Syrian state television says a bomb struck the National Security building in Damascus Wednesday, killing Defense Minister Daoud Rajha and Deputy Defense Minister Assef Shawkat, brother-in-law to President Bashar al-Assad.
Syrian Bombing Victims Served in Top Military Roles
Defense Minister Daoud Rajha, the most senior government official killed in the Syrian conflict. The 65-year-old former army general also was the most senior Christian government official in Syria. Appointed last August, he was one of the prominent minority figures used by President Assad’s government as an example of diversity in the military and security services otherwise dominated by Alawites. The attack on General Rajha is the first assassination of a prominent official in the 16-month uprising against Assad.
Assef Shawkat, President Assad’s brother in-law, was a major general and deputy defense minister, as well as deputy chief of staff of security. Part of Mr. Assad’s inner family circle, he was married to the president’s elder sister, Bushra.
General Hassan Turkmani, a former defense minister, was responsible for crisis operations. A Sunni Muslim, he added sectarian diversity to Syria’s military-intelligence establishment, which is dominated by Assad’s Alawite community.
The explosion also seriously wounded other senior government officials, including Interior Minister Mohammed Shaar, the former commander of the military police.
Syrian General Hassan Turkmani, a former defense minister, is also reported to have died of injuries from the bombing.
Syrian forces and rebels have clashed in several neighborhoods of Damascus, and helicopters are reported to have fired on targets from the air, after three top government officials died in the bomb attack.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says close to 100 people were killed in anti-government unrest across Syria on Wednesday, including 18 in Damascus.
Middle East expert Elliott Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations, says this attack could signal the beginning of the end for Assad’s government.
“I think this does shake the regime and suggest to everybody in it that really the handwriting is on the wall and that they are going to fall,” he said.
The rebel Free Syrian Army has claimed responsibility for the attack, which seriously wounded several other officials participating in a high-level meeting. Reuters news agency reports that a second rebel group, Liwa al-Islam – whose name means “The Brigade of Islam” – is also claiming responsibility.
Soon after the bombing, the Syrian military vowed to “continue fighting terrorism” and a presidential decree named Armed Forces Chief of Staff Fahed al-Jasem el-Freij as the new defense minister.
Unrest in capital
The attack came amid days of clashes between rebels and government troops in Damascus, the heaviest period of fighting in the capital since the revolt against Assad began 16 months ago.
Television video, on Wednesday, has shown shouting protesters on the streets of the capital. There are reports of gunfire.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the situation in Syria is “rapidly spinning out of control.” In a joint news conference with Britain’s defense secretary Philip Hammond, he said the international community needs to put “maximum pressure” on Assad’s government to take steps to facilitate a political transition.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the bombing indicates the situation in Syria is “deteriorating rapidly,” while German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the attack shows there is an “urgent” need for a new United Nations resolution on Syria.
France also condemned the attack in Damascus. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said it underscores the “urgent” need to “find a political transition.”
Russia, which has opposed U.N. sanctions on Syria, said a “decisive battle” is underway in Syria. However, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that adopting a U.N. resolution with sanctions would amount to direct support of rebels.