France said Syrian general killed in regime feud: WikiLeaks
A senior Syrian general who was assassinated in 2008 was most likely the victim of a power struggle between figures linked to Bashar al-Assad's regime, France told US envoys at time.
According to a US diplomatic cable published online by the whistle-blower site WikiLeaks, a senior adviser to President Nicolas Sarkozy and an expert from the foreign ministry branded the killing a "mafia-like hit".
Brigadier General Mohammed Sleiman was slain in the Syrian coastal city of Tartus in August 2008. At the time it was widely rumoured that he was gunned down by an Israeli sniper hidden on board a yacht moored offshore.
But, according to the US cable, French intelligence believed that he may have been killed because he "knew too much" about the Assad regime's nuclear programme and ties to the Lebanese militia Hezbollah.
Alternatively, he could have been a victim of a struggle for influence and access to corrupt wealth between rival members of the business elite linked to Assad's ruling clan, Sarkozy's adviser Boris Boillon told US officials.
"When asked how he interpreted the killing, Boillon said several theories presented themselves, the only common denominator of which was internecine rivalry in the entourage close to Bashar al-Assad," the cable said.
"He flatly rejected the notion that the Israelis had taken out Sleiman, particularly the theory that a sniper had shot him," it continued
"French information was that the hit was more 'classic' and 'mafia-like' with police stopping traffic in the immediate vicinity, bodyguards looking the other way, and the assailant pumping a slug into Sleiman's head."
The official floated a theory the killing could have been ordered by Assad's powerful brother, Maher al-Assad, a military commander and regime insider -- sometimes referred to as the second most powerful man in Syria.
"Boillon described Maher as ambitious, a bit of a wild man, and determined to increase his power and influence within the inner circle," the cable said.
The envoys said "Boillon's rundown of the various theories sounded like he had recently read a finished French intelligence assessment of the situation."
Ludovic Pouille, a senior Middle East expert at the French foreign ministry, was "less forthcoming" about his theories in a separate 2008 meeting with US officials, but he agreed the killing looked like an inside job.
"He was equally categorical in disputing the theory that the Israelis were responsible," the cable recounted.
According to Pouille, the French ambassador in Damascus believed Sleiman might have died because he knew too much about the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and about Syria's nuclear programme.
According to the cable, French officials said Sarkozy planned to "cultivate his personal relationship with Bashar" hoping to convince him to make peace with Israel, stop destabilising in Lebanon and review his ties with Iran.
These ties have since broken down following the Assad regime's brutal crackdown on Syria's ongoing pro-democracy protests, and Sarkozy has joined other world leaders in demanding that the strongman step down.
© 2011 AFP