Maher al-Assad: The brutal enforcer of the family regime

Bill Neely

Former International Editor

Maher Al-Assad (L) head of the Republican Guard responsible for the defence of Damascus with Bashar. Credit: Wikipedia/GNU Free Documentation License

It was never meant to be like this for the three Assad brothers.

Not for the shy, studious Bashar, now blamed for the worst war crime of the century, its first poison gas attack. Nor for the ambitious, tough youngster Maher or the eldest and President-in-waiting Basel.

Today, Basel is dead, Bashar is President of Syria and Maher is his enforcer.

The brothers are responsible for the most brutal and deadly crackdown on any revolution in Arab history. And two weeks ago one, or both of them, according to Britain, the US and France, were responsible for the most lethal chemical weapons attack in decades.

Not since Saddam Hussein gassed five thousand Kurds in Halabja in 1988, has the world seen anything like the appalling images of dead children and contorted faces filmed in four suburbs of Damascus; an atrocity and a war crime that the United States says killed 1,429 people, including 426 children.

More: First independent images of alleged chemical attack in Syria emerge

But if the US is right and Syria's military was responsible, who fired the poison gas and who gave the order?

The Commander in Chief of all Syria's armed forces is the President, Bashar himself. He can order what he likes. But Syria's elite forces under him are commanded by his younger brother.

Maher is head of the Republican Guard, responsible for the defence of the capital, Damascus and the Commander of the elite Fourth Armoured Division. He is known to be tough and unforgiving.

There are other, more sinister elite units that Bashar commands and Maher may influence.

Syria has hundreds of tons of chemical weapons; according to the French intelligence report this week, more than a thousand tons.

The stocks include the deadly nerve agent Sarin, VX and mustard gas. These poisons are hidden at several sites around Syria. But as they are Syria's most potent and deadly weapon, they're controlled by a special branch of the military, thought to be under the personal control of the President himself.

Maher though is the man at his side. Or at his back.

Read: John Kerry: New evidence sarin used in Syria attacks

Like any brothers, there were fights when the three Assads were growing up, but Bashar tried to keep out of them. He was the good boy, the dutiful, quiet son who kept his head in his books

Maher wasn't like that. He may be the younger brother but he's the tougher Assad. He operates in the shadows, rarely seen in public or photographed.

Maher (L) and Bahar (R) al-Assad seen at their father's funeral with brother-in-law Major General Assed Shawkat (C) in 2000. Credit: Reuters

The brothers are very different. Bashar was the eye-surgeon, who went to London and married the beautiful Asma from Acton. He was never meant to be President, until the charismatic Basel, who was groomed to take the Presidency from his father died in a car crash in 1994. Maher was judged by his father Hafez to be too erratic, hot-tempered and perhaps dim, to lead the country.

So the reluctant Bashar was dragged back to Damascus, blinking in the glare he hated, promoted through the ranks of the army and inaugurated as President at the age of 34.

It was a fast track to the top.

As Bashar became a computer nerd and promised his country reforms after the repressive, often brutal rule of his father, Maher honed his military skills with Syria's toughest men.

He gained a reputation as a hard man. For a decade now, the brothers have played good cop, bad cop at the top of Syrian life. Bashar played the charmer, Maher the brute.

Bashar though, learned not be a pussycat. From the start, he ordered killing when it suited him, in Lebanon. As soon as Syria's revolution began, it was met with bullets. Assad's father Hafez had brutally crushed a rebellion in Hama three decades ago. Within months, Bashar was to prove his father's son.

But as the rebels gained ground and Islamists joined the cause, many feared Bashar was not brutal enough. Damascus was being bombed, important people were scared. Gaddafi had been butchered and the President's men feared they would be too. Bashar, many said, looked weak.

Posters of Maher looking tough began to appear. He was in military uniform, steely and determined. Bashar's posters had him planting trees and smiling with children. There were rumours of a coup. Maher and his men would depose Bashar, it was whispered, and crush the rebels.

Whether the rumours were true or not, the fact is today Bashar is still President and Maher may be a cripple in uniform, victim of an assassination attempt.

It's believed he has already lost a leg in the civil war. He was in a Government building a year ago when a bomb planted by an insider-turned-rebel detonated, killing Syria's Defence Chief and one of the wider Assad family, Security chief Assef Shawkat, Bashar's brother-in-law.

But it may have been another assassination attempt on his brother- that so angered Maher that he fought for chemical weapons to be used a fortnight ago. At least, it's a theory Western Intelligence agencies don't rule out.

Read: Assad's brother 'injured' in Damascus attack

A month ago rebels fired rockets at Bashar's motorcade as he headed for a Mosque in the centre of Damascus. The attempt to kill the President failed but one of his bodyguards, said to have been a particular favourite of his children Hafez, Karim and Zein was killed.

