President Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, one of three top officials killed in a Damascus bomb blast on Wednesday, was a hawk of Syria’s security apparatus.
As deputy defence minister and former military intelligence chief, Shawkat was a hated figure of the anti-regime opposition.
With dark hair and moustache, a hard gaze and discreet behaviour, the 62-year-old officer was part of a crisis cell set up by Assad to crush a revolt which broke out in March 2011.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights called Shawkat’s death “a fatal blow to the regime because he personally supervised several Syrian army operations against towns and cities,” especially in the flashpoint province of Homs.
He was a member of the Alawite community — a Shiite offshoot of Islam to which Assad’s family belongs — and born to a family of humble origins in Madhale, a village in the western province of Tartous.
After studying history, Shawkat embarked on a career in the army, like many young men of his religious community.
A member of the inner circle of former president Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar, Shawkat rose quickly through the ranks after he married the late leader’s only daughter, Bushra.
But Bashar’s brother Bassel had been opposed to their courtship and put Shawkat behind bars on four separate occasions to ensure he would stay away from his sister.
Bassel’s death in a January 1994 car accident enabled the marriage to go ahead a year later.
By the time Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, Shawkat had become one of Syria’s most powerful men. In 2001, he took over as deputy head of the feared military intelligence services.
After the 9/11 attacks, Shawkat worked with US counterparts in the “war on terror,” although Washington would later add him to its blacklist for “aiding terrorism.”
In 2005, Shawkat’s name — along with that of Bashar’s brother Maher — was raised in a preliminary report on the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. That same year, he became military intelligence chief.
Shawkat retired in 2010 but was recalled by Assad when the anti-regime revolt broke out. He was named deputy defence minister in September 2011.
He was one of several regime officials reportedly targeted in a poison attack in mid-May this year when a delivery boy placed mercury in the food and then ran away.