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From Muhammad Umran to Luna Al-Shibl: One Thread

Wael Sawah describes the Syrian regime's lamentable legacy of eliminating adversaries through calculated assassination.
From Muhammad Umran to Luna Al-Shibl: One Thread

One incontrovertible truth surrounds the tragic traffic accident that claimed the life of the Syrian Presidential Palace’s esteemed political and media advisor: it undeniably occurred on the highway between Yaafour and Damascus. Al-Shibl was rushed to Al-Shami Hospital, proximal to the Presidential Palace, and her condition remained precarious until her passing was sorrowfully announced on Friday. Beyond this, all else is shrouded in uncertainty, despite the convictions that reside in our hearts, minds, and memories.

In the immediate aftermath of the news, speculation swirled like a maelstrom: the incident was allegedly orchestrated, a deliberate attempt to silence the “Iron Lady” of Syria, who had stood unwaveringly by Bashar al-Assad’s side through tempests and tumult, often to the dismay of her own people and those from her native Sweida. Inevitably, accusatory fingers pointed toward the regime or certain factions within. But why does suspicion instinctively gravitate toward this conclusion?

The answer lies in the Syrian regime’s lamentable legacy of eliminating adversaries through calculated assassination. While some autocrats, like Saddam Hussein, would resort to brutal and brazen violence, the Assad dynasty has perpetuated a more insidious tradition, shrouded in secrecy and deception.

Tripoli, Lebanon

In the early days of March 1972, a mysterious woman knocked on the door of a Syrian family in Tripoli, northern Lebanon, seeking assistance. The family’s patriarch, Muhammad Umran, opened the door and provided her with financial aid. The woman vanished for two or three days, only to return with two men in tow. As soon as Umran appeared at his door, the pair shot him five times in the chest and abdomen before fleeing in a waiting vehicle.

Umran was a key architect of the March 8, 1963, coup. Later, his comrades Salah Jadid and Hafez al-Assad turned against him, imprisoning him in Mezzeh prison until the Syrian army’s defeat in the June 1967 war. Upon his release, Umran settled in Tripoli, where he began a new life as a livestock farmer. However, his influence within the military faction and the Alawite community remained a threat to Hafez al-Assad’s newly consolidated power.

Assad recognized the significant influence Umran held over a group of active junior officers, including Ali Duba, Ali Haidar, and Ali Aslan. Thus, he felt compelled to eliminate Umran, orphaning these officers and securing his position.

While the circumstances of Umran’s assassination point to Hafez al-Assad’s involvement, no one can definitively prove it in a court of law.


On a sweltering morning in July 1980, a 68-year-old Salah al-Din al-Bitar entered a building on Avenue Hoche in the 8th arrondissement of Paris. As he stepped out of the elevator and approached the offices of the “Arab Revival Movement,” a gunman emerged from the shadows and shot him dead. The assassin vanished without a trace.

Al-Bitar, a co-founder of the Ba’ath Party and former Prime Minister of Syria, had fled to Paris after falling out with Assad. In 1978, Assad granted him a pardon, and al-Bitar returned to Damascus, where he met with the Syrian leader. During their encounter, al-Bitar implored Assad to adopt democracy, warning that Syria was “dead, torn apart by dictatorship.” Assad’s response was curt: “Democracy already exists!”

Al-Bitar’s subsequent founding of the “Arab Revival Movement” and his outspoken criticism of Assad’s regime made him a threat that needed to be silenced.

While the circumstances of al-Bitar’s assassination point to Hafez al-Assad’s involvement, no one can definitively prove it in a court of law.


In March 1981, Banan al-Tantawi was residing in her apartment, home to both her and her husband, the prominent Islamic leader Issam al-Attar. With her husband away on business, Banan was alone when her father, Sheikh Ali al-Tantawi, phoned to warn her of a grave threat. He cautioned that Hafez al-Assad’s regime had dispatched assassins to target both her and her husband. Banan reassured her father that she would exercise extreme caution, vowing not to open the door to anyone she did not know and trust implicitly.

Tragically, fate had other plans. Just an hour later, a neighbour knocked on her door, and Banan, recognizing the familiar voice and feeling a sense of security, opened it. However, her trust was cruelly betrayed. The neighbour had been coerced at gunpoint by three assassins, who forced their way into the apartment as soon as the door opened. Banan was shot multiple times, and in a gruesome display of brutality, one of the assassins even stepped on her lifeless body, as if to confirm her demise.

While the circumstances of Banan al-Tantawi’s assassination point to Hafez al-Assad’s involvement, no one can definitively prove it in a court of law, despite the conviction of many that the Syrian regime was responsible.


In May 2000, mere weeks before his demise, Hafez al-Assad summoned five individuals to his residence: Abdel Halim Khaddam, Vice President; Abdullah al-Ahmar, Deputy Secretary-General of the Ba’ath Party; Suleiman Qaddah, Deputy Regional Secretary; Abdel Qader Qaddoura, Speaker of the People’s Assembly; and Mustafa Tlass, Minister of Defense. According to Khaddam’s memoirs, Assad’s countenance betrayed the signs of impending death as he began the conversation, his voice laced with a sense of betrayal: “Mahmoud al-Zoubi has deceived me. Investigate him and hold him accountable.” He then turned to Khaddam and acknowledged, “Everything you said about him and his government has proven true.”

Assad’s accusation hung in the air, shrouded in mystery, as he failed to elaborate on the nature of al-Zoubi’s betrayal. The meeting concluded with a sense of foreboding, and the attendees bid farewell to Assad, unaware of the tragic events that would soon unfold.

