Open

Coming up

Don't miss

Replay


LATEST SHOWS

REVISITED

In Prijedor, survivors fight to keep memory alive

Read more

IN THE PAPERS

¡Gracias, Gabo!

Read more

IN THE PAPERS

The Socialist rebellion grows

Read more

MEDIAWATCH

Algerian election: Bouteflika votes in wheelchair

Read more

REPORTERS

Indian election: Votes for sale

Read more

BUSINESS DAILY

Can Weibo win over US investors?

Read more

DEBATE

Algeria: What's the Choice? Incumbent Bouteflika Votes in Wheelchair (part 2)

Read more

DEBATE

Algeria: What's the Choice? Incumbent Bouteflika Votes in Wheelchair

Read more

AFRICA NEWS

Virunga Park chief shot

Read more

  • Captain not at helm when ship listed, South Korean officials say

    Read more

  • Top Hollande adviser resigns over conflict of interest accusation

    Read more

  • Abel Ferrara’s hotly awaited DSK film to premiere on web

    Read more

  • In Prijedor, survivors fight to keep memory alive

    Read more

  • Indian election: Votes for sale

    Read more

  • Video: Tensions remain high in Mariupol despite Geneva deal

    Read more

  • Astronomers discover Earth-like planet that could support life

    Read more

  • West African Ebola outbreak caused by new strain of virus

    Read more

  • Nobel-winning Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez dies at 87

    Read more

  • Deadly avalanche strikes Everest in worst-ever disaster

    Read more

  • With a strong French presence, veterans and fresh faces, Cannes aims to please

    Read more

  • Low turnout reported in Algeria as Bouteflika seeks fourth term

    Read more

  • Russia and West agree on steps to ease Ukraine crisis

    Read more

  • Mob launches deadly attack on UN shelter for S. Sudan civilians

    Read more

  • Eurostar train mishap causes 'severe' delays

    Read more

  • Chelsea Clinton announces she's pregnant

    Read more

  • French troops free five aid workers kidnapped in Mali by Islamists

    Read more

  • In pictures: Iranian woman pardons son’s killer at the gallows

    Read more

  • After cup defeat, Spanish pundits read last rites for Barcelona

    Read more

  • India heads to polls in single largest day of voting

    Read more

  • Ukraine talks open in Geneva as Putin talks tough on TV

    Read more

  • Pro-Russian separatists killed in attack on Black Sea base

    Read more

  • Man executed in Texas for 2002 triple murder

    Read more

  • Scandal-hit French doctor Jacques Servier dies at 92

    Read more

  • Belgian head of wildlife reserve shot in DR Congo

    Read more

Middle east

'The enforcer' who heads Syria’s dreaded army division

©

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2012-03-04

As head of the Syrian Army’s elite Fourth Division, Maher al-Assad (left) has a reputation for ruthlessness. He's also President Bashar al-Assad's (right) younger brother - and in Syria, presidential younger brothers often play the heavy.

Ever since the crackdown on the Syrian uprising began last year, opposition supporters have maintained that the real power is in the hands of Maher al-Assad, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s dreaded younger brother.

As the commander of the Syrian Army’s elite Fourth Armoured Division and Republican Guard, Maher - “the enforcer” of the government’s brutal military assault - was personally responsible for crushing protests in the southern Syrian city of Deraa, earning himself the nickname “the butcher of Deraa”.

On Feb. 29, when an unnamed Syrian official told the Associated Press that the Baba Amr district of Homs would be “cleansed” within hours, Syrians inside and outside their homeland had no doubt that the feared Fourth Division would be conducting the “cleansing” operation.

In an interview with FRANCE 24, Hamza al-Omar, a member of the opposition Syrian Revolution General Commission, said reinforcements from the Fourth Division had arrived in Homs.

"We were able to identify from the distinctive signs visible on the armour and we have elements within the army who informed us in advance of the arrival of these reinforcements," said al-Omar.

