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Syria: Who's Really in Charge?

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The August 21st chemical weapons attack in Syria perpetrated by the Assad regime has caused widespread puzzlement as to why President Assad would have made the attack at such an inopportune time when there were UN inspectors in the region and the tide of battle had turned in favor of the regime. Indeed it may well be that Bashar is not fully in charge, and his younger brother, Maher, was the one who ordered the attack. In fact, there is reason to believe that Maher is responsible for the extent of the brutal violence being carried out against the Syrian opposition throughout the civil war.

The fact that Bashar al-Assad is a member of an exclusive fraternity of "second-choice sons," leaders by default, contributes to this judgment. "Second-choice sons" were pushed into their leadership positions because their older brothers, the initially designated choices to carry on the family torch, died before they were able to fulfill their fathers' dreams of glory. The beloved first-born sons were designated by their fathers' to be the families' political stars. With their sons' deaths, the devastated patriarchs then turned to the sons who were next in line, and compelled them to abandon their own career ambitions and step in. JFK and Benjamin Netanyahu both grew up in the shadows of their older brothers, Joe and Jonathan, respectively, and thus were members of this exclusive fraternity.

Bashar was pushed into his leadership position because his older brother, the initially designated choice to carry on the family torch, died before he was able to fulfill his father's dreams of glory. Hafez Assad, who had led Syria with an iron fist for 30 years, had originally designated his first-born son, Basil, who was bold, charismatic, and aggressive, to continue his legacy. After Basil's death in a car accident in 1994, Bashar, Hafez's second son, who was receiving post-graduate training in ophthalmology in London, was summoned home to take his preferred brother's place and prepare to succeed his ailing father, who died in 2000.

At the time of Bashar's designation as successor, some were puzzled that Hafez had not selected his youngest son, Maher, who was much more like himself and Basil. Hafez may have had in mind making Bashar the civil face of Syria, while putting Maher in charge of the country's security forces.

The remarkable Barbara Walters interview with Bashar on December 7, 2011 was especially telling, with Bashar claiming, "They are not my forces; they are military forces belong(ing) to the government. I don't own them. I am president. I don't own the country." The trove of more than 3,000 of his personal emails released in March further confirmed that the president conveys the posture of the spectator rather than the author of the violent drama being played out.

In a recent interview, Alastair Smith, co-author of 'The Dictator's Handbook,' suggested to 'Slate' that Bashar, in using chemical weapons, was guaranteeing that there could be no soft landings and that his core supporters would stick with him by sending them a signal that he is there for the long run. But it simply does not make sense that Bashar would have chosen that point in the civil war for the attack. This action is consistent with our view that the extent of the violence and the struggle is largely at the direction of his younger brother, Maher.

As commander of the Syrian Republican Guard and the Army's Fourth Armored Division, Maher is believed to wield a tremendous amount of autonomy over military affairs and could well have ordered the attack on his own without consulting his brother (this suggestion has also been made by a UN official who monitors conflicts in the region, as well as Israeli experts). It is interesting to observe that Bashar was recently made an attractive offer of safe passage to exile and a promise of no criminal prosecution. A variant on the Alastair Smith hypothesis: could it be that Maher precipitated the attack in order to ensure that his brother would stay at the helm?

In a recent extended interview with Charlie Rose, Bashar tied himself firmly to the attack when Rose referred to him as being the "butcher" of Damascus. Bashar, who is trained as a physician, explained that sometimes a doctor must cut off a diseased limb in order to save the patient, and is therefore seen as a hero. By this line of reasoning, the more than 1400 people, including over 400 children, who were killed by sarin gas are analogous to a diseased, gangrenous, limb and only those Syrians loyal to Assad represent the body of Syria. One is reminded of George Habash, former pediatrician, who headed the Palestinian Front for the liberation of Palestine. Ask how he could kill so many innocent victims when, as a physician, he had sworn to Hippocrates that his first duty was "do no harm." He responded, "Palestine is my patient."

When estimating how the Assad regime will comport itself during the complex negotiations with the UN, Russia and China, we must not think of Bashar al-Assad as the sole decision-maker in Syria. He is always standing in the shadow of his father; and the military and the family, especially his brother Maher, are always looking over his shoulder to ensure that the Assad/Alawite rule does not die on his watch.