Bashar al-Assad: a man with a clan
Hover and click over the blue circles in the interactive family tree below
Bashar al-Assad: a man with a clan
Every couple of months, you hear a new story about someone from the al-Assad clan – good luck telling who’s who. Many influential Assads do not even have a photo online. The family’s secrecy and the public interest in them are the perfect recipe for rumours and half-truths. There are countless examples of incorrect information about the Assads in local and Western media, including from political bodies like the EU, media outlets like Le Monde, and NGOs like Pro Justice (examples in the endnotes).[i]
The lack of knowledge about members of the family and their roles in the regime is even reflected in mistakes in the application of sanctions by the U.S. and the EU. Some influential players are not sanctioned, while other marginal players are.[ii] To shed more light on the better-known Assad kin and their roles in the regime, I built the family tree above (hover and click on the name circles).
To this end, I collected death notices for family members and their relatives. Each notice states the close relatives of the deceased person, which I used to cross-reference claims of kinship on social media and in the news. I also received help from activists and close family associates.
An example of a death notice in Arabic for the daughters of Manal (Retaj) al-Assad
Last updated: 24 April 2020
Overarching strategy to dealing with the clan
You’re in luck if you have the same surname as the leader, especially if you’re a male.[iii] Whether you have the blessing of the Assad at the helm or not, you’ll be pampered wherever you go. An ordinary Syrian wouldn’t dare say “no” to an Assad. Given the infamy of some Assads, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
I believe that Hafez and his son and successor, Bashar, have had the following strategy for dealing with their clan: being an Assad brings you a natural advantage — feel free to (ab)use it to your benefit in exchange for your loyalty. But don’t go crazy; you’ll be cast aside when your cost to the regime exceeds the benefit of having a harmonious family relationship. If you prove yourself useful, you will be empowered.
The good are empowered, the bad are tolerated, and the ugly are cast aside.
Goodness and badness are situational
In the time of peace
A good family member is one who can do the regime’s day-to-day work or turn a financial profit. Under Bashar’s rule, the following members fell into this category and were therefore relied upon: Maher, Zuhair, Bushra’s husband (Assef Shawkat), and the sons of Hasiba (Zuhair Shalish, known as Zul Himma, and Riyad Shalish). Although many in the Makhlouf family — Bashar’s maternal relatives — fall into this category,[iv] this article is dedicated to the paternal al-Assad family.
Most of the Assads known to Syrians are known for being “bad,” often causing embarrassment to the presidents, who like to come across as fair and sophisticated. The word Shabiha was coined in the late 1980s in reference to the family members actively engaged in state-tolerated thuggery and smuggling. Before the 2011 uprising, most of the physical and emotional suffering from Shabiha was contained in the Governorate of Latakia, where the Assads’ ancestral village of Qurdaha is located.[v] The economic damage, however, was felt throughout the country. The father of all Shabiha was Fawaz al-Assad (1962-2015). Currently, the most scandalous are Hafez Munzer, Luay, Yasar, and Waseem al-Assad. Several Assads claim to hold PhDs in order to mask their illicit activities and to polish their reputation.[vi]
In the time of war
The thuggery that used to embarrass the leadership during peacetime became useful when the war broke out, however.
As the 2011 conflict wore on, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) shrank to a fraction of its pre-war size due to deaths, desertions, lack of funding, and a steep reduction in new conscripts. Syria, which had 220,000 SAA soldiers and no noteworthy militias before the conflict, saw a shift to “militiafication” and increased reliance on secret police (Mukhabarat). In 2017, The number of deployable fighters in the SAA was estimated to have fallen to a mere 25,000, while the militias fighting alongside it numbered 200,000.
With his grip on the wheel slipping, Bashar relied increasingly on his clan: loyalty is a currency that appreciates in crises. One family member he counted on was Hilal (1967-2014), who led the National Defence Forces militia (NDF) in its stronghold of Latakia. The highly decentralized and efficient NDF was funded by the parasitic business elite, who had benefited from Bashar’s decade-long economic liberalization.
