BEIRUT, Lebanon -- One of the Syrian government's most prominent intelligence officers, Gen. Jamea Jamea, was killed during fighting in the eastern provincial capital of Deir al-Zour, Syrian rebels and the state news media said on Friday as government warplanes bombed the city after several days of fierce clashes.
General Jamea, killed Thursday, is the most senior security figure confirmed dead in more than a year. He was respected in Syria's powerful inner circles of intelligence and military leaders after a long career as a Syrian strongman in Lebanon and most recently for "doing a good job" against the uprising at home, according to a Syrian in contact with senior security figures.
The European Union appeared to have a similar view of his importance, if a different response. In August 2011, it placed sanctions on General Jamea, freezing his assets and denying him a visa for travel in the European Union, for his role in "repression and violence against the civilian population."
That such a notable figure was still commanding operations in Deir al-Zour suggested that despite the views of many pro- and antigovernment analysts that the Syrian government had written off any hope of regaining full control of remote, rebellious eastern Syria, President Bashar al-Assad was still committing important resources to checking rebel advances there.
The general was considered a formidable and notorious enemy not only by Syrian rebels but also by opponents of the Syrian government in Lebanon, where he served during Syria's occupation and was accused by some of playing a role in the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.
According to varying reports, the general was killed either by a sniper's bullet or in an explosion during an ambush. For rebels, his death helped them recapture some optimism after the fading of their hopes for American military intervention and the eruption of infighting with jihadist groups.
"He is a regime symbol," said Ragheb Bashir Tomeh, a member of the rebel Supreme Military Council.
Still, some rebel fighters, along with a number of anti-Assad Lebanese politicians, said they regretted that General Jamea had not been captured so he could be interrogated and tried.
Footage in the pro-government news media showed mourners following a rose-wreathed ambulance on Friday to General Jamea's funeral in his home village of Jableh, in the coastal mountains of Latakia Province, where support for President Assad is strong. Far to the east, rebel fighters and residents of Deir al-Zour Province, where entire blocks of buildings in the provincial capital have been destroyed, said the announcement had sent people into the streets cheering.
"Joy filled the streets," said Abu Amro, a spokesman for the rebel group Liwa al-Islam who uses only a nom de guerre. "Despite the misery and sorrow, people here were congratulating each other as if there is a real holiday. I haven't seen such a situation since the beginning of the uprising."
Abu Amro said the general personally supervised security operations in Deir al-Zour from early on in the uprising, which began as a protest movement in March 2011. His appointment there shortly afterward signaled that the government intended a tough response.
He stood out from previous intelligence bosses there, Abu Amro said, by imposing full control over the province's multiple security branches and "interfering in every nook and cranny."
First, he clamped down on the city to hamper the peaceful side of the movement, even tightening restrictions on the ownership of motorbikes, Abu Amro said. Later, he said, the general hunted down armed rebel groups when they were still nascent, showing more personal courage than some other senior commanders.
"He stormed every single house looking for us," Abu Amro said.
Mr. Tomeh of the military council said he also presided over the torture of captured rebels.
"Our joy is incomplete," he said. "It would have been better if we arrested him. He has a lot of information."
"We wanted to bring him to Lebanon to be killed by Lebanese hands," he added. "We wanted to give the Lebanese this privilege."
General Jamea served more than 20 years in Lebanon, during the decades when Syria dominated the country, arriving as a lieutenant and leaving in epaulettes.
He was in charge of security in Beirut when Mr. Hariri was assassinated in 2005, an event that prompted a popular protest movement that culminated in Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon, and Mr. Hariri's supporters said it was hard to believe that such an operation could have been carried out without his knowledge.
Gen. Hisham Jaber, a former commander in the Lebanese Army now at the Middle East Center for Studies and Public Relations in Beirut, defended General Jamea, saying he did not deserve his bloody reputation.
"Lebanese like to exaggerate," General Jaber said. "He was a very disciplined and humble man," he added, recalling General Jamea's stopping by his office and saying modestly, "I want you to enlighten my mind."
But Michel Mouawad, a politician and a son of Rene Mouawad, who was assassinated shortly after becoming president of Lebanon in 1989, said he suspected the general in his father's death and wished that he had been brought to trial in Lebanon.
Meanwhile, General Jamea's death added to the thousands plaguing his home region, which contributes disproportionately to the military and security forces. "People are getting sick and tired of this," said Manal, a government supporter, in a phone interview. "Can we just finish it up? I think both sides are weak now -- no winner, just losers."
Mohammad Ghannam contributed reporting.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published October 18, 2013 2:01 PM