their daily meeting, an equivalent to America’s Situation Room.
The assassination of several of Syria’s most feared men, who for decades ran a seemingly impregnable security state, was heralded as having transformed power relations in one of the world’s most repressive nations, literally in a flash.
“This is the beginning of the end,” said Abdel Nour. “This bomb has blown the mask off and shown that no one is safe. Loyalists cannot believe it, they think that Bashar is god and is protecting all his people. Now other ministers and intelligence people will be terrified that no one can guarantee their safety. They will start preparing their escapes.”
The Damascus-based Syria expert said the bombing showed how far the opposition had penetrated the core of the regime’s security apparatus, part of what he said was a wider transformation of Syrian society.
“The balance of intelligence is now in favor of society. Traditionally the security services see themselves as opaque to society, but now it is society that is opaque to them,” he said.
A GlobalPost journalist in Syria contributed reporting for this story.