Speculation was rife on Wednesday among Syrian anti-regime activists over the alleged “killing” of President Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law who is also Syria’s deputy defence minister.
Assef Shawkat, former head of military intelligence, was poisoned, according to anti-regime activists. The authorities in Damascus could not be reached for comment and have not responded publicly to the claim.
According to anti-regime activists, Shawkat was being buried on Wednesday in his hometown, which they identified as Madhale, near the Mediterranean coastal city of Tartous.
Several activists quoted by Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya television said black flags were flying in Madhale in mourning.
On their Syrian Revolution Facebook page, online anti-regime activists wrote that: “Assef Shawkat is being buried right now in his home town Madhale … God curse him. He was poisoned.”
They said Shawkat’s body was transported to a hospital near his hometown that was emptied of patients on Tuesday evening.
Speculation over Shawkat’s fate first emerged on May 20 when Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya television broadcast an amateur video showing a man claiming responsibility on behalf of a rebel group for killing six regime stalwarts.
They included Shawkat, Interior Minister Mohammed al-Shaar, Defence Minister Daoud Rajha, national security chief Hisham Bakhtiar and Hassan Turkmeni, assistant to the vice president.
Turkmeni appeared on state television this week to dismiss the reports, while Shaar denied them in a telephone interview, accusing Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya of “lies and slander.”
But Shawkat has not made any public appearance or personally denied the reports, though he rarely makes public statements.
According to Peter Harling, an expert on Syria with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, the reports are “essentially unconfirmed for now.
“What is interesting is this story’s success, regardless of its factual grounding,” Harling told AFP. “A month ago, Syrians would not have believed, conveyed, invested in such news and it would not have spread.
“The regime then appeared particularly strong. Now there is a sense that the armed opposition is on the offensive.”
A member of the inner circle of former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar, Shawkat rose quickly through the ranks of power after he married the late leader’s only daughter, Bushra, in the 1990s.
But Shawkat’s relations with the Assad clan were not always smooth. Bashar’s powerful brother Maher al-Assad allegedly shot him in the stomach in 1999.
The two men were named in leaked version of a preliminary UN report as possible suspects in the 2005 assassination of Lebanese ex-premier Rafiq Hariri.