Fraternal Coup Bid Presages Breakup of Syria’s Assad Dynasty

The death of the powerful Assad matriarch Anisa Makhlouf on Feb. 6 struck down the single unifying element holding the Assad clan together.
Bashar Assad’s mother – the widow of his predecessor and father Hafez Assad – died aged 84 in Kuwait, where she had been living quietly for some years.
The reclusive Makhlouf preferred to stay out of the public eye, even after her husband Hafez Assad seized power in 1971. But behind the scenes, her strong will and ceaseless efforts preserved a semblance of solidarity among her feuding sons Bashar and Maher and daughter Bushra.
Her influence kept the discord between the two brothers from erupting, especially during five years of Syrian civil warfare. Invisible in the shadows behind the regime, she would step in as peacemaker whose decisions both squabbling brothers respected.
But the disasters which befell her offspring during the calamitous Syrian war drove her out of the country.
In July 2012, Maher, a Syrian army general in the Republican Guard and head of the 4th armored division, was seriously injured by a bomb that exploded in the private room where the Syrian ruling elite held their daily war conferences. Reports that the president’s younger brother had lost both of his legs, or a leg and an arm, were disproved when he made a rare public appearance in 2014.
But Deputy Defense Minister Assef Shawkat, Bushra’s husband (the president’s brother-in-law), died in the blast. The widow then decided to join her mother in Kuwait.
The independent-minded Bushra had never wanted Bashar to be president and was sharply critical of the way he conducted the war against the uprising against his rule. The two women effectively led a strong family outpost in Kuwait whose influence touched deeply on the central regime in Damascus.
When Anisa Makhlouf died, the old rivalries among the siblings burst into the open.
Maher, who was publicly seen as the president’s closest confidant, embarked on an intrigue to overthrow his brother and take his place, our intelligence sources reveal.
He figured that this was his moment. Moscow and Tehran – and certainly Washington – wanted Bashar to step down as president in order to end the war. The younger Assad believed they would accept him as successor and a fitting symbol of regime change in Damascus.
First, they would give him time to establish himself in the presidency. Then he would embark on negotiations with the opposition parties for co-opting them to his government.
This scenario in Maher’s view would relieve Damascus of American and Russian pressure for his brother to bow out of the presidency.
Gen. Assad understood that he needed a strong external ally to help him carry out his scheme.
He got in touch with two potential allies: Russian officers posted to Damascus, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) advisers attached to the division he commanded.
The Russian officers flashed Maher’s approach to Moscow, where it most certainly landed on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desk.
The IRGC officers forwarded it to their chiefs in Tehran, along with the argument Maher made in support of his bid for power. He explained, according to our Iranian sources, that keeping his brother in office was drawing Russia and the US ever closer together and giving them control of the course of events in Syria. When he became president, Maher promised to anoint Tehran the paramount wielder of influence in Damascus instead of Washington and Moscow.
It is not clear which of the two decided to give Maher’s game away to the Syrian president – Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Putin – or even a US spy on the ground, who got wind of the intrigue.
At all events, Maher’s goose was cooked. Earlier this week, Bashar signed a military decree relieving his brother of his duties in the Republican Guard and the 4th Armored Division. He was tentatively appointed a military advisor to the president, a token role without real authority, sparking speculation about his future.
After pushing his ambitious younger brother out of the way, Bashar Assad lost no time in having thousands of posters displayed in Damascus and other cities, with lists of candidates for the general elections scheduled for May. The sitting president is confident of re-election by a majority popular vote.

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