Maj. Gen. Assef Shawkat
Deputy Chief of Syrian Military Intelligence
Assef Shawkat, the mysterious figure who has recently emerged as one of Bashar's top security chiefs, was born in the coastal city of Tartous in 1950 and grew up in modest comfort. In 1968, he moved to Damascus to pursue his higher education in the field of law. He graduated in 1972, and finding himself attracted to the arts, enrolled at the University of Damascus in history. His dissertation was on the Great Syrian Revolt of 1925 and the rural chieftains who led it. For unknown reasons, he lost interest in the subject and instead, hired an expert to write it for him. His professors found out and failed him. Having no choice, he stayed on in graduate school, rewrote his dissertation, and obtained his degree in 1976.
Returning to the real world, Shawkat found few opportunities available for an expert in history and law. For some years, he remained unemployed, living off his father's modest wealth. In the late 1970s, he found salvation in the Syrian army and volunteered for service. He found no problem in being accepted, after all, he was an Alawite and a Baathist, the two prerequisites for success. The army chiefs welcome him, and he proved to be a shrewd and dedicated man. With time, he earned the respect of all those who knew him. Most often, he was courteous and refined, yet when needed, he became ruthless in his dealings.
By the mid-1980s, Shawkat had risen to prominence among officers of his generation, yet he still had no official status in the Syrian state. An ambitious man, he waited for the opportune moment to make his move, and this came when he was introduced to Hafez Assad's daughter Bushra. The young lady (ten years his junior), noted for being a bright and intelligent girl with exceptionally good manners, was studying pharmacy at the time at Damascus University. What attracted her to Shawkat remains a mystery. After all, she was the most eligible female in Damascus, and could have any established young man she desired. Yet she chose a young officer of modest means whose only asset was his university education. How and where they met has never been revealed. What is known, however, is that Bushra's younger brother Basil was strongly opposed to their relationship. He considered Shawkat as being too old for her, and lustful for her money. Basil pointed out that although an Alawite, Shawkat was of inferior standing and should never become an in-law of the Assad family. When Shawkat insisted, Basil had him arrested. In all, the young Assad put him behind bars four times to prevent the couple from meeting. On January 21, 1994, however, Shawkat's worries came to an end. Basil was killed in a car crash en route to the Damascus Airport and the stage was clear for him to make his move.
One year later, Bushra eloped with Shawkat, married him, and they took up residence in the Mezzeh district of Damascus. She did not obtain her father's blessing nor that of the Assad family. A few days later, President Assad stationed a guard at their door, presumably for their protection. When rumors of their marriage began to spread, Assad decided to put an end to the talk and summoned them back to the Palace. He gave them his blessing and Shawkat became Assad's only son-in-law. To meet the demands of his new position, he was promoted in rank to Major-General.
During this time, while Shawkat was increasing his familiarity with the family, he began to befriend Bushra's brother Bashar, an ophthalmologist who recently returned from London to fill in his late brother's shoes. The two men became good friends and with time, Bashar began to rely heavily on Shawkat for companionship and security. Having faith in his abilities, President Assad instructed Shawkat to support Bashar and "never part his side." Shawkat complied, and by 1998, was rumored to have become the strongest man in Syria. When General Hikmat Shihabi was retired from office in January 1998, Shawkat's friend General Ali Aslan took his place as chief of staff.
In October 2000, a scandal took place that rocked the Assad family from within. During Rifaat's propaganda campaign against the regime on the Arab News Network (ANN), Shawkat criticized Rifaat for his actions. Maher, Assad's other son, was present in the room and instructed him to be quiet, claiming that this was a family feud and he had nothing to do with it. When Shawkat responded that he was part of the family, Maher insisted that he was not, and remarked how well Basil had acted in containing his influence while alive. Shawkat lost control and spoke in a tone that Maher considered unacceptable. Being an ill-tempered officer, Maher took out his revolver and shot Shawkat in the stomach. Word of the feud spread all over Damascus and eventually reached the French newspaper Liberation, which released a report claiming that Shawkat was in a Paris-based hospital being treated for his wounds.1 He eventually returned to Damascus, and under President Assad's mediation, made his peace with Maher. Assef was soon appointed deputy chief of military intelligence and is reportedly the de facto decision-maker while Gen. Hassan Khalil remains the nominal head.
On June 10, 2000, Hafez Assad suddenly passed away. Since then, Bashar has relied heavily on Shawkat to strengthen the regime. For months, rumors had circulated that Shawkat was the strong-man of Syria behind the scenes, and they were confirmed when he stood by Bashar's side at the funeral service, accepting condolences for the late President. Ultimately, however, Shawkat's power is derived from the Assad family. He has no power base of his own. Since he is not an Alawite notable, he cannot rely on the larger Alawite community to support him (indeed, there are no doubt some who resent his rapid advancement within the regime). His only chance for political survival is his alliance with the new president. As Bashar's right-hand-man, Shawkat will be at the center of future political developments in Syria.
1 Liberation, 29 November 1999.© 2000 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.