ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Maher al-Assad asked his own grade-school daughter what she had planned to do in class that day. The girl answered her father with trademark fierceness of Syria’s ruling family.
“Break heads, is what she answered him,” his sister-in-law Majd Jadan told Reuters from exile in the United States. “He even taught his little kids brutality.”
Jadan fled to America two years ago, after an argument with Maher, younger brother of President Bashar al-Assad and the man most Syrians say is the enforcer of the Assad clan’s grip on Syria.
She wasn’t the first member of the family to leave in a hurry: brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, who was killed in a bomb attack in Damascus on Wednesday, once had to be flown to France for lifesaving treatment after Maher shot him.
With rebels closing in on Damascus 16 months into an uprising against the Assad family’s four decades of iron-fisted rule, the world’s attention is focused on Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle, where none is more influential than brother Maher.
Syria’s second most powerful man almost never appears in public, but those who have had dealings with him paint a picture of a man of supreme self confidence, who treats his brother’s country like family property.
A Syrian businessman who accepted a dinner invitation from Maher before the revolt against the family’s rule erupted 16 months ago says Maher took him with a group of French and Syrian executives to a restaurant on a mountain overlooking Damascus.
All the staff who served them were women, rare in the conservative country.
“The restaurant seemed open only to us. I was looking in astonishment because we are not used to seeing waitresses in Syria. Maher leaned toward me and said in front of everyone something to the effect that I can chose any waitress I like to take home,” said the businessman, on condition of anonymity.
“He does not shy away from showing how base he is.”
Maher al-Assad does not give interviews and efforts to contact him for comment on this story were not successful.
Opponents of the Assad family revile him as the most ruthless of a “family council” trying to survive the revolt against the iron-fisted dynastic rule founded by their late patriarch, Hafez al-Assad.
During the crackdown against the anti-Assad revolt, Maher has solidified his violent reputation as the leader of core military units drawn mainly from the family’s Alawite sect that have used tanks and artillery to lay waste to swathes of Sunni Muslim areas.
At 44, he is two years younger than Bashar. He commands the Fourth Armoured Division and is de facto head of the Republican Guard - praetorian units set up to defend the family’s seat of power in Damascus.
The family council, aided by top secret police and intelligence operatives, comprises Bashar, Maher, their now slain brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, and Mohammad Makhlouf, their uncle from the side of their mother Anisa.
All are now on various U.S. or European sanctions lists.
Jadan describes her brother-in-law as a stubborn and ruthless man who beats his junior aides. Athletic and introverted, he is careful about what he eats and listens more than he speaks.
“He reads but is not cultured and his English is weak,” Jadan said. “When he is convinced of something, nothing changes his mind, even when he is presented with evidence to the contrary.”
A rare photo of Maher taken during his father’s funeral on a scorching June day in 2000 shows him standing between Bashar and Shawkat, all looking grim in dark suits and sunglasses.
An undated video on YouTube shows him on a hunting trip, posing with dead birds on his 4x4. In 1999, Maher went for bigger game, shooting brother-in-law Shawkat during an argument. Shawkat had to be flown to France to save his life, according to diplomats.
“Disciplined use of violence by a dictator is an immoral but a rational choice,” said W. Andrew Terrill, Middle East expert at the U.S. Army War College. “When you lose control of the emotions and shoot your sister’s husband in a dispute, that’s pretty stunning.”
“I don’t know how much worse you have to be to consolidate a reputation for violence,” Terrill said.
When Hafez died in 2000 and western-trained ophthalmologist Bashar became president, control of the military went to Maher, an engineer who had lived all his life in Syria.
Opposition sources say the only serious operation he was directly involved in was when the Fourth Division helped put down a mutiny in the notorious Saidnaya prison north of Damascus in 2008, killing an estimated 170 unarmed political prisoners.
Lacking experience, Maher relies on better trained officers around him, defectors said. But even his vaunted Fourth Armoured Division has failed to put down the revolt that began last year.
“Maher is not being effective. These are not the results of a very effective commander,” Terrill said. “He has been doing other stuff with his life, including various businesses ... I don’t know if he has actually done a lot that proves his military competence.”
His business dealings in neighbouring Lebanon came under scrutiny when a bank collapsed there in 2003 and authorities opened a money laundering investigation that implicated a number of Syrian officials and Assad family associates.
Two senior Lebanese officials told Reuters that assassinated statesman Rafik al-Hariri had sought to have the investigation examine Maher’s affairs at the time Hariri was killed in 2005.
Militarily, Maher’s growing role has drawn comparisons with the 1980s when Hafez relied on the Defence Brigades, the forerunner of the Fourth Division, then led by his brother Rifaat, to crush secular and Islamist threats.
That crackdown killed tens of thousands of people, according to human rights lawyers who documented the era of repression.
“It is the 1980s all over again. But the regime, incredibly, is more savage this time. Another difference is that Bashar and Maher think they are winning, but they are not,” said one Western diplomat who served until recently in Damascus.
Editing by Douglas Hamilton, Samia Nakhoul and Peter Graff