Maher al-Assad, the younger brother of Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-Assad, has been accused of carrying out the recent chemical attacks against civilians in Syria that have prompted imminent military action from the United States.
Maher was promoted to commander of the elite 4th Division of the Syrian army and the head of the Republican Guard following the death of his oldest brother, Bassel al-Assad, in 1994 and the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, in 2000. Although he had no prior military ambition or experience, Maher has controlled his troops with an iron fist, commanding his soldiers to commit atrocities against his own people. He is considered the "enforcer" for his brother's control over Syria.
Here are the top 10 facts you need to know about Maher al-Assad.
1. Maher May Have Launched the Chemical Attacks That Have U.S. on the Brink of War
The Guardian and The Daily Mail have reported that Maher al-Assad may be responsible for the recent chemical weapons attacks that have sparked a possible future military strike by the U.S. and its allies. The publications claims are mostly based on Maher's violent and atrocity-filled past.
Today's news has reports of a UN official claiming it was Maher's order that called for the chemical attack.
The Bloomberg report suggests that his rash nature may have contributed to the decision, rather than a strategic decision by his older brother, President Bashar al-Assad.
2. Maher Hasn't Been Seen in Public Since He Was Injured in a Suicide Bombing Last Year
Maher al-Assad hasn't been seen in public in more than a year. It was reported on July 18, 2013, that an al-Qaeda-backed rebel suicide bombing in Damascus resulted in the death of Syria’s Defense Minister Daoud Rajha and Prime Minister Bashar al-Assad’s brother in-in-law, Assef Shawkat. Maher also was injured in the attack. Although he was originally reported as being killed, a defected Syrian propagandist told CNN in October 2012 that Maher was only injured in the attack, but "he had lost his left leg in the bombing and also the use of his left arm." The report claimed that Maher was treated in Russia for his injuries and was later returned to the Syrian presidential palace.
3. He Was Overlooked for President
After former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad's eldest son, Bassel al-Assad, died in a car crash in 1994, Maher was widely rumored to be the next in line for the Syrian head of state. Due to his reputation for being hot-tempered, he was overlooked by the ruling Ba'ath Party and the Army in favor of his older brother by two years, Bashar al-Assad, who is now the Syrian president.
4. Maher Rose to Power in the Military
Maher fell into his military role after the death of his eldest brother in 1994. He assumed the role as the commander of a brigade in the Republic Guard soon after. This is when he began gaining military experience and building his reputation as an effective leader. After the death of his father in 2000, he received a promotion, raising him to the commander of the entire Republican Guard and the army's elite Fourth Armored Divison.
5. He Is Considered the Most Feared Man in Syria
According to Reuters, his sister-in-law Majd Jadan, who has fled to the United States, said that he teaches his kids brutality. She claims that he once asked his grade-school-aged daughter what she was going to do at school that day. "Break heads," replied the girl.
He is also known for having shot his brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, after an argument. Shawkat had to be transported to France for life-saving surgery. He was later killed in 2012 in the attack that resulted in Maher losing his leg.
Maher is accused of multiple human rights abuses and is considered the most feared man in Syria. Aside from the recent chemical attacks, there are several examples of horrible atrocities carried out by troops he commands. In March 2011, his fourth division lead a siege against a "group of schoolboys" who were calling for Bashar to leave. Maher ordered them all killed. The event was accounted by a former fourth division conscript who fled shortly after:
He came to see us one weekend down there. He told us not to shoot at the men with guns, because they were with us. He told us only to shoot at people without guns, that they were the terrorists. It took me a while to protest at that. He made us shoot at their hearts and heads. And anyone that was shooting high and wide [deliberately] would be beaten, or killed.
Maher is widely considered as the most dangerous man in Syria. He is also known as "the Butcher of Dera'a" or "the enforcer."
6. Maher is Stubborn and Arrogant About Ideas That Are Not His Own
Most of the information about Maher and his personality we have learned through Syrian defectors. His sister-in-law, Majd Jadan, fled to America two years ago after an argument with Maher. She told Reuters about Maher's violent past, but also about his great arrogance and ignorance to ideas other than his own.
"He reads but is not cultured and his English is weak," Jadan said. "When he is convinced of something, nothing changes his mind, even when he is presented with evidence to the contrary."
Although he did attend university for a time, the death of his brother took him out of his education and placed him onto his current military career. If Maher truly is connected to the recent chemical weapons attacks in Syria, his stubborn nature could have contributed to this decision, despite others' advising him otherwise.
7. He Studied to Become a Business Administrator
Maher al-Assad studied business administration at Damascus University. His short stint in post-secondary education was interrupted in 1994 after the death of his oldest brother, pushing him into an unanticipated military career.
8. Maher Relies on His Military Attaches for Guidance
According to accounts from Syrian defectors, Maher has a low military competence when it comes to his effectiveness in leading. According to Reuters, he relies heavily on more experienced and better trained officers that act as advisers to his command:
"Maher is not being effective. These are not the results of a very effective commander," said W. Andrew Terrill, Middle East expert at the U.S. Army War College. "He has been doing other stuff with his life, including various businesses ... I don't know if he has actually done a lot that proves his military competence."
9. Maher Was Implicated in a Mass Money Laundering Operation
Just like any good benefactor of a dictatorial regime, he has been implicated in a billion-dollar money laundering scam that resulted in the collapse of the Lebanese al-Madina bank in 2003. According to Fortune Magazine, the bank collapse at the start of the Iraq war came from the illegal kickbacks from Iraqi officials and their partners in the gaming of the UN oil-for-food program. The article cites sources claiming the amount of money transferred and laundered by the bank at roughly $1 billion, with 25 percent of that going to Syrian officials and Lebanese allies as commission for the operation. The Fortune article also says the file on the Madina bank collapse at the Lebanese Ministry of Justice excludes the key parts of Maher's role because people fear being killed over the release of that information.
10. There Is a Facebook Page Claiming to Be Maher's
A Facebook page claiming to be Maher al-Assad's has more than 70,000 followers. The page operator makes multiple posts a day in the first person, calling for the victory of the Assad regime over the rebel forces and their Western allies.