Cablegate: French Believe That Assassination of Syrian


DE RUEHFR #1717 2561757
P 121757Z SEP 08

S E C R E T PARIS 001717



E.O. 12958: DECL: 09/05/2018


Classified By: Political Minister Counselor Kathy Allegrone
for reasons 1.4. (b), (d).

1. (S/NF) As Washington readers and others ponder French
policy toward Syria, and as an expansion of para 3 in reftel,
we pass along the previously unreported views of two of our
GOF interlocutors from meetings in late August on the
mysterious assassination earlier in the month of Syrian
brigadier general Muhammad Sleiman and its potential
significance for the regime of Syrian President Asad. NEA
adviser at the French presidency Boris Boillon, on August 20,
asserted that the killing seemed to be some sort of inside
job. He flatly rejected the notion that the Israelis had
taken out Sleiman, particularly the theory that a sniper had
shot him on a boat situated somewhere off the coast of the
Syrian coastal city of Tartus. Boillon claimed that French
information was that the hit was more "classic" and
"mafia-like" with police stopping traffic in the immediate
vicinity, bodyguards looking the other way, and the assailant
pumping a slug into Sleiman's head.

2. (S/NF) When asked how he interpreted the killing,
Boillon said that several theories presented themselves, the
only common denominator of which was internecine rivalry in
the entourage close to Bashar al-Asad. Although Bashar's
disgruntled brother-in-law and sidelined head of Syrian
Military Intelligence 'Asif Shawkat seems to have the most
compelling motive for knocking off someone he might have
regarded as a rival and source of his reputed downfall in
recent months, Boillon thought Bashar's brother Mahir was a
more likely suspect. Boillon described Mahir as ambitious, a
bit of a wild man, and determined to increase his power and
influence within the inner circle. Inasmuch as Mahir might
have contrived to bring down Shawkat, he might also have
decided to take out his next key rival, Sleiman, in a more
permanent way.

3. (S/NF) Boillon further referred the related possibility
that Mahir had rubbed out Sleiman in the same way he might
have rubbed out Hizballah leader 'Imad Mughniyah ) possibly
even on Bashar's orders. The latter explanation would tie in
with the notion of cleaning house as Syria needed to present
a more respectable image while it pursued its rapprochement
with France and/or needed to remove those who "knew too much"
(in the case of Sleiman, about the clandestine nuclear
program). Of course, Boillon added, one could never rule out
the notion that Sleiman's death was related to a bloody
struggle over control of lucrative criminal activities.

4. (S/NF) Pouille on August 28, meanwhile, was less
forthcoming than Boillon in terms of offering interpretations
of Sleiman's death, but he was equally categorical in
disputing the theory that the Israelis were responsible. He
cited the French ambassador in Damascus as his source for the
contention that the killing was an inside job to "settle old
scores" as well as conveniently get rid of someone who might
have information of value to the UNIIIC on Lebanon or to the
IAEA on Syria's nuclear program.

5. (S/NF) Comment: We offer these insights, some of which
have appeared in abridged form in the French press, less for
the light they may shed on Sleiman's assassination than they
do about the French perception of the Asad regime. Indeed,
Boillon's rundown of the various theories sounded like he had
recently read a finished French intelligence assessment of
the situation. Both Boillon and Pouille sought, in these
conversations, to stress that France does not judge the Asad
regime dangerously unstable or Asad's grip on power slipping.
Nonetheless, they believe that the internal situation is
fragile enough to warrant concern and a nuanced approach. We
believe this could partly account for Sarkozy's decision to
move so quickly to cultivate his personal relationship with
Bashar and to "gamble" (as the French media have put it) on
Bashar's willingness to change course on Lebanon, peace with
Israel, and even Syria's relationship with Iran. For what it
may be worth, former Lebanese military intelligence chief
Johnny Abdo recently contended the assassination was an
inside job and pointed to the absence of the sort of mass
arrests inside Syria that would normally accompany this type
of killing by criminal or non-regime elements. End comment

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