PHOTO: Maher and Bashar al-Assad
Well-placed sources in and near Syria have confirmed the effective demotion of President Assad’s brother Maher, moving him from command of an elite military brigade.
Some pro-regime outlets noted the sidelining of Maher al-Assad last week, as he was “transferred from the command of 4th Armored Division’s 42nd Brigade to the General Staff” of the Syrian Army. Others tried to portray the move as a promotion, giving Assad the rank of Major General.
Local sources have explained the apparent contradiction. They say the transfer to the General Staff is a way to sideline Assad without causing him further humiliation.
The sources noted that similar steps have been used to curb other military or political officials, either temporarily or permanently. One cited the case of President Assad’s uncle Rifaat, who was pushed aside by Assad’s father Hafez in the 1980s.
A source in Damascus explained:
Syrian people understand the meaning of “promotion” in a Baathist state. It brings into their minds an endless series of “promotion” that started in 1963 with the deportation of officials by naming them as ambassadors.
The source mentions the temporary ostracism of Buthaina Shaaban, now President’s media advisor, after she angered Bashar in 2002 — she was moved from the foreign media department in the Foreign Ministry through her designation as “Minister of Expatriates”, after which she rarely appeared in press or on television. Another example is the “promotion” of Ghazi Kanaan from the head of Syria’s security apparatus in Lebanon to Interior Minister, which soon led to his suicide.
Another source emphasizes the importance of the 4th Division, which was founded as part of “defense brigades” by Rifaat al-Assad before his expulsion from the regime. With 20,000 officers and troops — most of whom are Alawites, the group to which the Assads belong — its main tasks are to secure the capital and to perform other special missions, notably the Hama mass killing in 1982 to suppress an uprising.
The source notes the curious timing of Maher’s supposed rise to Major General. Announcements of military promotions, he says, are made at the end of the year and not in March.
He summarizes, “Moving from a fighting position into the ‘information department’ in the General Staff, which has always been a home for the elderly, can only be interpreted as a promotion in a Baathist dictionary.”
But why has Maher al-Assad been pushed aside now?
A Brother’s Attempted Coup?
President Assad and his younger brother have a history of disagreement, dating back to the President’s assumption of power in 2000. They quarreled over Syrian policy in Lebanon, including the UN resolution calling for an end to Damascus’s military presence in the country after almost 30 years. Disputes have been renewed by the handling of the Syrian uprising from 2011, with Maher blaming his brother for tardiness and reluctance in a crackdown on protesters.
Up to now, however, the clashes have not prevented Maher’s ascendancy in military command. That indicates a division which is far more than disagreement over tactics, according to the sources.
Al-Arabiya claimed last week that the cause was an attempt by Maher to take power from his brother. The Saudi outlet said that the commander approached Iran for support, but Tehran — which has publicly given firm backing for Bashar al-Assad’s retention of power — refused.
The local sources are careful about Al-Arabiya’s claim, which has been repeated by Syrian military defectors such as Colonel Ahmad Rahal, and say they have no confirmation.
At the same time, they note that the scenario is plausible. They explain that it could be rooted in Maher’s gamble upon the balance of power between Iran, Russia, and the regime. One summarizes:
The Defence Ministry in Syria is controlled by Russia, while Iran controls intelligence and security. Tehran has sought more influence through that position, possibly through Maher’s involvement.
Maher may have thought that he could use this to make his case to replace Bashar. If so, he miscalculated.
Another source notes that events could have been spurred by the recent death of their mother Anisa Makhlouf. He also draws a historical parallel with the regime in-fighting of the 1980s:
Naisa Shalish, the mother of Hafez and Rifaat al-Assad, mediated between them when they were on the verge of fighting around the republican palace in central Damascus.
That role was played by Anisa Makhlouf until she died, tipping the balance between Maher and Bashar.