BEIRUT // A senior military aide to Bashar Assad, the Syrian president, and reputed liaison between Damascus and Hizbollah, was reported yesterday to have been assassinated in Tartous on Syria's Mediterranean coast. Brig Gen Mohammed Suleiman was found shot dead in a hotel room in Tartous on Friday, according to reports in the London-based daily newspaper Al Hayat and the Albawaba news website. Albawaba said the general had been killed by a sniper and was due to be buried yesterday in his home village of Draykish, 22km east of Tartous.
A Hizbollah spokesman said he had no knowledge of Suleiman and had not heard about his death. A source in Damascus confirmed that Suleiman was a senior figure in the regime and head of security at the presidential palace. The source said the officer had been recently promoted. Adding to the intrigue, Suleiman was an Alawite, the same sect as the ruling Assad family. The reported assassination comes nearly six months after the killing of Imad Mughniyeh, Hizbollah's top military commander, in a car bomb explosion in Damascus.
Albawaba reported that the Syrian authorities had made "huge efforts" to prevent the news of Suleiman's death from leaking. Al Hayat reported that the circumstances of Suleiman's death were "unclear", adding that the dead officer had been "in charge of sensitive files and [was] closely linked to the Syrian top brass". The reported killing is certain to provoke intense speculation about security in Syria, especially given Damascus's indirect peace talks with Israel and the doubts that will be cast on the durability of Syria's long-standing strategic relationship with Iran, the main backer of Hizbollah.
On Saturday, Mr Assad visited Tehran for talks with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, his Iranian counterpart. The Syrian Sana news agency said the two-day talks would focus on economic issues with Iran, which hopes to more than triple its investment in Syria from US$896 million (Dh3.3 billion) to $3bn in the coming years. No mention was made about the Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations. Iran and Hizbollah have yet to officially make any comment.
Hizbollah officials privately said they have no concerns over Syria's talks with Israel, noting that the two countries engaged in peace negotiations in the 1990s without result. They said that even if the talks are not disrupted, no breakthrough is expected any time soon. Israel is in for a period of political turmoil as top ministers scramble to replace Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, who announced his resignation last week, effective in September. That will almost certainly further slow down the already cautious pace of negotiations between Israel and Syria.
Israel almost certainly will be blamed for the reported assassination of Suleiman, although many questions will linger. Israel and Syria are going through a curious two-faced relationship at present - negotiating a potential peace deal on the one hand while continuing the covert military struggle against each other. Syria has facilitated the transfer of weapons to Hizbollah since the 2006 war, allowing the Shiite group to replenish and surpass the size of its pre-war arsenal, and it has strengthened its military alliance with Iran. For its part, Israel bombed a building in north-eastern Syria in September that it claimed was a nuclear facility, and it may have been responsible for the assassination of Mughniyeh in February.
Israel stepped up its overseas assassination operations after the appointment of Meir Dagan as head of the Mossad intelligence agency in 2002. Several militants in Lebanon, including two senior Hizbollah operatives and the son of a Damascus-based Palestinian militant leader, as well as a Hamas official in Damascus, were killed under Mr Dagan's watch. But if Israel is responsible for Suleiman's death it would be the first time that a senior Syrian figure was targeted for assassination.
Some reports claim that Hizbollah's relationship with Syria has grown strained since Mughniyeh's assassination. Shortly after the killing, Iran said it would dispatch a team to Damascus to assist with the investigation, but Syria rejected the offer. Syria said it would launch its own investigation into Mughniyeh's death, although nothing has been heard since. @Email:email@example.com