Many inside and outside Syria believe this may have been the last straw for the hot-headed Maher. No assassination attempt of Bashar al-Assad could go unpunished, especially not one in the heart of the capital.

Only those who knew Damascus well could have been responsible, so rebels in Damascus would feel the full force of the Assad family fury.

More: Syrian opposition claims Assad's motorcade attacked in Damascus

Retaliation was ordered; revenge in volley of poison gas missiles. Maher made it happen.

And the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus were bombarded, killing hundreds.

That is the theory. There is no proof, of course. Because trying to prove exactly who was behind the attack is a problem. Trying to find out who is responsible for any killing in Syria is difficult.

But the fact remains, chemical weapons were used; someone gave the order and hundreds died.

One of Bashar al-Assad's men, Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister told me "there was a chemical weapons attack, but we did not do it." Assad himself has denied it, calling allegations that he would have given the order, "illogical".

"No, no, no, the army didn't do this!" the young soldier at a newspaper stand told me. He was an artillery gunner who fired at rebel-held suburbs, but not with chemical weapons, he said.

Maher commands elite Syrian forces, but there are many branches of the military and intelligence units he does not command, who may feel no loyalty to him. There are half a dozen intelligence branches alone, some more brutal than others.

The chemical weapons division of Syria's army may not answer to Maher. It may not even be under Bashar's direct control. It's possible, but unlikely, that it acted on its own orders to clear the rebel suburbs once and for all. After all, Assad's forces have been on a roll for months. They have retaken key towns and city districts.

But half a dozen suburbs of Damascus have been a thorn in the regime's side for two years, a gun pointed at its head. Clearing them has been a priority for months now, with lethal new offensives every few weeks. The Assad brothers may simply have run out of patience.

The story of their crackdown on the revolution has been a story of using more and more deadly weapons; weapons that no-one imagined they would dare use at the start.

From shooting bullets at protesters, they progressed to using tanks against cities. Next, Assad ordered Syria's military to use airpower, helicopter gunships and warplanes. I remember the shock of hearing a MiG swooping overhead for the first time last year and dropping bombs.

Read: Thousands of Syrians flee amid massacre fears

Is it inconceivable, given this escalation, that Bashar and his brother, decided to deploy chemical weapons? Small scale at first and easily covered up, testing the West's ability to discover it and its willingness to do anything about it?

After the first few killings, it's not unreasonable to think the Assad's may have decided last month to launch a bigger chemical attack, one they hoped to keep hidden, but if discovered, the biggest test of the West so far.

A successful strike would kill two birds with the one stone; clear a suburb and dare the divided West to do anything about it.And there is an Assad family tradition of ordering a massacre after an assassination attempt.This is the second generation of Assad brothers to play good cop-bad cop. The first President Assad, Hafez, had a younger brother who was head of elite military units. After rebels tried to kill Hafez in 1980, his little brother Rifaat declared all out war against the Muslim Brotherhood he blamed for the attack.

He warned the government was ready to kill a million Syrians to defend itself. The next day, attack helicopters gunned down 900 prisoners in a desert jail. Two years later, Rifaat ordered the city of Hama to be attacked, a mass slaughter in which tens of thousands died, a massacre without precedent in Syria. Until now.

Maher and Bashar are the sons of a notoriously tough mother and father.

Former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, with his wife and children: Maher, Bashar, Bassel, Majd and Bushra, in an undated photo. Credit: Reuters/Sana/files

Their mother Anisa Makhlouf was a peasant, who urged her equally rough-edged husband Hafez to rule with an iron fist. She expected her sons to be real Arab men.

While the father fought his way to the top and had connections, Bashar and Maher were handed what they have on a plate.

An insider says once Bashar took over "he was a young, inexperienced, out-of-touch crown prince who used violence more than his father because he didn't know any better and people told him to."

Maher watched. He learned from his brother's mistakes.

He commanded regiments whose only purpose is to be brutal when ordered. And for the last two years he has put his training into practice. It's thought he has commanded multiple attacks on rebels inside and outside Damascus.

For the Assad brothers this war is one of survival. So far, after two and a half years of revolt, they have survived longer than anyone thought possible.

They have succeeded in killing the Arab Spring in Syria and replacing it with a Deep Winter of mass slaughter.

"I love Bashar" the young newspaper seller told me, as he lifted a framed picture of his President and kissed it. Bashar is adored by millions of loyalists.

Mahar isn't loved by millions. He is respected. And he is feared.

But if the Islamists and rebels ever breach the bubble of security around both of them, there will be no respect and lots to fear.

This article first appeared in The Sun.