Syrian Leader’s Brother Seen as Enforcer of Crackdown

As reports mount of defections in the Syrian military and the government staggers from the killing of soldiers and police officers in a northern city this week, President Bashar al-Assad may turn increasingly to his brother, Maher, whose elite units in a demoralized army could prove decisive to his government’s survival, activists and analysts say.

Maher al-Assad heads the Syrian Army’s elite Fourth Division and Republican Guard, while wielding great influence in Syria’s powerful intelligence services, analysts say. In the nearly three-month uprising, he has emerged as a lightning rod of dissent over his perceived role in the ferocious crackdown that has led to the deaths of 1,300 people, by activists’ count, and the arrests of more than 10,000.

To many, Maher al-Assad’s power has underscored the narrow circle his brother presides over — a circle that relies on connections of clan, family and friendship, and that has proved far less tested by crisis than the ruling elite their father cultivated over three decades.

The president’s brother is so much at the center of that clique that many Syrians fervently believe he is the unidentified man who is shown taking potshots at demonstrators in a sensational video now in wide circulation.

Though neither the video nor the gunman’s identity could be independently verified, the fact that so many Syrians believe it to be he is a telling insight into the power and fear he has cultivated.

According to Bassam Bitar, a former Syrian diplomat who now lives in exile in Virginia, Maher al-Assad’s control of Syria’s security apparatus makes him “first in command, not second in command.”

Since childhood, Bashar al-Assad has had a reputation in his family as the weaker, more hesitant personality, Mr. Bitar said.

“Sometimes I think Bashar means it about reform,” Mr. Bitar said. “But his brother won’t take it.”

In many ways, Mr. Bitar said, the relationship between President Assad and his younger brother mirrors the relationship of their father, Hafez al-Assad, with his younger brother Rifaat, who served as the government enforcer and was the architect of the 1982 Hama massacre, in which at least 10,000 people were killed.

“If you look back at the uprising from ’79 to ’82, Rifaat was the nasty guy, the killer,” Mr. Bitar said. “And now history repeats itself, and Maher is a nasty guy.”

The bloody events this week seemed to have marked a decisive moment in an uprising that has posed the gravest challenge to the family’s 41-year rule.

On Monday, the government claimed that 120 soldiers and police officers had been killed in a town called Jisr al-Shoughour by armed gangs — a common euphemism for protesters. Some residents and opposition activists claimed some of the soldiers had been killed by their colleagues for defecting, though it was impossible to verify either account.

If the residents’ accounts are true, it would mark an extraordinary fissure in a government that has so far maintained the relative unity of the armed forces and the state in the face of the uprising. Though lower-level defections have been reported for weeks, nothing has approached the level of Monday’s bloodshed in Jisr al-Shoughour.

“Now there are clashes between the soldiers on one side and security men and young people on the other,” said Omar, 28, a resident there reached by phone on Monday night. “Tens of soldiers began to stand with civilian protesters and families. The civilians are presenting first aid to some soldiers who get shot by the secret police.”

Saeb Jamil, an organizer from Jisr al-Shoughour, said local people were providing logistical support to defecting army officers, helping them monitor the area, and accompanying them during their patrols. He said doctors and nurses had deserted the hospital on Tuesday, fearing reprisals from government forces. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, had fled the town, he said, many making their way toward the Turkish border.

“I transferred one member of the security forces to the national hospital in Jisr al-Shoughour yesterday after he was wounded during the confrontations,” Mr. Jamil said by phone. “He told us the intelligence officer ordered the forces to open fire at people but two of them refused, and he shot them. Then the defections started.”

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