Syrian bombing shrouded in mystery; Assad's whereabouts unknown

Syria
This post has been updated. See the note below.

BEIRUT -- The bombing that Syrian authorities said killed three top military leaders and wounded two other officials remained shrouded in mystery and contradictory reports Thursday, a day after the blast devastated the inner sanctum of President Bashar Assad’s security establishment.

The official Syrian Arab News Agency said the blast "targeted the National Security headquarters” in the capital during a meeting of ministers and top military and security officials.

However, some residents in the nearby Rawda neighborhood said they heard no explosion — just sirens from ambulances rushing to the scene. Of course, the bomb could have gone off deep in the bowels of what is a highly secret security compound, muffling the sound and leaving no trace on the exterior.

The BBC’s Lina Sinjab reported Wednesday from Damascus that no damage was visible.

“Just walked around national security building and saw no sign of explosions, no broken window, no heavy security presence,” she wrote in a tweet.

There have also been no photos in the official media of the bombed national security building, in contrast to widespread dissemination of images from earlier bombings in Damascus and elsewhere.

Syrian authorities said the dead included Gen. Assef Shawkat, deputy defense minister. Shawkat was a feared figure who was married to Assad’s elder sister, Bushra, and was thus close to the insular clan that has ruled Syria for more than 40 years.

The blast also reportedly killed Defense Minister Daoud Rajha, believed to be the government’s highest-ranking Christian,  and Gen. Hassan Turkmani, reportedly head of the Syrian regime’s crisis unit. Wounded in the attack, the official media reported, were Maj. Gen. Mohammad Shaar, the interior minister, and Gen. Hisham Ikhtiyar, the national security chief.

Remaining unexplained a day later was a key question: How could a bomber infiltrate such a secure site and gathering?

Syria’s official press first called the audacious strike a suicide bombing, but later omitted the suicide angle. Several unconfirmed media reports spoke of infiltration by a trusted aide with an explosives-packed belt, but that version remained unconfirmed.

A pair of rebel groups, both affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, the insurgent umbrella organization, claimed responsibility for the strike. Both denied employing a suicide bomber and said explosives had been planted inside the building; some accounts spoke of a remote-controlled detonation. Such an operation would likely have required extensive access to a site that presumably was highly guarded.

Following the attack, a rebel commander declared publicly that the bomber, described as a civilian who worked in the building, had escaped.

That Syrian rebel front men would deny mounting a suicide attack makes a lot of sense from an international  public relations perspective.

The rebel leadership desperately wants Western aid. But Washington and other capitals seeking Assad’s ouster tend to associate suicide attacks with Al Qaeda. This is not the 1980s, when the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency bankrolled Islamic mujaheddin fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Fears of militant Islamist participation is one reason why Washington and its Western allies have been hesitant, at least publicly, to provide lethal aid to the Syrian insurgents.

Some unconfirmed reports emerged that among those injured in Wednesday's blast, but not mentioned in official accounts, was the president’s younger brother, Maher Assad, a commander in the elite Republican Guards.

More than 24 hours after the bombing, there were no public sightings of President Assad. The absence continued to stir speculation about his fate and whereabouts.

The Syrian leadership is a secretive and opaque entity, but it did strike many as odd that Assad did not make some kind of public appearance or pronouncement, at least to reassure rattled supporters that he was uninjured and still at the helm.

The official state news agency reported Thursday that the president had presided over the swearing in of a new defense chief, but it didn't release photos or say where the ceremony had taken place.

[Updated 9:39 a.m. July 19: Syrian state television later showed video of Assad purportedly filmed at the ceremony, but it was not clear where or when the clip was taken.]

Some opposition sources had Assad flying off in the presidential jet to Latakia, the Mediterranean coastal city and homeland of Assad’s Alawite sect. Latakia has often been mentioned as a possible Alawite-run rump state should Sunni Muslim-led insurgents take Damascus. Included in such a hypothetical state would be the loyalist coastal town of Tartus, where Russia has a naval logistics base.

The Reuters news agency, citing Syrian opposition sources and a Western diplomat, reported Friday that Assad was in Latakia.

Meanwhile, the Russian news agency Interfax quoted Syria’s ambassador to Moscow as saying that Assad’s wife, Asma, had not fled to the Russian capital, as had been rumored. The British-born first lady remained in Damascus with her husband and children, the ambassador said.

It was widely noted in opposition circles that Wednesday’s bombing did not mark the first time that the same cluster of security brass was purportedly targeted. In May, opposition activists alleged that rebels had managed to slip lethal poison to the five security chiefs killed and wounded Wednesday. There were even rumors that Shawkat, Assad’s brother-in-law, had been buried in his hometown.

The Syrian government dismissed the reports as disinformation.  Several of the purported poisoning “victims” appeared on official TV or issued statements declaring they were alive and well. Shawkat, however, was not heard from publicly.

On Thursday, media reports indicated that Assad's sister and mother have traveled to Latakia to attend Shawkat's funeral.

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-- Alexandra Sandels and Patrick J. McDonnell

Photo: A picture released by the Syrian opposition's Shaam News Network on Thursday shows damage from fighting in Duma near the Syrian capital, Damascus, the day before.  Credit: Shaam News Network

 
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