The bombing, which for the first time in a 16-month anti-regime uprising managed to strike at Assad's inner core, adds urgency to a UN Security Council debate on Syrian sanctions later today, when a showdown between Western powers and Russia and China is expected.
Officials said the bomber struck as ministers and security officials were meeting at the heavily guarded National Security headquarters in Damascus. Interior minister Mohammed al-Shaar and General Hisham Ikhtiyar, head of National Security, were among those listed as wounded in the bombing, which came on the fourth day of an offensive launched by rebels to capture Damascus.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights called Shawkat's death "a severe blow to the Syrian regime since he played the main role in operations by regular forces to crush the revolution."
Syria's army said after the bombing it would "continue fighting terrorism." "The terrorist act increases the armed forces' determination to clean the country of terrorist groups," it said in a statement. Rajha, a Christian, was defence minister, deputy army chief and deputy head of the Council of Ministers.
Assad himself is overall commander of the military. Shawkat was deputy defence minister and a former military intelligence chief. The National Security branch -- a linchpin of Syria's security apparatus -- is headed by General Hisham Ikhtiyar, who was also wounded in today's blast.
The brazen attack on regime insiders came as battles raged across Damascus and after the Free Syrian Army (FSA) -- comprising defected soldiers and civilians who have taken up arms against Assad's forces -- warned the government to "expect surprises."