BEIRUT - The Syrian Foreign Ministry indirectly denied Thursday persistent rumors that President Bashar Assad’s brother-in-law, a member of the secretive inner circle governing the country, was fatally poisoned by the opposition.
The oblique method of the denial - in a Facebook posting - was just the latest strange twist in a cloak-and-dagger tale that has been circulating for five days and that has been impossible to confirm. The struggle to spread, or halt, the rumor that Assad’s brother-in-law, Asef Shawkat, was killed represents the most high-profile chapter in the war of narratives between the two sides.
Jihad Makdissi, the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, posted on his Facebook page an article from the Kuwaiti newspaper Al Anbaa, which quoted him as denying the report that Shawkat, the military deputy chief of staff, and other senior figures, had been killed.
The assassination assertion was an effort at “psychological warfare in an attempt to create confusion in the country,’’ Makdissi was quoted as saying, adding that the main evidence refuting the assertion was that most of those mentioned had recently appeared on television.
“Others who didn’t appear are also in good health and at work as usual,’’ the article quoted Makdissi as saying.
Shawkat, a former head of military intelligence, has not appeared on television for some time.
The inner workings of the police state were difficult to ascertain even before the current uprising started 15 months ago and have become even more opaque now. There are unconfirmed rumors every week of someone in the Assad family or inner circle being killed or wounded.
But the story about Shawkat has been more persistent and more bizarre.
Sunday, the opposition put a video on YouTube making the poisoning claim, which was run by Al-Jazeera Arabic and Al Arabiya satellite networks, both of which report virtually anything that puts the Syrian government in a bad light.
Soon afterward, General Hasan Turkmani, an assistant vice president, and Lieutenant General Mohamed al-Sha’ar, the minister of the interior - both among the reported victims of the poisoning - put out statements through the official Syrian Arab News Agency calling the assertions that they were dead baseless.
Next the two main mobile phone companies took the unusual step of transmitting both denials to their subscribers as text messages.
One quoted Sha’ar as denying that any Syrian official had been killed. Another quoted Turkmani as saying, “What was aired by Al-Jazeera is evidence of its bankruptcy, and we are doing our duty to serve the homeland.’’
But in light of the deep distrust, the use of text messages only served to convince some Syrians that there was some truth to the poisoning story.
The original assertion on the video said an opposition group called Al Sahaba - referring to the original companions of the Prophet Muhammad - had recruited a bodyguard of one of the senior officials two months ago.
The bodyguard struck Saturday night, according to the statement read on the recording. Using a tasteless, colorless, and odorless poison, he put 15 drops into a meat stew that had been ordered for dinner, instead of the mere five needed to cause death, the statement said. It said eight senior officials were hospitalized at the elite Al Shami hospital.