Syria has been in the news for quite some time now, especially the last two years and so has been Bashar al-Assad, its leader.
Everyone has hated him for the conditions of the country since the strife between his government and the opposing rebels started. So far, everything awful, horrid and ugly in Syria was blamed on Bashar al-Assad. It was only during the days following the deadly gas attack that another name - Maher al-Assad - started making the headlines.
Not many had known of him, but the man being blamed for the horrible gas attack killing hundreds of innocent people is no stranger for those who have kept a close eye on the affairs of the Middle East!
Maher al-Assad, the powerful younger brother of Syrian President Basharal-Assad, commands the Republican Guard and controls the army's 4th Armored Division.
He may or may not be responsible for the brutal gas attack, but he is not one to be overlooked.
He has been referred to as the "most feared man in the country", "the Butcher of Dera'a" or"the enforcer". He lost a leg in an attack in Damascus during an explosion when the regime's security cabinet was attacked in July 2012. He has hardly been seen in public since then.
He has however been commanding troops in the Aleppo and Homs theatre of operations.
A report by Reuters last year called Maher al-Assad “the muscle behind the throne.” Indeed by some he is thought by some to be the second most powerful man in Syria after his brother Bashar, the current President.
He is widely known to be a brutal man. His own 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. During the crackdown against the anti-Assad revolt, Maher’s violent reputation has further solidified.
Born in 1967, Maher studied at the University of Damascus. He later followed his older brother Bassel into the military.
The following video came out in May 2011 and shows Maher, dressed in a leather jacket and surrounded by police officers, firing a rifle at unarmed protesters in the Damascus.
In 2008, Maher was in charge of putting down a prison revolt in Saidnaya, where 400 soldiers had been kidnapped by the prisoners. Around 25 people of 10,000 inmates were killed during the crackdown. Human rights groups had unverified video footage that purportedly shows Maher taking photographs with his mobile phone of the dismembered bodies of prisoners after the riot.
It was neither the shy and bookish Bashar nor the brutal and reckless Maher who were being trained as the successor to their father Hafez al-Assad, but rather the dashing first born, the ‘golden boy’ Major Bassel al-Assad!
Major Bassel Assad was an engineer and army officer as well as the leader of the Presidential Guards.
Fluent in French and Russian, he studied at Soviet academies and was famous for his shrewd and dynamic personality, agility, sportsmanship (he was a horsemanship as well as a parachutist) and popularity as a ladies' man.
He however was killed in a car crash in 1994 at the age of 33.
Bassel was following in the footsteps of his father, though he was a little wilder than his father had ever been. He was being slowly introduced to European and Arab leaders; he was close friends with the children of King Hussein of Jordan, had been introduced to King Fahd of Saudi Arabia and had befriended Lebanese leaders of all sects.
His death threw President Hafez al-Assad's succession and the future stability of Syria into doubt. Seeing where Syria stands right now, we wonder if the doubts were justified.