A suicide bomber has struck a meeting of top Syrian officials in Damascus, killing Syria’s defense minister and the brother-in-law of President Bashar-al-Assad and dealing a major blow to the Assad regime. The defense minister, General Daoud Rajha, is the most senior government official to be killed since the Syrian uprising began 17 months ago. The bombing comes as the United Nations Security Council is set to vote today on a new measure responding to the crisis in Syria. We’re joined by Patrick Seale, a leading British writer on the Middle East. [includes rush transcript]
NERMEEN SHAIKH: A suicide bomber has struck a meeting of top Syrian officials in Damascus, killing Syria’s defense minister and the brother-in-law of President Bashar al-Assad and dealing a major blow to the Assad regime. Syria’s defense minister, General Daoud Rajha, was killed along with his deputy, Assad’s brother-in-law Assef Shawkat. Syria’s interior minister and the head of the country’s national security office have also been reported critically wounded. General Rajha is the most senior government official to be killed since the Syrian uprising began 17 months ago.
Reuters said the suicide bomber worked as a bodyguard in Assad’s inner circle. Al Jazeera is reporting the Free Syrian Army and Liwa al-Islam, an Islamist rebel group, have claimed responsibility for the blast.
AMY GOODMAN: Today’s attack followed days of clashes between government forces and rebels around Damascus. The bombing comes as the United Nations Security Council is set to vote today on a new measure responding to the crisis in Syria. Talks with Russia have faltered over whether to include a reference to Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, which could ultimately pave the way for military force.
Patrick Seale joins us now, leading British writer on the Middle East, author of Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East, most recently, The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East.
Patrick Seale, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about the significance of this attack in Damascus?
PATRICK SEALE: Well, as you said, it’s obviously very significant. The top brass of the security services and the army has been eliminated. You mentioned three or four names; there may well be others, either seriously wounded or dead. Now, of course, as the United States itself discovered in Iraq, in Afghanistan, it’s very difficult to protect yourself against suicide bombers, against people prepared to sacrifice their lives. So, the result is likely, in my view, that the regime will now respond with even greater ruthlessness than before. I’m not sure that an attack of this sort will benefit the opposition. Public opinion might be outrage, might be terrified, might feel that this is not really what they wanted.
And, of course, suicide bombers of this sort bear all the hallmark of jihadis—that is to say, of these armed Islamic extremists coming in from neighboring countries, from Iraq, from Lebanon and elsewhere. And so, of course, this poses a fundamental difficulty, dilemma, for the Western powers, also for Saudi Arabia. Their weapons and intelligence and money, which they’re sending to the rebels, may well find themselves into jihadi hands. I don’t think the United States would like to find itself on the same side as al-Qaeda, for example.
So, the situation is grim. It’s a serious blow to the regime. The regime will fight back, I think, with greater brutality. And, of course, poor Kofi Annan’s peace plan is going down the drain. The Russians still support it. The Chinese still support it. They believe the only way to resolve this crisis is if the international community unites in putting pressure on both sides—not just on the regime, but on both sides—to honor a ceasefire and come to the table.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Patrick Seale, is there any sense of what might follow the collapse of the Assad regime in the event that that’s what occurs?
PATRICK SEALE: Well, first of all, I don’t think it is going to collapse. Secondly, the opposition remains profoundly divided. And this, of course, is the main problem. They’re unlikely, in my view, to achieve their goals, so long as they fail to unite behind a political program or a leader. Now, the most important element in the opposition are the Muslim Brothers. The Muslim Brothers want revenge, revenge for 30 years, they would say, of oppression by the Assads, father and son. They don’t want to negotiate, and the regime doesn’t want to negotiate with them. And this is the trouble. And, of course, the allies of the Muslim Brothers are these external Islamists, who are flowing into the country carrying out suicide bombings and other terrorist acts. So the situation is difficult. It’s hard to imagine a negotiation taking place, but that is what Kofi Annan, supported by the Russians, still thinks that it’s possible to do that.
