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Mafia-style shoot-out exposes threat to Syria's Assad

Frederick Deknatel

The probable death of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s cousin in a mafia-style shoot-out has exposed a rift among Alawites, the Muslim religious sect to which the Assad family belongs and relies on as its power base.


A mafia-style shoot-out in the traditional home of Syria’s ruling Assad clan - in which an influential cousin of the country’s dictator Bashar al-Assad is thought to have been killed - has exposed a dangerous rift in the country’s Alawite community.

Qardaha, a small town of less than 10,000 inhabitants, is perched in mountains overlooking the coastal town of Latakia.

Its population is overwhelmingly Alawite, the minority Muslim sect to which the Assad family belongs, and is seen as the heart and soul of the regime.

But according to a local Revolutionary Coordination Committee, local strongman Mohammed al-Assad - known as the “Lord of the Mountain” - was killed in a shoot-out on September 28 with rival Alawite clans, putting the Assad stranglehold under unprecedented pressure.

‘Lord of the Mountain’

According to the account published on the Committee’s Facebook page, Mohammed al-Assad was in a town café when he overheard a discussion of the country’s plight and fears for the future, especially for Alawite children caught up in Syria’s ongoing civil war.

Al-Assad saw red when a member of the Khayyer clan said that Syria’s ruler should step down and that he had mishandled the situation.

The “Lord of the Mountain” pulled out his gun and started shooting, igniting a prolonged gunbattle between his supporters and members of the rival Khayyer and Othman clans, both of them Alawite families.

According to Syrian writer and opposition figure Samar Yazbek, five members of the Othman family were killed in the shoot-out. The local Revolutionary Coordination Committee claims that Mohammed al-Assad also died.

‘Qardaha is Syria’s Corleone’

“If it’s a scene reminiscent of the film ‘The Godfather’, that’s because this is indeed a town run by a ruthless mafia-style family,” said Syria expert Fabrice Balanche, who is head of the Mediterranean and Orient Research Group at Lyon University.

“Qardaha is Syria’s Corleone,” he said in reference to the Sicilian town immortalised in Francis Ford Coppola’s classic mafia trilogy. “The Assad family has ruled the town mafia-style with impunity for decades.”

Balanche was not surprised that rival clans had started to turn against the Assads, who have maintained a stranglehold over the town since before they changed their family name from al-Wahhish in the 1920s [Wahhish is Arabic for “Monster” – Assad means “Lion”].

“They were originally a minor Alawite family that over time imposed itself on the region by brute force,” Balanche said.

“Many previously powerful clans have been marginalised, and we’ve been hearing for months that Alawite families are fed up of seeing their sons die and are worried for the future.

“But this is the first time we’ve heard of Alawites in Qardaha in anything like open rebellion.”

Terrorising the local population

The story of the shoot-out at Qardaha has also been told by former French diplomat Ignace Leverrier on his Un Oeil sur la Syrie (An Eye on Syria) blog.

Leverrier paints Mohammed al-Assad as a government-sanctioned Mafia lord, making huge profits from business across Syria and of using the Mukhabarat secret intelligence service as a weapon to terrorise the local population.

Al-Assad even made money, according to Leverrier, by taking payments from families with relatives in prison in exchange for information on their health and whereabouts, continuing to give positive reports for cash when some of these prisoners had been long dead.

His killing would prove to be a key turning point in undermining the family’s control of a town with huge Symbolic importance, where former President Hafez al-Assad and Bashar’s brother Basel are buried (see main picture) and whose mosque is named after the Hafez’s mother.


Since September 28, Qardaha has been locked down, according to information from the local Revolutionary Coordination Committee. All roads leading to the town are blocked and no information has been allowed to come out.

Fabrice Balanche said the regime blackout was a desperate gambit by the regime to preserve its image: “The Assads’ biggest fear is that the Alawite community, the cornerstone of their power, starts to split into factions.

“This is why the Assads have historically always resolved any clan feuding in strict secrecy.”

Since the uprising began in March 2011, the Assad regime has relied on the support of the religious minorities – Alawite, Christian and Druze – under its protection. Some 70% of Syrians are Sunni Muslims, who are the vanguard of the rebellion.

According to Balanche, the Assad regime has real cause to fear that these minorities may be starting to turn their backs on it.

(Photo credit: Frederick Deknatel)

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