Maher al-Assad: who is the Syrian regime's 'butcher'?
Reviled as a sadist, President Assad's younger brother is thought to be behind the gas attack
MAHER AL-ASSAD, the hot-tempered younger brother of Syria's president Bashar al-Assad, is widely believed to be the instigator of the 21 August gas attack in the Damascus suburbs that has pushed the US to the brink of military intervention. Feared for his brutality, the 45-year-old military strongman is a shadowy figure, discussed in whispers. But who is Syria's second most powerful man and how has he helped shape the crisis in his homeland?
He was once tipped to be Syria's leader. When Maher's older brother, Bassel al-Assad, was killed in a car crash in 1994, there was speculation that Maher had become Syria's heir apparent. Bashar al-Assad, who trained as an ophthalmologist and "lacked political ambition", seemed an unlikely candidate to succeed his father, Hafez al-Assad, as Syria's leader says the Council on Foreign Relations. But Maher's "reputation as a hot-tempered person" saw him passed over in favour of Bashar.
He's a military strongman, popular with his commanders. After graduating from university, Maher joined Syria's armed forces. In 1994, he took command of a brigade of the Republican Guard and was promoted quickly from major to lieutenant colonel. He's now the head of both the Republican Guard and the army's elite Fourth Armoured Division.
He is the most feared man in Syria. Maher is Syria's "muscle behind the throne", says Reuters, and his aggression is not limited to outsiders. His brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, who was killed in a bomb attack on the National Security headquarters in Damascus on 18 July, once had to be flown to France for life-saving surgery after Maher shot him in a dispute. Maher's reputation for brutality is based primarily on his suppression of a riot at the Sednaya prison north of Damascus in 2008. About 170 unarmed prisoners were slaughtered by the Syrian army. When video footage emerged allegedly showing Maher filming dismembered corpses with his camera phone, his reputation as a bloodthirsty tyrant was sealed. A Syrian activist told the Daily Telegraph: "Maher is a man with a proven record of butchery for butchery's sake. He takes a sadistic delight in inflicting human misery."
He's a shady businessman. While Maher is known primarily as a military commander he has extensive business interests in Lebanon. The legitimacy of his affairs "came under scrutiny" in 2003 when a money laundering investigation was launched over the collapse of a Lebanese bank. The investigation "implicated a number of Syrian officials and Assad family associates", says Reuters. It was claimed that the former Lebanese PM, Rafic Hariri, wanted the investigation to focus on Maher's affairs, but Hariri was assassinated shortly before those orders could be carried out.
He's hard to kill. Syria's rebels were convinced they had killed Maher in the 18 July bombing in Damascus. It was subsequently claimed that Maher has been badly injured and flown to Russia for treatment. A source told Reuters that he had lost his left leg and the use of an arm. But another report says Maher wasn't in the building when the bomb was detonated. What is certain is that Maher has been seen in Damascus since the attack. "He does not go out often as he does not have a very social life," a source said. "He has been directing operations by phone." ·