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Cablegate: Premature Rumors of Asif Shawkat's Demise

VZCZCXRO7077
PP RUEHAG RUEHROV
DE RUEHDM #0251/01 1051417
ZNY SSSSS ZZH
P 141417Z APR 08
FM AMEMBASSY DAMASCUS
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 4849
INFO RUEHXK/ARAB ISRAELI COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RUCNMEM/EU MEMBER STATES COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RUEHAK/AMEMBASSY ANKARA PRIORITY 5535
RUEHGB/AMEMBASSY BAGHDAD PRIORITY 0846
RUEKJCS/CJCS WASHDC PRIORITY
RUCNDT/USMISSION USUN NEW YORK PRIORITY 0378
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHDC PRIORITY
RHEFDIA/DIA WASHDC PRIORITY
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC PRIORITY
RHMFISS/HQ USEUCOM VAIHINGEN GE PRIORITY
RHMFISS/HQ USCENTCOM MACDILL AFB FL PRIORITY
RHEHAAA/WHITE HOUSE WASHDC PRIORITY

S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 03 DAMASCUS 000251

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

PARIS FOR JORDAN; LONDON FOR TSOU

E.O. 12958: DECL: 04/13/2018
TAGS: PREL PGOV SY IZ
SUBJECT: PREMATURE RUMORS OF ASIF SHAWKAT'S DEMISE

REF: DAMASCUS 142

Classified By: CDA Michael Corbin, per 1.4 b,d.

1. (S) Summary: Widespread reports that Syrian Military
Intelligence Chief Asif Shawkat is under house arrest and
that Shawkat's wife (and Bashar Asad's sister) Bushra al-Asad
is trying to flee the country likely reflect Bashar's
successful moves to limit Shawkat's influence. While our
sources suspect both stories are untrue and blame the
external opposition for stirring the rumor mill to weaken
Bashar, Shawkat's star definitely appears to be on the wane.
End Summary

-------------------------------
The Rumor Mill Working Overtime
-------------------------------

2. (SBU) Many Embassy contacts point to a report published
by opposition website "Free Syria" as the original source of
a number of news stories reporting Shawkat's house arrest.
Sources here also contend that former Syrian VP (and now
leader of the expat opposition group National Salvation
Front) Abdel Halim Khaddam has attempted to weaken Bashar by
repeating this rumor during recent anti-SARG interviews on
SkyTV and Lebanese TV station al Moustaqbal in which he
alleged Shawkat's house arrest and predicted Shawkat would
suffer the same fate as now deceased head of Syrian
intelligence operations in Lebanon, Ghazi Kanaan.

3. (SBU) Opposition website "al Haqiqa" published an April
6 story reporting that President Asad would replace Shawkat
with SMI deputy Ali Yunis, a story similar to a "Debka"
website report on Bashar's decision to fire Shawkat. Saudi
daily "Sharq al Awsaat" reported Shawkat's house arrest;
according to this version, Shawkat overstepped his authority
in negotiating (via the Turks) with the USG about withdrawing
Syria's support for Hizballah in exchange for agreement that
the International Tribunal would not indict senior Syrian
officials. Another version reported by the French-based
opposition website "Ihraar Suriya" (the Free People of Syria)
alleged that Shawkat had been implicated in the assassination
plot against Hizballah leader Imad Mugniyah and that
Hizballah and Iran were demanding his prosecution.

4. (C) Another rumor circulating in diplomatic circles
(perhaps reflecting wishful thinking) is that Bashar has
decided to turn Shawkat over to the International Tribunal
for the murder for former Lebanese PM Rafiq Hariri in
exchange for immunity.

-----------------------------------
Bushra al-Asad to Flee the Country?
-----------------------------------

5. (C) Different stories regarding Shawkat's arrest also
allege that his wife (and Bashar older sister) has or is
attempting to leave the country and seek political asylum in
possibly France or a Gulf country such as the UAE. The
Kuwaiti daily "al-Siyasiya," for example, reported that
Shawkat allegedly told his wife, Busra, to leave Syria with
the couple's children, and she had applied for asylum in
France (later denied by the French government, according to
an April 13 story in "al Hayat.") According to a few
contacts here, however, Bushra remains in Syria and her
children are still attending school. A French Embassy
contact told us that Bushra had been to Paris earlier in the
year on a routine shopping excursion but there was no truth
to stories that she had sought political asylum.

