- Bashar al-Assad - security - Syria - United Nations - unrest
Syrian security attack sparks conspiracy theories
Syrian state media’s unusually transparent coverage of Wednesday’s crippling attack has sparked suspicions about a notoriously opaque regime. Then there’s the list of victims, some of whom have been declared dead - and alive - before…
It has been called a lethal attack, with analogies extending to the realm of science fiction – the equivalent of Luke Skywalker blowing up the Death Star. But in a country where the lines between fact and fiction have been deliberately blurred for decades, Wednesday’s killings of three men at the heart of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s defence team have sparked a torrent of conspiracy theories and rumours.
The shocking news of the crippling attack broke shortly after 10am local time Wednesday, when Syrian state TV reported a suicide bombing at the National Security building in the heart of Damascus.
Minutes later, state TV revealed that the attack occurred as Cabinet ministers were meeting senior security officials.
It was the start of a steady trickle of devastating news, confirmed and speedily broadcast on the heavily censored and often much-ridiculed Syrian state media.
By the end of the day, the scale of the losses in the top echelons of Assad’s dreaded security apparatus was clear. The victims of Wednesday’s attack included Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha, Hassan Turkmani, head of Syria’s crisis management group - and most shocking of all, Deputy Defence Minister Asef Shawkat, the president’s brother-in-law and inner circle member.
But even as the international community was reeling from the impact of the news, seasoned experts and ordinary Syrians were remarking about the uncharacteristic speed and efficiency displayed by Syrian state TV. For many Syrians inside and outside the country, the state media’s new-found penchant for perfect transparency appeared perfectly suspicious.
“It’s very weird and unusual for the Syrian media to break the news so quickly, well ahead of international news agencies, and to present the truth. So, we have to be very careful with this story,” said Haytham Manaa, president of the National Committee for Democratic Change, a Syrian opposition group, in an interview with FRANCE 24.
Manaa, like many Syrians, noted that for once, state TV - known for its lurid broadcasts of “terrorist attacks” - did not broadcast any footage of Wednesday’s attacks. Instead, the National Security building in the upscale Rawda neighbourhood of Damascus was sealed off to journalists and onlookers.
In a country tightly controlled by an opaque, autocratic regime, the lack of reliable witness accounts of the blasts or of any apparent structural damage to the National Security building added fuel to the churning rumour mills.
Hours after the blast, when BBC reporter Lina Sinjab was given a government tour of “some of the sights” she tweeted that she had, “Just walked around national security building and saw no sign of explosions, no broken window, no heavy security presence”.
Along with an earlier post that, “Residents very close 2 building said they haven't heard any sound of explosion or gunfire…” Sinjab’s tweets soon went viral on the micro-blogging site.
The former bodyguard turned regime family man
But by far the deepest source of doubt has been the identity of the victims – all high-profile men, many of them reviled, many of them previously reported dead only to be resurrected again – or at least allegedly.
Asef Shawkat, the embattled Syrian leader’s brother-in-law, has long been a figure of myth and intrigue.
Shawkat was a bodyguard for former Syrian strongman Hafez al-Assad’s only and much-favoured daughter, Bushra, before they were married - despite the objections of Bushra’s brother, Basil al-Assad.
When Basil, once considered his father’s heir apparent, was killed in a 1994 car accident, rumours of Shawkat’s possible involvement in the death circulated in Damascene circles. In Syria, rumours about the ruling family are often as difficult to dispel as they are to prove and tales of Shawkat’s likely involvement were never put to rest.
The former bodyguard-turned-presidential brother-in-law was once again at the centre of a Syrian ruling family rumour when he was allegedly shot by the current president’s dreaded younger brother, Maher al-Assad, also known as “the enforcer”.
Maher, according to the Damascene rumour mill, shot his brother-in-law during an altercation. Shawkat however survived that attack and the two allegedly patched up their differences.
But many Syrians were never convinced the differences between the lowly former bodyguard and the elite ruling family were ever truly ironed out. In the aftermath of Wednesday’s attacks, there were speculations over whether Shawkat’s death was in fact masterminded by the embattled Syrian regime.
Dead by poison and then alive - allegedly
The other two victims of Wednesday’s attack – Dawoud Rajha and Hassan Turkmani – have also been reported dead and then alive by opposing factions with their own axes to grind.
In mid-May, the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) put out a video statement (in Arabic) that the two men – along with Asef Shawkat - were among six senior Assad regime figures killed in a “spectacular operation”.
According to the unconfirmed statement, the six top officials were poisoned by a domestic worker employed by the ruling Baath Party.
In a May 20 blog post, Joshua Landis, director of the University of Oklahoma’s Center
for Middle East Studies and a leading Syria expert, cast doubts over the poison report.
“It is safer to doubt these claims until they are proven true,” wrote Landis. “The opposition has no coordinated information outlet and many competing news sources, so exaggeration and disinformation seems to be the order of the day.”
Landis’ cautionary note appeared prescient when days later, official Syrian news outlets denied the reports and featured photographs of the supposedly dead men.
But in Syria, nothing is as clear as it seems – as Ignace Leverrier, a former French diplomat, revealed in his May 29 blog post (in French).
Leverrier noted that the authenticity of the “proof of life” images of the six men released by Syrian state media could not be ascertained. The seasoned French diplomat warned that he would be “more inclined to trust” the reports that the men were alive “if the media in question could be considered independent and objective. But this is far from the case, in a country where information is subservient to official policy and resembles propaganda”.
With the unravelling of Wednesday’s events, many Syrians wondered if the three men had in fact been dead for over a month.
The announcements - which came ahead of a UN Security Council vote originally scheduled for Wednesday and the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan – fuelled speculation over the timing of the news reports.
In hindsight, the blogs posted by Syria experts more than a month ago offer an eerie foretaste of what was to follow.
In his May 20 post, Landis attempted to simplify the often baffling list of names and positions of the six men allegedly killed by poisoning. The list includes Syrian Interior Minister Mohammad al-Shaar and Hisham Bekhtyar, another senior Syrian crisis management cell member.
Both men were wounded in Wednesday's attacks, according to Syrian state TV. By Friday afternoon, Hezbollah’s al Manar TV station reported that Bekhtyar had succumbed to wounds suffered during Wednesday’s attack. That’s four of the six listed men down.
In Syria, ‘there’s no such thing as the sole truth’
News of Wednesday’s attack were followed by the often inevitable contradictory reports - including myriad groups claiming a spectacular attack and confusion over whether it was a suicide bombing or an explosive device planted at the site.
These are common enough grey zones in the immediate wake of terrorist attacks. But in the shocked aftermath of Wednesday’s attack, they were seized and magnified by conspiracy theorists.
It comes as no surprise to Ziad Majid, a Middle East expert at the American University of Paris. “This regime has always used rumours and disinformation for its own advantage or to discredit its opponents or the international media. It’s a culture of disinformation to fuel conspiracy theories, to sometimes maintain fear, sometimes sow doubt, and to persuade the Syrian people that there’s no such thing as the sole truth,” said Majid.
But Majid, like many experts, believes the often bewildering series of reports should not obscure the central fact that an embattled Assad is bereft of his senior-most security officials – whether he lost them on Wednesday or weeks ago, it hardly matters.
As for Syrian state TV’s new-found transparency in publicly exposing the regime’s weaknesses, Majid speculated that it could have been a signal, a cry for help to Syria’s staunchest international supporters.
If this particular hypothesis is accepted – at least for argument’s sake - it appears to have worked. A day after Assad suffered a crushing security blow, his foreign friends came to his aid. For the third time, and despite intense international pressure, Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have imposed new sanctions against Syria.