Al Assad’s ‘merciless’ brother Maher key to regime survival

Maher Al Assad's role underlines the family core of the Assad regime, though he is a stark contrast to his brothers.

The Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, right, his brother Maher, centre, and their brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, left, at the funeral of the former Syrian president, Hafez Al Assad, in Damascus. AP Photo
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BEIRUT // He is rarely photographed or even quoted in Syria’s media. Wrapped in that blanket of secrecy, Bashar Al Assad’s younger brother has been vital to the family’s survival in power.

Maher Al Assad commands the elite troops that protect the Syrian capital from rebels on its outskirts and is widely believed to have helped orchestrate the regime’s fierce campaign to put down the uprising, now well into its third year. He has also gained a reputation for brutality among opposition activists.

His role underlines the family core of the Assad regime, although he is a stark contrast to his brothers. His eldest brother, Basil, was the family prince, publicly groomed by their father, Hafez, to succeed him as president — until Basil died in a 1994 car crash.

That vaulted Bashar, an eye doctor in London with no military or political experience at the time, into the role of heir, rising to the presidency after his father’s death in 2000. The two brothers – the martyr and the president – often appear together in posters.

But Maher, 45, has resolutely stayed out of the limelight. Friends, military colleagues and even his enemies describe him as a strict military man to the core.

The 15,000 soldiers in the 4th Armoured Division that he leads are largely members of the Assad family’s minority Alawite sect – who see the civil war as a battle for their very survival – and represent the best paid, armed and trained units of the Syrian military. In the past year, his troops have launched repeated offensives against rebels firmly entrenched on Damascus’s outskirts, bombarding and raiding the impoverished suburbs they hold.

Maher is also believed to have led a bloody crackdown on dissent since the uprising began in March 2011 with largely peaceful protests against Bashar’s rule. In April a Syrian rights group, Violations Documentation Centre, reported interviews with several former detainees who described being crammed in crowded cells and being beaten by guards in secret prisons on the 4th Division’s bases around Damascus, where hundreds of suspected regime opponents have been held.

“He is known to be a merciless butcher,” said Mohammed Al Tayeb, an opposition activist in the rebel-held suburb of Douma. The suburb is among the areas pounded by the 4th Division’s assaults.

Within Bashar’s circle of trust, Maher has most vocally advocated an uncompromising response throughout the uprising.

“From the beginning, Maher was convinced that the uprising must be put down before any talks take place,” said Fawaz Georges, the director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics. “The life of the regime depends on Maher’s ability to prevent the rebels from infiltrating Damascus and toppling his brother’s government. If Damascus falls, the regime goes.”

He also played a role in reshaping the Syrian military as the conflict dragged on. Once plagued by defections as rebels gained territory, the military has regained the upper hand this year with a series of powerful offensives, battling rebels to a standstill in cities and taking back some towns.

“The Syrian military has changed from a rusty institution filled with passive and tired conscripts into an urban-warfare fighting machine, filled with skilled and battle-hardened fighters,” said Mr Georges.

Maher’s importance has only grown. His brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, who was the deputy defence minister and a top figure in the intelligence apparatus, was killed along with the defence minister in a June 2012 bombing. Shawkat’s wife, the Assads’ older sister, Bushra, herself a major adviser to the Syrian president, is believed to have since left the country. Several of Bashar’s cousins hold significant security posts, but Maher is by far the most prominent relative.

After the August 21 chemical attack near Damascus that killed hundreds, opposition activists charged that the rockets carrying the chemical agents were fired by the 4th Division’s 155th Brigade, which commands large missile sites on the mountains overlooking the capital. However, the opposition could not produce proof.

The United States blames the military for the attack but has not specified which units – although Maher’s are the ones that operate in the capital. The Syrian government has denied its troops carried out the attack, accusing foreign militants among the rebels.

Maher’s relationship with his 48-year-old brother in some ways mirrors that of his father’s to his own younger brother, Rifaat, who commanded an elite military unit and was seen as the regime enforcer in the first decade after the Assads came to power in a 1970 coup. But Rifaat fell out with Hafez after he made his own bid for power in the mid-1980s, and he has lived in exile in Europe since.

Maher, a brigadier general, has shown no similar thirst for the presidency, and there has been no public sign of friction with his brother.

Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese army general who has studied the Syrian army and is in touch with officers from the 4th Division, said Maher was known as a “brave, and in some respects aggressive, man who has a lot of military experience”. He is respected by his troops but also feared for his strictness.

Like his brother, Maher is married to a member of Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority. He lives with his wife, Manal Jadaan, and their three children – two girls and an 18-month-old boy – in a villa near the presidential palace in Damascus. He is a passionate equestrian and owns a ranch and horses in the Yaafour area, near Damascus, according to two family friends.

Qassem Saadeddine, a former Syrian army colonel and spokesman for the rebels’ supreme military council, said Maher ensured loyalty among those close to him with largesse. “He gives them money, cars, houses and all means of entertainment.

“He controls the country and its resources, that’s what he does.”

* Associated Press