2011-08-13 Murder as foreign policy: assassination of Syrian General could have been an inside job

On the 1st of August 2008 Syrian General Muhammad Suleiman, who also bore the title of Special Presidential Advisor for Arms Procurement and Strategic Weapons for President Bashar al-Assad, was murdered in highly mysterious circumstances. General Suleiman was shot three times in the head, neck and stomach at his home in the exclusive Rimal al-Zahabieh resort in the Mediterranean city of Tartous. It was speculated then that the shots came from a sniper located on a boat, which explained how the top level security forces surrounding Suleiman were avoided. At this time relations between Syria and Israel were at their worst and the talk of war was in the air, particularly due to Syria’s intent on upgrading its nuclear and chemical weapons facilities, a strategy headed by Suleiman. Therefore, most of the international press, most notably The Sunday Times, stated as a fact that it was Israeli intelligence agency Mossad who was to blame.

An inside job

Recent cables published by Wikileaks, however, shed a new light on the assassination, revealing a very delicate multi-lateral diplomatic situation. The fact that this information came from the U.S. embassy in Paris is particularly revealing. In cable #08PARIS1717 Ambassador Stapleton, says that Boris Boillon, adviser at the French presidency, asserted to him that “the killing seemed to be some sort of inside job”.

He also “flatly rejected the notion that the Israelis had taken out Sleiman”, arguing that it 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.” On a significant note Ambassador Stapleton pointed out that “Boillon's rundown of the various theories sounded like he had recently read a finished French intelligence assessment of the situation.”

Mahir al-Assad, main suspect

As for possible culprits, Boillon seems to be quite sure that the order came from the chains of command high up in the regime’s hierarchy, close to Bashar al-Assad. He pointed his finger particularly at Bashar’s brother, Mahir. The cable says that Boillon “described Mahir as ambitious, a bit of a wild man, and determined to increase his power and influence within the inner circle.” On a side note, the informer also hinted that Mahir was to blame for the assassination of Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyah. This description of Mahir seems true enough because from the beginning of the Syrian uprising of 2011, he has been one of the top military leaders involved in the killings of peaceful protesters. A defecting sniper from Mahir’s troops told Al Jazeera that he was “ordered to aim for the head or heart from the beginning." He also stated that he was “not given specific numbers but told to kill as many as possible as long as there were protests."

Murder as foreign policy

As for the possible motivations, Boillon states that it probably had to do “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)”. He also stated, however, that it could have to do with “a bloody struggle over control of lucrative criminal activities.” This last theory fits in well with cable 09DAMASCUS275 which reveals that Sueliman had 80 million dollars in cash stashed in his basement: “The subsequent investigation into Sulayman's slaying reportedly uncovered USD 80 million cash in a basement room of the general's home." This also supports the inside job theory, as President Bashar, thinking himself betrayed, immediately “redirected the investigation from solving his murder to finding out how the general had acquired so much money.”

The French Government accepts the gesture

In the traditional comment at the end of the report, Ambassador Stapleton coldly reflects that this information is more useful for discerning French motives for foreign policy than for solving Suleiman’s murder. In the end he states that this move to eliminate Suleiman was made, as Boillon had told him, to help Syria straighten relationships with the Western powers and Israel. It is also his belief that this strategy “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.”

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