BEIRUT - Three gunmen ambushed a military general on a residential street in Damascus yesterday, the Syrian government reported, in an assassination of a government stalwart that was the first of its kind in the Syrian capital and another step away from the nonviolent roots of the antigovernment protests.
The general, Dr. Issa al-Khouli, a middle-aged physician and brigadier general who ran the Hameish military hospital, was shot dead as he stepped from his house in the morning, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported. Acquaintances of Khouli’s reached by telephone confirmed his death, though not the details.
The doctor, trained in Romania and France, came from an Alawite family with close ties inside the Assad government that has run Syria for the past 40 years, according to one activist in Syria who was piecing together his biography.
He is believed to have been the nephew of Mohamed al-Khouli, the former head of the widely feared Air Force Intelligence Directorate, the most powerful of the multiple security agencies that cement the government’s power. The elder Khouli was a security adviser to President Hafez Assad until the president died in 2000.
The Assad clan is also from the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam that as a minority has dominated the Sunni majority since Assad first seized power in a 1970 coup.
The state-run news agency said the assassination came within “the framework of targeting the Syrian intellectuals and the medical and technical cadres.’’ Khouli lived in a residential neighborhood at the foot of Kassioun Mountain, which forms the backdrop of northern Damascus, not far from the city center. His house was reportedly less than a mile from the Hameish hospital, where he was a specialist in physical therapy and prosthetic devices, the activist said.
Assassinations of the government’s supporters and opponents have previously taken place in embattled cities like Homs and Hama, but Damascus had been relatively quiet until recent weeks, when reports of skirmishing in some neighborhoods began to surface. The state-run news agency also reported that 31 members of various security services were buried yesterday.
The killing of the doctor came as the violent government offensive against Homs continued into a second week, leaving hundreds of dead and wounded. It followed, by one day, two bombs that targeted security directorates in the northern city of Aleppo, killing 28 people and wounding about 235, according to the government count. Outside analysts and diplomats suggested that the bombings might represent a new foray by Sunni jihadists from neighboring Iraq.
Violence between supporters and opponents of the Assad government also spread into northern Lebanon, where the Lebanese army moved in to separate a Sunni Muslim and Alawite neighborhood after about a dozen people were wounded in exchanges of gunfire. Analysts have long feared that violence in Syria would reignite Lebanon.
Renewed attempts to forge a diplomatic solution to the Syrian uprising are due to intensify starting today. The Arab League is to meet in Cairo to weigh a number of steps ranging from a more aggressive humanitarian effort to recognizing the Syrian National Council in exile as an alternative government.
Tomorrow, the UN General Assembly is to focus on Syria, including consideration of a nonbinding resolution introduced by Saudi Arabia that supports an Arab League peace plan meant to push Syria toward a democratic transition.