The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized Maher al-Assad last year
for his actions throughout the uprising against the Assad family dictatorship. Mr. Erdogan stated that "clearly and openly: from a humanitarian point of view, [President Assad's brother] is not behaving in a humane manner."
Joshua Landis, a Syrian analyst from the University of Oklahoma, summed up the relationship between President Assad and his younger brother, explaining that Bashar "is the leader, the face, and Maher is the enforcer who wears the frown."
Said to be the second most powerful man in Syria
Maher heads the country's Republican Guard. Like the infamous Iraqi Republican Guard, this elite force is tasked with protecting the regime from domestic threats, and is therefore the most elite force within the military, as well as the most loyal to the regime.
Maher's characteristic traits are ones of excessive violence and emotional instability. Extremely authoritarian minded, he repudiated the brief "Damascus Spring" reforms his brother initiated during his first year as president. This shows he clearly never had any desire to even pretend he wanted to build a legitimate support base from the broader populace for the tight-knit regime.
Indeed, when the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, Maher was right on the task of crushing the various insurrections across the country. By late April of that year, his armoured division had effectively cut off the city of Deraa and were shelling residential areas, as well as rounding up people they suspected of participating in the protests. When the E.U. imposed sanctions on Maher, it tellingly cited him as the "principal overseers of violence against demonstrators."
In May 2011 a video was released which allegedly shows Maher getting down and dirty, using a rifle to personally shoot at unarmed protesters in the Barzeh suburb of Damascus.
This wouldn't be out of character for Maher; in 2008 he led a force that violently put down a prison revolt in Saidnaya. 25 people were killed during that crackdown. Video footage exists that shows Maher snapping photographs with his mobile phone of the dismembered corpses of the political prisoners after they had been violently killed.
When the Assad brothers father Hafez died in a car accident in 1995, it was thought by many political analysts and observers that Maher would ultimately be successor to his father. But due to Maher's young age and his hot-temper, Basher ultimately got the job.
During Hafez's time as Syria's President for life, he ran a similar method of brutal suppression with his brother and Maher's uncle Rifaat. In February 1982 Rifaat effectively -- through a brutal scorched-earth operation -- destroyed the town of Hama, which constituted the focal point of the main Sunni Islamist opposition to Syrian Baathist rule. This operation saw to the death of at the very least 17,000 people in a month-long bombardment.
It's quite evidently the same set up today. Since the uprising has begun, we have been spared fawning fluff pieces
about the wonderful peace loving progressive family the Assad's.
At the end of the day, Rifaat was exiled when he attempted to seize power for himself. There are rumours that Maher may be planning something similar, but they have been, so far, unfounded.
Bashar's role is to play the diplomat, buy as much time as he can and ward off the international community so he can continue the extensive military bombardments that are keeping the mounting opposition to his rule at bay.
The Assads may like to portray themselves as liberal and progressive, but at the end of the day they're nothing more than petty thugs who will lower themselves to any conceivable depth, once it allows them to hold onto their power, and if it means massacring thousands of people, so be it; that was the case in Hama with yesterday's generation, and it is the case in Homs with today's.
Maher al-Assad for the meantime is still roaming around the suburbs of Damascus; he is armed, and he is dangerous.