This purported development in Syria has set off a wave of speculation in the national security community: “Websites affiliated with Syrian opposition groups reported on Tuesday that General Ali Habib was found dead in his home a day after he was dismissed as defense minister. On Monday, Syrian President Bashar Assad appointed army chief Dawood Rajha to replace Habib.” Other reports have suggested that “Habib was replaced due to his objection to allow military forces into Hama, which has suffered brutal army attacks in the past week.”
Syria expert Tony Badran of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies is cautious. He e-mails me, “Well, first we don’t yet know for sure if he’s actually dead. There are some news outlets and some opposition people who are saying that he is, but it’s not been confirmed. For instance, The Guardian’s Ian Black tweets: ‘ali habib, sacked syrian defence minister is more than alive according to Damascus source who saw him this morning.’ ” Badran explains, “The official narrative is that he was ill and that his condition had deteriorated. However, there were lots of rumors about Habib, including that he could’ve been someone in the military establishment that could be reached out to, possibly by the Turks.” Badran relates two very different takes on what might have happened:
A western diplomatic source quoted in Asharq Al-Awsat today said that according to their information, Habib was “staunchly opposed to the military campaign in Hama, and that his objection postponed several times having the army undertake that step.” The source added that a possible reason for his removal was “difference over the management of the crisis and over exhausting the army by deploying it in cities and against the people.”
An interesting item, however, appeared in the pro-Assad Lebanese daily, Al-Akhbar, which was carried and highlighted on a Syrian regime website, Cham Press, offered the following “analysis.” It said the replacement of Ali Habib was a “message” in the face of international and Arab pressure. It was a message regarding the cohesion of the military establishment and Assad’s trust in it, and it signals the failure of the project pushing for the regime’s collapse from the inside. Al-Akhbar’s item made sure to highlight Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Other analysts were cautious as well. I asked Mike Singh of the Washington Institute what to make of this. He explained, “If the reports are true, Habib’s suspicious death would be a strong indication of fractures within the heart of the regime, and could be a harbinger of more fissures and defections to come.” While we should not get our hopes up too high for Bashar al-Assad’s departure (since “the Assad family has succeeded in the past in purging high-ranking officials — Ghazi Kenaan and Abdel-Halim Khaddam, for example — while circling the wagons and maintaining their grip on power,” Singh says), this may offer an opening. Adds Singh: “Things could be different this time, given the backdrop of domestic revolt, but the U.S. shouldn’t pin its hopes on the regime simply falling apart — we will need to act to hasten this outcome.”
The lack of definitive information sheds doubt on the value of having Ambassador Robert Ford remain in Syria. Even those pro-democracy sources in Syria don’t know what is going on.
Elliott Abrams, writing on his blog, observes this may be a sign of Assad’s deteriorating position, “That Assad felt the need not only to sideline him but — if the reports are accurate — to have him killed shows a regime truly falling apart. The decision to kill Habib would have been meant as a warning to other generals to stick with the Assads or face a similar fate, but may have the opposite effect: it might persuade some of them that Assad is leading them, the Army, and the country to disaster.” Abrams optimistically suggests: “This is the kind of thing that leads to defections and coups, and if the Army cracks the regime won’t last long.”
The problem, as it has been since February, is that the Obama administration lacks a coherent strategy to help effectuate Assad’s speedy departure. Whether Habib was killed or merely removed, there seems to be opportunities to pry the military away from Assad. However, by raising international consensus to a inviolate principle rather than one of many means to a desired end, the Obama administration remains paralyzed.
UPDATE (2:55 p.m.): Conflicting reports continue to come in about Habib. The only thing that is clear at this point is the importance to both the regime and the protesters of potential cracks in the military’s solidarity with Assad.
UPDATE (3:49 p.m.): This report says that Habib is alive. “Events took a bizarre turn Tuesday when General Ali Habib, Syria’s defense minister until his replacement Monday, went on state television to refute reports he had died. Habib blamed ‘foreign news organizations’ for spreading misinformation to defame Syria’s ‘courageous’ Defense Ministry. Syrian opposition websites reported Tuesday that Habib - whose departure Damascus attributed to ill health - had been found dead in his home.” We don’t, of course, know whether Habib made his statement under duress.