Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s beleaguered president , has a close circle of family members and security officials who are thought to be influential in the regime’s increasingly bloody crackdown on pro-reform protesters, say analysts.
The image of Mr Assad as an instinctive reformer held back by a hardline faction is, however, discounted by many observers, who see him instead as the chief of an inner cabinet notable for its strong family presence and cohesiveness under pressure.
Those with the president’s ear – including Maher, his brother, and Assef Shawkat, his brother-in-law – will almost certainly be among those scrutinised in Washington and European capitals as western countries consider sanctions against regime intimates.
Andrew Tabler, a fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a US think-tank, said: “The real heart of the regime is the security services and the Assad family. The two overlap – and that is what galvanises the regime from splitting.”
While not quite as extensive as the family of Libya’s Colonel Muammer Gaddafi, Mr Assad’s relatives are seen as playing an important role in sustaining the presidency he assumed in 2000 after his late father Hafez’s near-30-year rule.
Maher al-Assad, the youngest of Hafez’s four sons, is the head of the presidential guard, a feared unit that is widely seen as instrumental in the shootings of protesters in the southern city of Deraa, the cradle of the uprising.
Deraa demonstrators last month taunted Maher as a coward, challenging him to liberate the Golan Heights seized by Israel from Syria more than 40 years ago.
Mr Shawkat, the husband of Bushra, Bashar’s sister, is head of military intelligence and an army man since his 20s. He fell out with Basil, another Hafez al-Assad son who was once the presidential heir apparent, but his fortunes changed when Basil was killed in a car crash in 1994, opening the way for Bashar to take over instead.
Other players thought to be members of the inner circle are Rustom Ghazali, former head of intelligence in Lebanon, and the president’s cousin Hafez Makhlouf, deputy director of the General Intelligence Directorate. Rami, Mr Makhlouf’s brother, controls parts of the economy and is widely seen as the business arm of the regime.
Analysts say the presence of loyal security heads at the heart of the regime is one reason why – unlike in Egypt or Tunisia – a critical mass of government forces has so far remained behind Mr Assad and been willing to kill freely on his behalf, with rights groups reporting more than 400 protester deaths.
According to Radwan Ziadeh, a visiting scholar in Middle East studies at George Washington University, Mr Assad’s father concentrated influence in the security establishment in the same way when suppressing an Islamist uprising in the 1980s, during which thousands of people were killed.
The junior Assad’s regime has survived previous threats to its unity, including the 2005 defection to France of then vice-president Abdul Halim Khaddam after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, Lebanese former premier, for which the Syrian government was widely blamed.
Rumoured palace discord in Damascus after the mysterious 2008 assassination of Brigadier General Mohammed Suleiman, a senior military commander, also failed to shake the government’s stability.
Some analysts say Mr Assad’s clique is unlikely to suffer greatly from the sanctions now threatened by the US and some European countries, because, said Nadim Shehadi of Chatham House, the London think-tank: “These people don’t have their accounts in Barclays Bank and Chase Manhattan.”
The Syrian presidential cabal also has the experience of weathering a previous uprising, when Lebanese demonstrators rose up in 2005 to force out the Syrian army over the assassination of Mr Hariri.
Having survived that “Cedar revolution” in a foreign country, no one is yet betting against Mr Assad and his political clan crushing a homegrown insurgency towards which they have plainly decided to show no mercy.
As one analyst who knows the country well puts it: “I think they are united in pursuing whatever policies they need to pursue to maintain this position of power.”
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