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General Fahd Jassem al-Freij, Syria's new Defense Minister, reads a statement after he was appointed by President Bashar al-Assad. The former defense minister, Dawoud Rajha, was killed by a bomb in Damascus on Tuesday.SANA/The Associated Press

Bearing the chilling hallmarks of a sophisticated al-Qaeda strike, a bomb that infiltrated the Syrian regime's inner sanctum Wednesday ripped through a war cabinet meeting, killing and maiming key members of President Bashar al-Assad's closest aides in a bloody assassination attack.

Citizens of central Damascus were stunned and fearful and the city largely deserted in the wake of the blast.

Although there were competing claims of responsibility for the attack from the broad-based rebel Free Syrian Army and an obscure jihadist group, the Lord of the Martyrs Brigade, its sophistication and precision planning evoked al-Qaeda's trademark style in Iraq and elsewhere.

It was either a suicide bomber – some claimed a ministerial bodyguard had donned an explosives-packed vest – or a bomb, perhaps in a briefcase or box, secreted into the room where Mr. al-Assad's top-level military team was gathered to plot the war. Syrian state TV initially admitted a suicide bomber had obliterated himself inside the room. But other reports said the blast was triggered by remote control – likely a cellphone – after a bomb had been planted in advance of the meeting. In either case, multiple layers of security were breached and the vulnerability of high-ranking Assad loyalists grievously exposed.

Ominously, Mr. al-Assad himself was not seen in public Wednesday, leading some to speculate he may have been wounded in the attack. One unconfirmed report had him flown to Latakia, in the Alawite heartland, for security reasons. But in a show of resolve, his newly appointed Defence Minister, General General Fahad Jassim al-Freij, denounced the attack as a "cowardly terrorist act" and vowed "to chase down the criminal terrorist gangs and cut off every hand that harms the security of the homeland."

In the most audacious anti-Assad strike to date, the attack wreaked havoc at the core of the brutal and repressive, but secular, regime. It drove a stake deep into the heart of the Assad family's iron-fisted four-decade rule. But it will also instill terror among Syria's exposed minorities – Christians and Alawites, Kurds and Druze – long protected by the dominance of Mr. al-Assad's minority Alawite sect.

All of Syria's minorities fear a successor regime led by Sunni extremists, and the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood as the country's most powerful force. For Mr. al-Assad's dwindling band of loyalists, mostly the generals and favoured businessmen from his tiny Alawite clan, the bomb blast left a grim message bloodily written on the walls of a heavily guarded war room: Nowhere in Syria remains safe for Mr. al-Assad's cronies.

In Washington, U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said the dire situation in Syria was "rapidly spinning out of control."

In Damascus, shops were shuttered and a heavy security cordon ringed the site of the the attack. Only sporadic bursts of gunfire were reported by witnesses in the centre of the Syrian capital but heavy fighting erupted for a fourth day in the suburbs.

The blast will reverberate beyond Wednesday's victims.

Defections – already senior officers are fleeing into Turkey by the dozen – will increase. Syria's well-heeled elite in the fancy Damascus homes and villas on the coast may soon be packing for Beirut and Baghdad and, if they have passports, Canada and Britain.

There is growing agreement, and concern, that al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremist groups are coming to the fore.

"There is a presence of al-Qaeda in certain regions inside Syria," Jordan's King Abdullah said Wednesday in a CNN interview.

In Iraq, where al-Qaeda perfected suicide bombing and insurgency operations during the U.S.-led occupation, top officials also believe jihadists have decamped for Syria. "We have solid information and intelligence that members of al-Qaeda terrorist networks have gone to Syria, to help, to liaise, to carry out terrorist attacks," Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said.

Israeli analysts at the Institute for National Security Studies regard the increasing role of Islamic extremist groups as a threat. "Syria has been transformed into a major battleground of the jihad world, with a number of foreign and Syrian jihadist groups surfacing to participate in the conflict. This development not only poses a serious threat to the present Syrian government or any government that may follow, but also threatens the armed opposition in Syria, headed by the Free Syrian Army," they said in a report this week.

After 17 months during which peaceful protest has spiralled into full-blown civil war and in his increasingly desperate attempt to retain power, Mr. al-Assad has resorted to pounding his own people with artillery barrages, tank fire and helicopter gunships, the regime's original "big lie" has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Since the beginning, as Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings spread from Tunisia to Egypt to Syria, Mr. al-Assad had accused ill-defined "terrorists" for any armed resistance to the regime's brutal crackdown.

While the vast majority of Syrian "rebels" – the young men in sneakers with AK-47s – aren't jihadists, Wednesday's assassination strike positions Islamic extremism at the forefront of an increasingly inevitable outcome.


Assef Shawkat

Most significant among the victims in Wednesday's bombing was Syria's deputy defence minister, General Assef Shawkat, an Alawite, married to President Bashar al-Assad's only sister, Bushra.

Considered a trusted security chief, Gen. Shawkat was named in a 2005 United Nations investigation as one of the people who might have planned the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri.

U.S. authorities described him as "a key architect of Syria's domination of Lebanon, as well as a fundamental contributor to Syria's long-standing policy to foment terrorism."

Born in 1950 to a middle-class Alawite family in Tartus, Gen. Shawkat's military career changed spectacularly when he married the only daughter of Syrian president Hafez al-Assad. Originally scorned by the family because he was a divorced father of five, Gen. Shawkat and his bride eloped after the death of Basil al-Assad, the oldest son of Hafez and the man originally designated as political heir, who had objected to the marriage.

Former vice-president Abdul Halim Khaddam described Gen. Shawkat as a "smart, cultivated, and courageous officer with great ambitions."

Indeed, while Bashar al-Assad came to embrace Gen. Shawkat as a member of the family, the President's younger brother, Maher, reportedly maintained an acrimonious relationship with the man right to the end.

The United States and European Union accused Gen. Shawkat of suppressing demonstrations during last year's initial public protests and imposed economic sanctions against him, freezing his assets.

In January, he was reported to have been involved in negotiating a truce between security forces and the rebel Free Syrian Army. The truce lasted less than a month.

Daoud Rajiha

A Greek Orthodox Christian, General Daoud Rajiha was appointed defence minister in August, 2011, a posting that owed more to his religion than to his military accomplishments or his loyalty to the President, as the regime was keen to maintain the support of the country's Christian community.

An artillery specialist, the 65-year-old was made a general only in 2005 and served as chief of staff for seven years before being given the post of defence minister.

In March, U.S. authorities imposed sanctions on Gen. Rajiha for his role in the repression of dissent in Syria. The EU added him to its list of designated officials, responsible for the crackdown on protesters.

Hassan Turkmani

General Hassan Turkmani served as defence minister from 2004 to 2009, when he was appointed deputy vice-president with the rank of minister.

The 77-year-old Sunni Muslim was appointed chief of crisis operations, a position from which he apparently conducted a reign of torture in the country.