Another opposition activist, Mohammad al-Homsi, also told FRANCE 24 that the reinforcements at Homs belonged to this elite squad.

Controlling army desertions

Comprised mostly of Alawites, the sect to which the Syrian president and his brother belong, the Fourth Division’s loyalty can relied upon at a time when the regime is seeing massive desertions to rebel for - particularly among the conscripts and lower ranks, which are predominantly held by the country’s majority Sunni Muslims.

US Ambassador Robert Ford speaks to FRANCE 24

"The Fourth Division is known for its brutality and it’s a symbol of the regime’s striking force,” said Khattar Abou Diab, a political scientist at Paris-XI University.

According to Akil Hachem, a former brigadier general in the Syrian Army currently in exile in France, the Fourth Division is also well equipped and its members well-trained. “This squad of killers is very experienced and highly trained. They are commanded by career officers and have the best weapons available in Syria.”

At the start of the opposition demonstrations, the Fourth Division was dispatched to quell the uprisings in successive towns and cities across Syria. “Unable to deploy on all fronts, it has been divided into several sections to supervise and direct the various law enforcement operations,” said Hachem.

Another reason for the unit’s deployment seems to be the fear it inspires among Syrian military ranks. “The other Syrian soldiers are wary and afraid of these elements, because they are well aware of the unit’s track record and the massacres they committed in the past in Syria and Lebanon,” said Hachem. “This fear prevents the defections of soldiers who know they are under surveillance.”

Like father, like son: A younger brother to the rescue

In Syria, the past sometimes has an uncanny - if cruel - way of repeating itself.

The current Syrian Fourth Armoured Division is a merger of the old Defense Companies, a paramilitary force that was led by Rifaat al-Assad, the younger brother of former Syrian strongman Hafez al-Assad.

Rifaat al-Assad is perhaps best-known for his role in personally overseeing the notorious 1982 Hama massacre, in which at least 10,000 people were killed.

A number of experts have noted that during Hafez al-Assad's presidency, Rifaat functioned as his brother's enforcer in much the same way as Maher now plays the role of heavy to his elder brother, the current Syrian president.

In an interview with the New York Times last year, Bassam Bitar, a former Syrian diplomat who now lives in exile in the US, said, “If you look back at the uprising from ’79 to ’82, Rifaat was the nasty guy, the killer. And now history repeats itself, and Maher is a nasty guy.”

All in the family

Hafez al-Assad's youngest child, Maher, pursued a military career like his eldest brother, Basil - whom many believed had been pegged to succeed his father - until Basil died in a 1994 car crash.

A 1985 Assad family photograph shows in the front, former Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad, and his wife, Anisa. The children in the back row, from left to right, are Maher, current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Basil, Majid, and Bushra.

Shortly after Basil’s death, there was some talk that Maher could be a possible successor. But many experts and ordinary Syrians disagreed: the youngest al-Assad son had a reputation as a hot-tempered, impetuous young man.

Maher is widely rumored to have shot his brother-in-law, Gen. Assef Shawkat, during an altercation. Shawkat survived and the two are believed to have patched up their differences. He currently serves as Syria’s deputy Minister of Defense.

Like his father and many other Arab dictators, Bashar al-Assad has relied on his family to consolidate and maintain power.

Just as his uncle did the bloody work for his father, Maher has taken on the brutal business of keeping his beleaguered elder brother in power.

By Thursday, Baba Amr, a district of Homs that turned into a symbolic rebel holdout, had passed into government control following what opposition fighters called a “tactical withdrawal”.

Confronted with a deadly, sustained 27-day bombardment, the opposition fighters found themselves outgunned and outmatched. The enforcer, it seemed, had won the latest round.

Date created : 2012-03-01

  • SYRIA

    Aid convoy blocked from Baba Amr, Red Cross says

    Read more

  • SYRIA

    Residents under fire as Homs assault continues

    Read more

  • SYRIA

    UN Human Rights Council condemns Syria

    Read more

Comments

COMMENT(S)