Facing unprecedented opposition from the streets and growing isolation on the international front, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad can still rely on his family. The Assad clan, which comes from the minority Alawi community (around 12% of the Syrian population), has been at the helm of the country since 1970. Bashar took over from his father Hafez al-Assad, who died in 2000, but his leadership relies on the unflinching support of his next-of-kin.
Maher al-Assad, the soldier
Born in 1968, the younger brother of Syria’s president is the head of the Republican Guard, an elite troop composed of 12,000 soldiers, as well as the army’s 4th Armoured Division. These two posts make Maher a major figure on both the domestic and international fronts, particularly in relation to Syria’s alliance with Iran. According to Bassam Jaara, a London-based Syrian journalist and critic of Bashar, Maher’s influence cannot be overstated: "He is the commander of the army’s two most powerful units. It is normal if he has the last word.”
If Bashar had, until recently, been considered the reformer within the family, Maher is by all accounts its hardliner. He is the “the ruthless face of power”, in the words of Ignatius Leverrier, a former diplomat and author of a blog about Syria on the French daily Le Monde's website. Maher also oversees the commanders of the Shabiha militia. This armed group is made up almost exclusively of Alawites and is charged with defending the interests of the Assad clan.
When the European Union imposed sanctions against Maher in 2011, it did not hesitate to single him out as the “principal overseer of violence against demonstrators.” This has been highlighted by the fact that Syrian protesters often target Bashar’s younger brother directly in their slogans. Maher is described as angry, moody and cruel in several biographies. It has been reported that in November 1999, he shot his brother-in-law Asef Shawkat (see below) in the presidential palace during an argument.
He has also been mentioned as a suspect in an international investigation’s preliminary report into the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.
Anisa and Buchra al-Assad, the regime's leading ladies
The widow of the late Hafez al-Assad and the mother of Bashar, Anisa Makhlouf has kept a low profile, but is the final judge on all matters. "Decisions are made collectively in the family’s inner circle… but Anisa has the last say," Wael al-Hafez, a member of the Syrian opposition in exile has been quoted as saying by the feminist blog Les Martiennes.
Born in 1960, Buchra al-Assad is Bashar’s only sister and a pharmacist by training. Like brother Maher, she is considered a hawk within the regime and reportedly wields influence from her key role as Bashar’s secretary. She married Asef Shawkat (see below) in the mid-1990s.
According to Mohammed Daoud, a former Syrian diplomat, Buchra has had a tense relationship with President Bashar al-Assad’s wife, Asma. "Bouchra long prevented Asma from using the title of Syria’s “First Lady”, a title she prefers to remain with her mother Anisa,” Daoud said.
Asma al-Assad, the image of reform
Born to a Syrian diplomat family in London in 1975, Asma al-Assad, née Asma Fawaz al-Akhras, married the current president of Syria in December 2000. The couple has three sons: Hafez, Zein and Karim. Asma holds degrees in computer science and French literature from King's College London, and worked in investment banking before marrying Bashar.
The manicured and media savvy wife helped Bashar build an image of a moderate reformer and, ironically, launched an organisation in 2005 to encourage Syrian youth to embrace “active citizenship”. According to a rumour relayed by several media organisations, Asma has exiled herself in London with her three children since the uprising began.
Rami Makhlouf, the financier
A first cousin of Bashar on his mother Anisa’s side, Rami Makhlouf has used family influence to gain control of an estimated 60% of the country’s business. Born in 1965 to an Alawite family and businessman father, he has been dubbed the “king of Syria.” According to the respected French weekly Jeune Afrique, he is thought to be Syria’s richest man, with an economic empire that stretches from “telecommunications to retail, but also includes energy, banking, and transportation industries.” The US Treasury imposed sanctions on Makhlouf in 2008 for his improper use of political influence in business dealings. He is part of the list of Syrian officials who were slapped with economic sanctions by the EU in May. Brussels accuses him of bankrolling the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.
Reviled by protesters who have long accused him of corruption, Makhlouf announced in June that part of his fortune would be given over to charity. His brother Hafez Makhlouf, 36, is the chief of the Damascus branch of the General Security Directorate, the country’s civilian intelligence service.
Asef Shawkat, the brother-in-law
A career military man and Alawite, General Asef Shawkat fate changed completely when he married Buchra al-Assad in 1995. At first he was rejected by the family, but he was eventually accepted into the Assad clan. He is reported to have built a strong relationship with Bashar.
He rose quickly to fill some of the army’s most important posts. Head of intelligence in the army until 2001, he became deputy Military Intelligence Chief from 2001 to 2005, and then replaced his boss at the top post. However, a few international incidents that shed a negative light on Syria led to his replacement in 2008. However, he was quickly given another strategic position as deputy chief-of-staff of the armed forces.
Along with Maher, Shawkat is named as a suspected plotter of the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.