The next day, Qaddah convened an urgent meeting at the Ba’ath Party Regional Command, where al-Zoubi’s fate was sealed. As the members deliberated, al-Zoubi was summoned and informed of the decision to expel him from the party and refer him for investigation. The news struck him like a thunderbolt, and he repeatedly asked, “What have I done?”

Khaddam recounted that al-Zoubi’s desperation was palpable as he pleaded, “Please, Abu Jamal, inform the President that I will commit suicide if I am referred for investigation.” The ominous warning was soon followed by the withdrawal of the cars stationed outside his residence. The next day, on May 25, 2000, the Chief of Damascus Police arrived at al-Zoubi’s home, and the sound of gunfire echoed through the halls.

The official narrative portrayed al-Zoubi’s death as a suicide, a desperate act prompted by the allegations of corruption. However, the popular narrative whispered of assassination, suggesting that al-Zoubi’s death was not a simple suicide, but rather a meticulously orchestrated killing.

As the truth remains shrouded in mystery, one fact remains certain: Hafez al-Assad’s regime was notorious for its ruthless suppression of dissent, both within Syria and beyond its borders. The killing machine that he engineered claimed the lives of countless individuals, including journalists, politicians, and religious figures, who dared to challenge his authority.

The Assad Junior

Bashar al-Assad inherited a brutal regime from his father, adopting his ruthless tactics but lacking his cunning and political savvy. Like a reckless youth, he squandered in ten years what his father had built in thirty. Unskilled in crisis management, he excelled in suppressing his people, losing half his territory, and displacing half his population. What he learned best from his father was how to eliminate enemies, favouring the method of “suicide.”

Ghazi Kanaan

On the morning of October 12, 2005, General Ghazi Kanaan phoned renowned Lebanese broadcaster Warde al-Zamel to refute statements aired by Lebanese NTV about his testimony before the international investigation committee into Rafik Hariri’s assassination.

Kanaan told Warde, “I want to clarify that the NTV report is entirely false and fabricated. We have the minutes, and we can refute these lies whenever we want. This slander aims to harm us and President Hariri.” He added, “This might be the last statement I give.”

Tragically, it was his final statement. Hours later, he was found dead from a gunshot in his office.

The next day, the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth described him as “the supreme Syrian ruler of Lebanon for two decades, responsible for Syrian intelligence operations.” The official narrative claims Kanaan shot himself, but insiders believe his death was orchestrated by the Syrian regime to silence him amid international pressure and investigations. Rumors suggest he might have committed suicide out of fear of becoming a scapegoat. Kanaan’s death remains shrouded in mystery, with many unanswered questions.

Rustum Ghazaleh

On April 24, 2015, General Rustum Ghazaleh, former head of the Syrian Army’s Political Security Division, succumbed to injuries reportedly sustained three months prior. While official media and his family attributed his death to a heart attack, whispers suggest a more sinister narrative. Rumors indicate that Ghazaleh died from brutal torture inflicted by his rival, General Rafiq Shehadeh, in a dispute over oil smuggling.

The Central Crisis Management Cell

On July 18, 2012, a fateful meeting convened in the National Security building, gathering five senior officials to discuss the nation’s security and political landscape. The attendees were Defense Minister Dawoud Rajiha, his deputy Assef Shawkat, Crisis Management Cell Chief Hassan Turkmani, National Security Bureau Chief Hisham Bekhtyar, and Interior Minister Mohammad al-Shaar.

Tragedy struck, and only Minister al-Shaar survived the meeting. The other four senior officials perished in an explosion shrouded in mystery. The official account attributes the blast to an employee’s explosive device, but a high-ranking defector disputes this narrative, citing the building’s rigorous security protocols. This raises a haunting question: who orchestrated the carnage? Many point to Bashar and Maher al-Assad as the masterminds behind the elimination of key figures, including Brigadier General Mohammad Suleiman, who oversaw the chemical weapons file, and senior Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh.

Last, but Not Least

The latest presumed victim of the Assad regime’s brutality is Luna Al-Shibl, the media advisor to the presidency. The Syrian presidency announced her death on Friday, attributing it to injuries sustained in a car accident near Damascus on Tuesday. However, the circumstances surrounding her demise have sparked widespread skepticism and mockery.

The regime’s narrative is riddled with suspicious inconsistencies, fueling speculation that Al-Shibl’s death was, in fact, an assassination orchestrated by the Assad regime. Her husband, Ammar Saati, had fallen out of favor with the regime, and her brother, Brigadier General Milhem Al-Shibl, was arrested for alleged communication with “enemy entities.” Even the Syrian media’s subtle alteration of Al-Shibl’s job title from “Media Advisor to President Bashar Al-Assad” to “Media Advisor at the Presidency” raises eyebrows.

The pervasive distrust of the regime and its media stems from a long history of deception and brutality. As the late poet Mamdouh Adwan aptly said in 1980, “I work in a media that I am ashamed of because it lies… It lies about everything.” The regime’s track record of violence, corruption, and disinformation has eroded trust in the government, president, press, and even the future.

Syrians doubt the regime’s words because it is a tyrannical and murderous regime that kills its opponents and disowns them. As the Syrian proverb goes, “He kills the victim and walks in his funeral.” Why would Assad be any different from other autocrats like Putin, Khamenei, Saddam Hussein, or Kim Jong-un? In fact, why would he be better than his own father, Hafez al-Assad?


Wael Sawah is the Chief Editor of The Syrian Observer

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