AMY GOODMAN: Patrick Seale, can you talk about who the defense minister, Daoud Rajha, was? Also, the significance of his death and the death of Assad’s brother-in-law, his deputy?
PATRICK SEALE: Well, it’s not just two. It’s also the minister of the interior, Mohammad Shaar. So you have General Rajha, you have Assef Shawkat, you have, as I said, General Shaar, and perhaps quite a few others. There must have been others in the room, must have been their deputies, possibly, their aides. It’s something like a massacre of the top brass. Now, of course, this will give opportunities for younger men to come up. I, myself, don’t think this is a fatal, terminal blow, but it’s a very serious one. And—
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Patrick Seale, earlier this week—
PATRICK SEALE: We have to see—
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Earlier this week, British Foreign Secretary William Hague visited the Syrian-Jordan border, and he talked about some of the alleged atrocities he saw the regime committing and concluded—and this is a quote from William Hague, British foreign secretary: "It left me [in] no doubt that the U.N. Security Council must pass an urgent Chapter VII resolution." Can you talk about the significance of Chapter VII, what that would mean, in the event that it’s invoked?
PATRICK SEALE: Well, Chapter VII opens the door for a resort to force by foreign powers. Of course, the Russians are totally against this and have said so many times, as are the Chinese. They believe in the independence of sovereign states. Sovereign states should not be attacked from outside. And they felt betrayed by the attack on Libya. And so, they are also declaring, really, by their vetoes, that they will not accept American hegemony in that part of the world any longer. They want to play their role. They say, "We, too, have interests. We, too, have clients. We, too, have commercial deals." The Chinese are major importers of Iranian oil, for example.
And we have to remember that this assault on Syria, this crisis in Syria, is intimately linked to the assault on Iran. I mean, the United States, egged on by Israel and supported by some of its European allies, wants to bring down the Iranian and the Syrian regime. Indeed, they would like to bring down the whole so-called Damascus—Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis, which has made a dent in Israel’s regional supremacy. So the Israelis are very keen that this axis be brought down. The United States, on their own account, think this is a good idea. And so, it’s—we are facing not only an internal Syrian crisis but a major geopolitical, regional contest between the United States and its allies, on one hand, and Russia and China, Iran, perhaps Iraq, on the other.
AMY GOODMAN: You say that this could be the hallmark of a jihadi attack, but why? Even if the opposition is divided, there is an opposition that is not jihadi. Many of the Syrian people are a part of that. Why don’t you see it being an attack of the opposition in Damascus?
PATRICK SEALE: Well, because they haven’t used suicide bombings so far. Suicide bombings were really the hallmark of what we saw in Iraq and from which the United States suffered very greatly. But not in Damascus. The only suicide attacks in Damascus appear to have been, the United States has confirmed, the work of jihadis coming in from outside. In May, for example, two big bombs went off in central Damascus and killed a great many people. Now, that was thought to have been the work of jihadis. I don’t think, quite frankly, that the young men fighting in the Free Syrian Army would do a thing of this sort and sacrifice their lives. I mean, it’s one thing sacrificing your life on the battlefield; it’s another blowing yourself up in order to kill somebody else. That demands a very particular, I think, frame of mind, which—
Now, the opposition unfortunately is divided. It’s divided in many different ways, between those who say, "We must take up arms," and those who say that’s a mistake; between those who are pleading for a foreign military intervention and those who say, "No, we don’t want that; between those who are allied to the Islamists, and particularly the Muslim Brothers, and the others, the liberals, who say, "No, we don’t want that sort of regime in Syria, because Syria is a mosaic of communities." There are 10 percent Christians, 12 percent Alawis, 4 or 5 percent Druze, Ismailis and others. So these minorities feel they what protection, and the secular regime of the Ba’ath gave them protection over the last half-century.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you very much, Patrick Seale, for joining us. We do have this late breaking news from Reuters: five explosions heard in the Syrian capital close to the military base of division led by Assad’s brother. That’s the latest news we have out of Damascus right now. British writer Patrick Seale with us, author of Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East, most recently, The Struggle for Arab Independence. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.