In 2015, Soleiman Assad – a young cousin to the Syrian president – was driving through a neighbourhood in the regime’s heartland of Latakia when a road rage incident left a top general dead.
Swerving to avoid a car that was tailgating him, he blasted the horn and hurled slurs at the other driver, according to witnesses.
Hassan Al Shaikh, a Syrian air force colonel, stopped his car on Al Shata Al Azraq road to confront Soleiman.
After a short altercation, Soleiman reportedly riddled Al Shaikh’s body with bullets and fled.
Witnesses described the incident on social media and there was uproar in the Alawite community.
“He killed him in cold blood,” read one tweet.
“This crime is an insult to all heroic Syrian army officers,” a post on Facebook read.
Acting swiftly to pre-empt protests from powerful Alawite officers and elites, the Assad regime ordered the arrest of Soleiman, a member of Syria's pro-regime paramilitary groups known as shabiha.
Although he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for murder, Soleiman’s connections to influential Alawites in the army and society appear to have afforded him some protection.
Just five years after the killing, he was seen in photos on Facebook, verified by The National, celebrating his early release with family and friends.
Syria's war - in pictures
“Today I’m happy,” Soleiman wrote in a Facebook post on December 9, with geolocation pointing to Jibal Al Kirdaha in Latakia.
Other videos showed friends celebrating his release, firing guns into the air.
His release was widely reported but the reaction on social media – although vitriolic after the killing – was muted. The only ones who appear to have expressed anger and dismay were those in exile.
"The Soleiman case represented a dilemma for the regime," Ahmad Rahal, a former Syrian navy brigadier general told The National.
“If the killed officer had been Sunni, they would have found many pretexts to exonerate Soleiman. They could have charged him with plotting terrorism, spying for Israel or defection. They would have found a good excuse,” he said.
Instead, the victim was a high-profile, decorated air force officer and also an Alawite.
However, Soleiman’s father was also a high-profile Alawite, Hilal Assad, one of the most senior leaders of the predominantly Alawite National Defence Forces militia. He was killed on the front lines in March 2014.
“The regime didn’t want to antagonise both sides of the clan. But, for sure, the public in Latakia was boiling over the shooting and wanted to vent their war frustration on anything,” said Mr Rahal, who defected in 2012 in protest at government-sanctioned atrocities against civilians.
Cracks in the alliance
The Alawites, who made up about 12 per cent of Syria’s prewar population of 22 million, have long provided the power base for the ruling Assad family. They have supported the current president through the war and backed his father Hafez Al Assad during protests against his 29-year rule.
During his presidency, Hafez Al Assad populated the upper levels of the army with Alawites while delegating Sunnis to less-important posts.
“The Assad regime strategically set a vision to rule the country for the next 100 years,” Mr Rahal said, estimating that Alawites make up 80 per cent of the army leadership and 99 per cent of the leadership of the 17 intelligence branches.
“Those people don’t defect,” he laughs.
Those Alawites that disagree with the regime or its brutality risk retribution from the shabiha militias.
“They were terrorised by Assad’s shabiha, which turned into death squads, killing in cold blood anyone defying Assad and his entourage. They have a licence to kill, steal and do whatever on a whim like this thug Soleiman, who’s notorious in the coast for shooting sprees.”
Reports on several media outlets and the social media accounts of Syrian opposition figures paint Soleiman as a war criminal who killed many Sunnis revolting against the president. The National could not independently verify the accounts.
His case, however, has shone a spotlight on the feared shabiha militias, which have become deeply entrenched in the Syrian security apparatus and aligned themselves with power brokers to preserve their social status and war profits.
Their membership also includes Sunnis, echoing a wider picture of intermarriage between Alawite and Sunni politicians and wealthy families, including the president, whose wife Asma and sister-in-law Manal Jedan, are Sunni.
In recent years, cracks have begun to show in the tight-knit alliances that underpin the Assads' hold on power.
Last year, one the country’s wealthiest Alawite tycoons, Rami Makhlouf, posted videos on Facebook criticising the iron-fisted rule of the “inhumane” regime and accusing his cousin, Mr Al Assad, of seizing his financial assets, including Syria’s biggest mobile-network provider, Syriatel. The regime portrayed it as an anti-corruption campaign.
The feud continues to grip the nation with apparent revelations coming regularly.
Mr Rahal, the military defector, dismissed the discord though as “two thieves settling old scores”.
Mr Makhlouf’s tribe, the Al Hadadin clan, is very strong in Syria.
Throughout the war, Mr Makhlouf worked to gain their support and loyalty with lavish spending.
He has a well-known charity, Al Bostan, that provides for the poor but it also operates a powerful militia.
“It is a fight over who’s controlling the Syrian economy. Makhlouf considers his money as the money of all Alawites and he sees Bashar’s wife, Asma, as one of his archenemies because she’s Sunni and power-hungry,” Mr Rahal said.