Classified U.S. diplomatic cables, leaked by the whistleblower site WikiLeaks, contain accounts of Syrian speculation that Israel was behind the assassination of Bashar al-Assad's security aid Brigadier General Muhammad Sulayman by sniper in the coastal city of Tartous.
Sunday, 03 August 2008, 15:39
1. (S/NF) Syrian Presidential security aide Brigadier General Muhammad Sulayman was assassinated by a sniper late on the evening of August 1 in the coastal city of Tartous. Sulayman enjoyed a reputation among Embassy contacts as having special status and proximity to Bashar. Sulayman was said to have managed special projects for Asad, some of which may have been unknown to the broader Syrian military leadership. Our expectation is that the SARG will try to keep this incident under wraps as long as possible, but that will become more difficult as regional and international press run with the story. End summary.
Details Murky After Official News Blackout
2. (S/NF) On August 3, the Israeli daily Ha'aretz cited "senior sources in Damascus" in reporting Sulayman's assassination on its website, identifying Sulayman as Asad's "liaison" to Hizballah. Al Hayat and the news ticker Al Bawaba also reported the story. A reliable Embassy press contact said that he had heard of the attack yesterday, and said that the version of the story he had heard was that Sulayman's entire family had also been killed. According to the contact, Syrian security services quickly cordoned and searched the entire beach neighborhood where the shooting had occurred. Other Embassy sources would say little except that Syria-based reporters are under instructions not to report the story. As of late August 3, all Syrian-based press remains silent.
Pointing the SARG Finger
3. (S/NF) As in other recent assassinations in Syria, speculation about who could have done it will likely be rampant. The most obvious suspects are the Israelis. SARG security services are well aware that the coastal city of Tartous would offer easier access to Israeli operatives than would more inland locations such as Damascus. Sulayman was not a highly visible government official, and the use of a sniper suggests the assassin could visually identify Sulayman from a distance. As Tartous is also close to the northern-most part of the Syrian-Lebanese border, the SARG might blame pro-Saudi Islamist militants from Tripoli or the Nahr al-Barid camp. Some may even go so far as to suggest the (comment: unlikely) possibility that this was an inside job to prevent Sulayman from damaging the Syrian regime.
4. (S/NF) Although officially just a Brigadier General, Sulayman was considered President Asad's top security aide and was known to manage several special projects for Bashar -- some of which may have been unknown to the broader Syrian military leadership. Sulayman's proximity to Asad granted him special status in the eyes of more senior Syrian military officials.
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5. (S/NF) If the SARG were to suspect an Israeli role in the assassination, it may be reluctant to level public accusations as (1) they may not know who did it; (2) such accusations could impair or end Syria's nascent peace negotiations with Israel; and (3) publicizing the event would reveal yet another lapse in Syria's vaunted security apparatus. Syria could seek to retaliate against Israel via proxies and allies in Lebanon or elsewhere. If terrorist groups are suspected, this may prompt a domestic crackdown or counterstrikes on targets within the suspected group.
6. (S/NF) Although unlikely, elements within the SARG may suspect or allege a U.S. role. Possible responses could include staged demonstrations against U.S. interests in Syria, retaliatory diplomatic or security measures, or the threat of targeting U.S. installations via proxies. To date, Post has no indications that the SARG is seeking to blame the USG for the assassination, impose retaliatory measures, or retreat from its commitment to ensure security for our facilities and personnel. Additionally, core country team assesses that no immediate, new threats have been identified as a result of post-incident reporting.
Probable Short-term Reaction
7. (S/NF) For now, the most likely default SARG response will be to clamp down on information and say nothing while the various security services scramble to identify a culprit and avoid being blamed. However long the Syrians can hold out without saying anything, they will. SARG leaders will likely view any publicity of the assassination as a net loss for the regime.
8. (S/NF) As press in Lebanon and elsewhere in the region reports Sulayman's assassination, it will be increasingly difficult for the SARG to keep a lid on this high-profile attack. Coinciding with Bashar's trip to Tehran and on the heels of the latest round of indirect talks with Israel, the assassination will likely weaken advocates of the peace negotiations, including Bashar himself. CHASE