- The Washington Times - Friday, September 15, 2006

NICOSIA, Cyprus — An aborted bid to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Damascus this week, which resulted in the deaths of the four attackers, has brought to the fore the growing role of Syria’s shadowy intelligence service, one of the regime’s pillars.

Three attackers and a Syrian security officer were killed in the shootout Tuesday and 11 persons, some of them bystanders, were injured. One militant who was captured later died in a hospital.

Reliable sources say the successful defense of the embassy was masterminded by Assef Shawkat, chief of the Syrian intelligence service, a brother-in-law of President Bashar Assad and a member of the inner circle of the Alawite elite ruling the predominantly Sunni country.

The importance of the men advising or working closely with Mr. Assad has grown significantly in recent months, prompting some diplomats to describe Syria as “a dictatorship without a dictator.”

Unlike his father, Hafez Assad, whom he replaced six years ago, Bashar Assad makes decisions in consultation with his brother Maher and Mr. Shawkat. The three men drafted the official statement on the embassy attack in keeping with the regime’s hard line blaming Washington for “fueling extremism, terrorism and anti-U.S. sentiment.”

Nonetheless, some diplomats feel the door to a dialogue with the West that would moderate Syria’s policies is not closed.

Washington regards Syria as a “state sponsor of terrorism” for its support of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Palestinian groups such as Hamas. Syria hosts exiled leaders of the groups but describes them as nationalists fighting Israeli occupation rather than bent on spreading a militant interpretation of Islam.

Following the aborted attack, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice thanked Damascus for its timely action.

According to Western assessments in the area, Syria’s present policies are based on the assumption that the United States alone cannot solve the Middle Eastern problem and that cooperation with Syria is essential.

Syria has frequently signaled Arab capitals that it intends to become the leading power in the Arab world, along the lines of Egypt during the presidency of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Thus, the Syrians argue, no solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict can be envisaged without its participation.

At the age of 42, Mr. Assad has adopted a different style of governance to that of his secretive father, who alone made all decisions, frequently in the late evening hours.

The younger Mr. Assad consults a lot, rarely decides by himself and trusts his advisers.

“Bashar is forced to compromise permanently, particularly with Maher and Assef Shawkat,” said a French source familiar with the Damascus power structure. Some Western officials blame Mr. Shawkat for fomenting unrest in Lebanon as well as in Iraq.

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