In October 2005, Assef Shawkat, Maher al-Assad and others were mentioned in a leaked draft version of the United Nations' Mehlis report as suspects in the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri. There is much speculation on how president Bashar al-Assad would deal with a request for extradition on such close relatives.
On January 18, 2006, the United States government announced that it had decided to freeze any assets belonging to Assef Shawkat in the US, and ban all United States nationals from having economic relations with him. The US Department of the Treasury commented that,
As the Director of Syrian Military Intelligence, Shawkat has been a key architect of Syria's domination of Lebanon.
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.
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 summoned the couple 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 al-Assad (now president of Syria), an ophthalmologist who recently returned from London to fill in his late brother's position as heir apparent. The two men became good friends and with time, Bashar began to rely heavily on Shawkat for companionship and security.
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 al-Assad suddenly passed away after a heart attack. Since then, Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded his father as President of Syria, has relied heavily on Shawkat to strengthen the regime. For months, rumours 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 centre of future political developments in Syria.
In 2001, Assef was named Deputy Director of Syrian Military Intelligence, one of the main branches of the Syrian intelligence apparatus. In 2005, he assumed control of the entire Military Intelligence apparatus.
(Photo: Shawqat, centre:)