----------------------
Rumors Discounted Here
----------------------

6. (SBU) In what many are viewing as a SARG response to the
growing wave of rumors, an April 10 Syrian TV evening
newscast showed footage of Shawkat attending a military
academy graduation ceremony. The footage highlighted Shawkat
wearing his military uniform and appearing with Minister of
Defense Hasan Turkumani, who delivered the key note address.
Meanwhile, pro-government Syrian website "Shafaf al-Sham" ran
a story describing Shawkat as the "most powerful man in
Syria" and reporting government plans to appoint Shawkat as
Vice President for National Security Affairs. (Note: This
position was a job briefly held by Bashar's paternal uncle
Rifa't al-Asad before being exiled by the late Hafez al
Asad.)

7. (S) Most of our contacts heavily discount reports of
Shawkat's dismissal and house arrest. Well connected
As-Safir correspondent Ziad Haydar called the reports
"rubbish." Ihsan Sanker, a longtime Embassy contact who
claims occassional access to Asad family members, reported
April 10 seeing Shawkat at the funeral of a mutual friend a
week earlier. According to Sanker, mutual acquaintances say
they have seen Shawkat "regularly" over the last month.

-----------------------------
Shawkat's Star on the Decline?
-----------------------------

8. (S) Describing Shawkat as "dejected and withdrawn,"
Sanker said Shawkat was "not even trying to hide" his
unhappiness over his continuing loss of influence. The
assassination of Hizballah luminary Imad Mugniyeh led to a
series of accusations between SMI and GID, with the outcome
coming out in GID's favor, Sanker reported. Additionally,
Sanker said he had heard Shawkat's portfolio had been pared
down to military issues, while Bashar's cousin Hafez Makhluf
had all but taken over the national security portfolio.
As-Safir correspondent Haydar reported he had heard the same
thing, saying Bashar had recently further marginalized
Shawkat's national security role.

9. (S) Orient Center Director and MFA Advisor Samir al-Taki
told us recently that Shawkat and GID chief Ali Mamluk had
exchanged mutual recriminations of blame and negligence in
the wake of the Mugniyeh assassination (reftel). In an
attempt to discredit GID, Shawkat ordered SMI to question a
number of Syrians with ties to France and the U.S. (including
al-Taki) under possible suspicion of involvement in the
Mugniyeh affair. In the meantime, al-Taqi added, the GID had
assumed primary responsibility for investigating the Mugniyeh
killing, under the overall direction of Bashar's cousin,
Hafez Makhluf, a prominent GID officer. Against the backdrop
of these recent events, an ongoing reorganization of security
organizations has made it difficult to determine who was up
and who was down, al-Taqi explained. Separate reporting and
diplomatic circles point to Mamluk's rise and Shawkat's
relative retreat. But Al-Taqi cast doubt on reports of
Shawkat's removal, saying "we've heard such reports before,"
only to see Shawkat maintain his position as a key insider.

-------------------------
Shawkat in the Dog House?
-------------------------

10. (S) A UK-Syrian business contact with low level regime
ties told us April 13 that Shawkat's problems with Bashar had
come to head before the Arab League Summit. According to
this source, SMI arrested a Saudi national suspected of
involvement in the Mugniyeh assassination. This Saudi died
in SMI custody, complicating Bashar's already strained
relations with the Saudi royal family. A variant of this
rumor which has appeared in the press was that the deceased
Saudi was a diplomat working in the Saudi Embassy. Our
contact discounted this rumor because "not even Shawkat would
be stupid enough" to apprehend someone with diplomatic
immunity.

11. (S) Comment: It seems highly unlikely that Bashar
would arrest Shawkat unless he perceived a direct challenge
to his authority, especially at a time when Syrians are
openly talking about the possibility of war with Israel and
worsening economic conditions that require greater regime
cohesion. Moreover, we strongly doubt Bashar feels pressured
enough on Lebanon to be preparing to turn over Shawkat to the
Tribunal. Rather, we believe Bashar's continuing efforts to
erode Shawkat's influence reflect his perception of Shawkat
as a potential threat that must be managed. Separately, we
assess that Bashar is most comfortable with Bushra here in
Syria under his thumb and that he would not cause her to
flee. We also believe that unless family matters worsen,
Bushra prefers to reside in Syria, particularly given her
desire to stay close to her elderly mother.

CORBIN

© Scoop Media

 
 
 
 
 
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