Syrian President Bashar Assad replaced the chief of military intelligence with his brother-in-law, a Syrian official said Friday. The move came four days after the assassination in Beirut of Lebanon’s former prime minister.
The chief of military intelligence oversees all of Syria’s domestic and foreign intelligence operations, including activities in Lebanon, where Syria has some 15,000 Syrian troops and many intelligence agents.
The outgoing chief, Gen. Hassan Khalil, 65, had passed retirement age, and his retirement had been postponed several times, the official said on condition of anonymity.
The new chief is the former deputy head of military intelligence, Brig. Gen. Asef Shawkat, 55, the president’s brother-in-law. The official said the change was a “natural” succession within the military.
A presidential decree was expected later on the appointment.
Rising tide of criticism
Monday’s bombing that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri provoked an unprecedented level of criticism against Syria’s presence in Lebanon. Senior Lebanese opposition figures accused Syria of responsibility — a charge that Syria flatly rejected. Thousands marched in Hariri’s funeral on Wednesday behind banners that said: “Syria Out.”
The United States withdrew its ambassador to Damascus, giving the assassination as the immediate cause, and the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution reminding Syria it was obliged to implement a previous council resolution that called for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon.
On Thursday, President Bush said he will work with his European allies to pressure Syria to pull out from Lebanon, saying Syria “is out of step” with progress being made in the Middle East.
Assad’s move indicates the young president is consolidating his hold on the security services. Shawkat is close to Assad and recently emerged as a top presidential adviser on security matters. He is married to Assad’s sister, Bushra.
Earlier this month, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz questioned whether Assad was fully in control of Syria, four years after he assumed power after the death of his father, President Hafez Assad.
Since Bashar Assad came to power in 2000, his government has touted a range of political and economic reforms. But the young leader also has been pressured by the old guard in the ruling Baath Party, holdovers from the three decades of iron rule under his father.
Syria has dominated Lebanon with its army and intelligence forces since Syrian troops first entered the country in the second year of the civil war of 1975-1990.