'Murdered Syrian officer knew too much'

Speculation abounds over reported assassination of close Assad aide; Syrian press yet to comment.

Assad nice 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Assad nice 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Amid increasing speculation, some Arab media and Syrian dissidents suggested Monday that the reported assassination of a senior Syrian intelligence officer over the weekend may be a case of one man knowing too much for his own good. As of Monday, the tightly-controlled Syrian press had yet to comment on the reported death of Brig.-Gen. Muhammad Suleiman, said to be a close adviser to Syrian President Bashar Assad, who was reportedly killed by a sniper from a yacht. "There is no doubt that General Muhammad Suleiman is the closest person to Bashar al-Assad and is his right hand in the armed forces and he knows everything," an unidentified Syrian official was quoted as saying in Monday's London-based Asharq al-Awsat, which is owned by Saudi Arabia and is critical of Assad's government. "He has all the files; security, financial and [army] reform" files. Suleiman, 49, was responsible for "sensitive security files" in the Syrian president's office and in charge of the financing and reform of the Syrian army, the source said. But he added that it was too early to know whether the assassination had to do with particular files Suleiman handled. "It's better to wait three or four days until the indications appear in this or that direction, particularly because the assassination took place in a very precise way," he was quoted as saying by Asharq al-Awsat. Other Syrian sources, quoted in the Al Bawaba news site, have said he was the liaison officer to Hizbullah, in addition to other assignments. Asharq al-Awsat also said Suleiman had been among the Syrian officials requested by the former president of the international tribunal to investigate the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Dissidents were quick to point the finger at the regime. "As [with] everybody else, it seems, I cannot help but connect [Suleiman's assassination] to an ongoing attempt at eliminating people who have sensitive information on the Lebanese file and Syria's involvement there, perhaps even the assassination of Hariri, et al," the Maryland-based Syrian dissident and novelist Ammar Abdulhamid wrote in an e-mail interview. "It seems that the indictment issued against [President] Omar Bashir of Sudan [by the International Criminal Court for genocide, crimes against humanity and murder] might have had a psychological impact here. After all, the Tribunal is still the main threat against the regime." But Syrian expert Joshua Landis, the co-director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said he doubts the veracity of many such claims, often circulated by the regime's opponents to show Western countries that Syria is unstable and not worth engaging. "We don't know anything about this Muhammad Suleiman," he told The Jerusalem Post. "It's really all wild speculation. There is a big propaganda machine that would use something like this to imply that the regime is falling apart... I think there will be a lot of speculation about this, [and] all of it will be uninformed or misleading." Landis said that Suleiman had played an important role the first two years of Bashar Assad's regime, serving "as a sort of chief of staff" but had played a less prominent role since then. The assassination, he added, is "embarrassing to the regime," since it is doing its best to depict itself as "a sea of tranquility in the Middle East fraught with extremism, factionalism and al-Qaida type elements." Israeli diplomatic sources said it was difficult to tell what kind of significance the killing of Suleiman would have on Syria domestically, or on the possible ramifications for Israel, since no one had any definitive idea who was responsible. "There is a complete Syrian blackout," the sources said, adding that there were a number of theories about who might have had an interest in killing him. The first theory is that it had to do with internal fighting inside Hizbullah, and a possible "settling of accounts." The second theory is that Assad himself may have wanted to see him killed, concerned he may have known too much about the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri three years ago. The UN-established Special Tribunal for Lebanon is expected early next year to begin trying those suspected of killing Hariri in 2005. And the third theory is that Israel was responsible for the killing, to stop the arms smuggling from Syria to Hizbullah. Suleiman was reportedly responsible for the transfer of arms to Hizbullah. The officials said that unlike Israel's attack in September on an alleged nuclear facility in Syria, or the killing of Hizbullah commander Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus, Israel did not feel it had to prepare for a possible revenge attack, partly because the Syrians have not blamed Israel. Though Syria did blame Israel for the September attack, and Hizbullah blamed Israel for the killing of Mughniyeh, Damascus has not pointed a finger at Israel for the killing of Suleiman. Suleiman's assassination, along with that of Hizbullah operations chief Imad Mughniyeh's, demonstrates that Syria's security apparatus is not fool-proof, says Moshe Maoz, a professor emeritus of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "This is a blow to the regime," he told the Post. "This is a police state and security is above everything. In this sense, it's not going good for the regime." Maoz said he "doubts very much" that Israel was involved in Suleiman's death. Suleiman "was at the heart of the regime and Israel is in negotiations with Syria and this is not the time to do it," he said. "Normally, Israel would exhaust all possibilities to damage the regime, but not now." He added: "But it's very, very hard to say." Channel Two journalist Ehud Ya'ari said Monday that Syrian sources indicated the assassination had to do with Suleiman's involvement with Syrian's alleged nuclear program.