"With Habib out of the way, the entire military has come under the
authority of Maher and his brother-in-law, Assaf Chawkat," another Western
On Aug. 8, Habib was replaced by Gen. Daoud Rajiha, the military's chief
of staff and a Greek Orthodox Christian. The official Syrian news agency,
Sana, asserted that Habib was replaced because of illness, Middle East Newsline reported.
"This reshuffle is part of the reassignments that have recently covered
a number of officials following direct meetings held by President Assad with
popular delegations and citizens," a Syrian government statement said.
A day later, Habib was said to have been killed at his home in what the
opposition asserted was a regime execution. At first, Syrian state
television said Habib died from natural causes, but did not elaborate.
Later, Habib appeared on state television and said reports of his death
stemmed from Western countries. The ex-defense minister expressed praise of
what he termed Syria's "courageous Defense Ministry."
The diplomats reported that Habib had been concerned by the use of the
military to quell civilian protests. The outgoing defense minister was said
to have argued that army and other military units were being demoralized and
a target for Sunni Islamist insurgents trained in Iraq.
A-Sharq Al Awsat quoted a military source as saying Habib had ordered an
army withdrawal from Hama, in which at least 300 civilians were killed in
early August. The newspaper said Habib and other senior members of the Assad
regime engaged in "differences on the management of the crisis."
The diplomats said Habib had long been regarded as one of the few
pro-Western figures in the Syrian regime. In June, Habib, however, was
cited in the second round of European Union sanctions when the military
operations to quell the revolt.