Assad said injured in blast that killed top officials at meeting he attended

Special to WorldTribune.com

NICOSIA — In an attack that could topple his regime, Syrian
President Bashar Assad has been injured and his top military advisers killed
in a suicide bombing.

Western intelligence sources said Assad attended a July 18 meeting at
the National Security Agency in Damascus when a suicide bomber blew himself
up. They said at least 10 people were killed while Assad was injured and
flown to the Alawite stronghold of Latakia for medical treatment.

Syrian officials killed in July 18 attack, from left, Defense Minister Daoud Rajiha, his deputy Assaf Shawkat and Assistance Vice President Hassan Turkmani.

“The situation has become chaotic, particularly in Damascus,” an
intelligence source said. “Many of the senior Alawites of the regime have been flown from Damascus to Latakia.”

Within minutes of the bombing, the regime shut down virtually all
communications with Damascus amid reports of widespread desertion in the military and government, including Vice President Farouk A-Sharaa. The sources said e-mail, telephone and satellite communications links were severed.

The Assad regime has acknowledged the blast. In an unusual announcement, the official Syrian news agency, Sana, said at least three people were killed — Defense Minister Daoud Rajiha and his deputy, Assaf Chawkat, and military adviser Hassan Turkmani.

“The terrorist blast took place while a meeting of ministers and senior
officials was taking place, causing injuries, some of them critical,” Sana

Sana did not mention the president’s whereabouts or whether he attended
the meeting. Syrian Information Minister Omran Zoubi blamed the attack on
Israel and the West.

“The responsibility for this terrorist crime committed by Syria’s
enemies lies with all the countries that sent money and weapons to Syria,”
Zoubi said.

Rajiha, 65, had been appointed defense minister in March 2012 amid the
Sunni revolt. He was said to have played a major role in military operations
against the rebels.

“This cowardly terrorist act will but increase the determination of the
members of the armed forces to clear the homeland of the armed terrorist
groups and preserve Syria’s dignity and the sovereignty of its independent
national decision,” the Syrian military command said.

Hours later, Assad appointed a new defense minister. He was identified
as Chief of Staff Gen. Fahd Jassam Al Freij, age 50 and commander of recent
Syrian missile and combat air exercises.

“He has not been involved in the revolt, but instead was preparing Syria
for an attack by the West, particularly from Turkey,” the source said.

Chawkat, with powerful rivals in the regime, was said to have been far
closer to the Syrian president than Rajiha. Chawkat was Assad’s
brother-in-law and regarded as one of the five top members of the regime’s
inner circle.

“The one who did it was a Sunni security man loyal to the regime until
the last minute,” the source said. “He is believed to have been pressured to
carry out this attack through rebel threats on his family.”

The sources said Assad’s remaining confidante was Maher, whose
headquarters came under rebel attack on July 18. They said Maher, commander
of the Syrian Army’s 4th Division, was leading the war against Sunni rebels
and ordered a mobilization of forces to save Damascus. Maher has not been
heard from since the blast, and sources said he could have been at the
security session and severely injured.

Another casualty was identified as former Defense Minister Hassan
Turkmani, who also headed the military. Over the last few years, Turkmani
served as a senior military adviser and was recently sent to Turkey as
Assad’s envoy.

The Syrian opposition said the bomb consisted of C-4 and TNT and was
placed inside the security headquarters. The opposition did not say how it
knew of the meeting or gained access to the maximum-security facility.

Several leading security aides were reported injured in the Damascus
blast. They included Interior Minister Mohammed Al Shaar and Gen. Hisham
Ikhtiyar, head of national security. The sources said Al Shaar was believed
to be in critical condition.

The blast capped four days of heavy fighting in Damascus in what the
opposition termed a final campaign to topple Assad. Rebels have struck Assad
regime facilities throughout the Syrian capital and downed a Syrian military
helicopter identified as the Russian-origin Mi-8.

Fighting in Damascus continued on July 19 including near Assad’s palace
as opposition sources reported renewed army shelling of the city. Assad has
not been heard from since the blast more than 24 hours ago. On July 19,
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said he was certain that Assad
was still in Syria.

“This is a situation that is rapidly spinning out of control,” U.S.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said.

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