DEBKAfile Special Report October 8, 2011, 6:11 PM (GMT+02:00)
Targeted assassinations now dominate Bashar Assad's savage confrontation with the popular opposition to his rule. Friday, Oct. 7, Mashaal Tammo, 53, the popular head of the opposition Kurdish Future Party and former member of parliament, was murdered by masked men who burst into his home in Qamishli, northern Syria. At his funeral attended by 50,000 mourners, clashes with security forces left five people dead.
For the first time in seven months since President Bashar Assad embarked on his bloody crackdown on dissent, the White House has called on him to "step down now before taking his country farther down this very dangerous path."
Spokesman Jay Carney's wording implied that Syria was set on the path to civil war in the wake of the murder of Mashaal Tammo, the popular head of the opposition Kurdish Future Party and former member of parliament. Friday, Oct. 7, killing him and seriouslyl injuring his son.
Even after Moscow along with Beijing vetoed UN sanctions against the Syria, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Friday that the Syrian leadership would have to go if it was incapable of conducting reforms and did not stop shooting demonstrators.
While the Syrian News Agency attributed the murder to "an armed terrorist group," debkafile's intelligence sources disclose it was the work of a death squad run by the Syrian Air Force Intelligence Directorate commanded by Jamil Hassan. The largest and most powerful of Syria's "intelligence" branches, this directorate's function is not espionage but safeguarding the Assad family at home and abroad. A SAFID officer is therefore posted in every Syrian Arab Airlines office outside the country.
On the background leading up to the assassination, debkafile reports:
Meshaal Tammo stood out as one of the most innovative and audacious leaders of the anti-Assad opposition movement. He was also one of the most principled. Although elected to the Syrian National Council, the new opposition leadership established in Istanbul last week, he refused to travel to Turkey for a role in the external campaign against the regime telling his followers that this was a Syrian revolt in which foreign elements should not be involved
Four months earlier, he declined to join the "reformist delegation" Assad invited to Damascus in July, ostensibly to discuss political reforms which turned out to be sham.
He let it be known that Syria's 2.5 million Kurds – 11 percent of the population, mostly Sunnis and the largest non-Arab minority – did not support the Assad regime but were not in active revolt against it. The Kurdish minority held occasional quiet rallies in its areas but abstained from violent rioting. This was a big help to Assad: It meant he could avoid detaching military and security forces for quelling Kurdish outbreaks and focus on the crackdown of uprisings in other parts of the country.
Yet the Tammo assassination could not have taken place without the personal say-so of Bashar Assad. So why did he condemn the Kurdish leader to be assassinated at this time?
1. Two weeks ago, armed Syrian rebels began to pick off prominent regime officials in Aleppo, Idlib, Homs and on their travels on the highways linking them. Among the victims were senior medical hospital staff and university lecturers who were suspected of informing the authorities of the presence of wounded protesters in the hospitals and fingering anti-government student protesters.
Sunday, Oct. 2, armed men murdered the son of Syria's Grand Mufti Ahmad Hassoun, a high-profile Assad supporter, and a senior university professor. They were riding in the same car when it was attacked.
The Tammo assassination was the regime's reprisal for the two deaths.
The contest between the regime and the opposition has shifted in the last two weeks from street confrontations between massed protesters and government forces backed by tanks – a contest in which Assad has more or less gained the upper hand - to a shadow war of reciprocal targeted assassinations of prominent figures on both sides.
2. Like many other personages in the Middle East, the late Kurdish leader also served intelligence agencies in clandestine, backdoor capacities. Because there are many Syrian fighters in the Turkish rebel Kurdish Workers Party, the PKK, Tammo often acted as its go-between with the Turkish intelligence agency, the MIT, in an effort to end Ankara's war on the Kurds or at least douse the flames.
By cutting this valuable channel of communications between Turkey and the PKK, Bashar Assad wrought his revenge on Ankara for the Erdogan government's policy against him. He was especially incensesd by the big mobilization exercise the Turkish army is staging on the Syrian border up until Thursday, Oct. 13.
debkafile's military sources report that by striking down a Kurdish leader, Assad may find he is playing with fire. The clashes Saturday at his funeral attended by a vast crowd of angry Kurds demanding the Syrian ruler's overthrow may spark internecine violence in Syria and across the Kurdish populations stretching across Iraq, Iran and Turkey in support of their Syrian brothers.