Another critical backer from the family was Ayman Jaber — a business mogul who had married the daughter of Kamal al-Assad. Ayman’s steel factory in Jableh is where the notorious indiscriminate barrel bombs are manufactured. It is estimated that 5,500 barrel bombs were dropped on opposition-held areas between 2011 and 2014 alone. Ayman Jaber, alongside his brother, Muhammad, led and funded two militias, the Desert Hawks Brigade and Faouj Maghawir al-Bahr. The two groups played a decisive role in Assad’s victories over the opposition between 2013 and 2017.
Jihad Barakat, Intisar al-Assad’s husband, also led a militia called the Ba’ath Commandos (Maghawir al-Ba’ath) in Damascus starting from 2015. Finally, Hussein al-Assad leads the Usud al-Hussein militia. Hussein took over from his brother, Muhammad — known as the “chief of the mountain” — who died in 2015. Muhammad had been imprisoned for drug smuggling, kidnapping, and theft in the 1990s, but was set free by Bashar after the 2011 uprising to form the Usud al-Hussein militia. Other, mostly Shabiha, family members run or used to run less influential militias that look more like gangs than battle-ready militias.[vii]
Fighting for influence over the militias
Although they fight alongside each other, the Syrian, Iranian, and Russian regimes have major ideological differences: their marriage in Syria was one of shared interests, with each side obsessively trying to concentrate power in its hands.
Since the early days of its intervention to save Bashar, Iran relied on militias taking direct orders from it, while only coordinating with Assad’s militias and the SAA. Iran-sponsored militias include Hezbollah (Lebanese, 2011), Zainebiyoun (Pakistani, 2014), and Fatemiyoun (Afghan, 2015). Iran’s goal of co-opting Assad’s militias by providing arms and funding proved elusive, as the past and the destiny of most of the militia leaders is naturally tied to that of Bashar (family members with a shared history and fellow Alawites). Iran’s military influence in Syria remains primarily through its own militias.
Under the pretext of strengthening the SAA, Russia has been trying since its 2015 intervention to consolidate al-Assad’s family and non-family militias, and to have a greater say over their activities. Given its military and political leverage, Russia’s efforts have had broad (albeit slow) success. While Russia is certainly interested in rebuilding the decimated SAA, it is more interested in strengthening its leverage over Bashar as he continues to show a complete lack of interest in any meaningful political settlement. The West has made it clear: no political settlement, no end to the sanctions that have strangled Syria and made the prospects for reconstruction infeasible or unprofitable.
Bashar sees the silver lining in curbing the often-abused powers of the militias, given the positive impacts this would have on his public support. However, he is undoubtedly concerned that Russia’s increasing influence will crowd out his own. Alongside earlier initiatives, the recently formed 5th Corps is funded and commanded by the Russians. Bashar’s family militias — such as the Desert Hawks, Faouj Maghawir al-Bahr, and the aforementioned Maghawir al-Baath — have all been disbanded, with many members joining newly formed Russian SAA divisions, such as the 5th Corps.
Source: Presidency of The Syrian Arab Republic (7 January 2020)
Like in earlier visits to Syria, Putin did not meet Bashar in the presidential palace but summoned him to the Russian military headquarters in Damascus. Sitting on a shorter chair (right) is Syria’s Minister of Defence, Ali Ayyoub, while his Russian counterpart, Sergey Shoygu (left), is sitting on a large chair.
The significance of the clan is often exaggerated
Contrary to popular belief, Bashar’s clan is less important to the regime than many Syrians think. The role of the al-Assad clan in ruling the country is not comparable to that of Saddam’s clan in Iraq, for example.
Hafez and Bashar have shown their teeth to “the ugly” clan members such as Rifa’at, Namir, and Sulayman Hilal al-Assad. After playing a significant role in quelling the opposition against his brother Hafez, Rifa’at attempted to overthrow Hafez in 1984 and was subsequently exiled to France. Namir and Sulayman Hilal were particularly notorious; the regime had to save face and put them in prison. The first robbed a money exchange company and the second killed an officer in a fit of road rage, both in broad daylight.
As you can see from the family tree, many Assads played significant roles in ruling the country at one point or another, but none of them outpowered or outlasted the president. Almost all were ultimately killed, exiled, dismissed, or cast aside. As of now, the only Assads with some influence in the family — apart from the president — are Maher and Hussein. Let’s see how long they last.
Every Syrian knows the term Souriah al-Assad, or al-Assad Syria. But it is not the clan’s; it is al-Assad’s, not al-Assads’, Syria: one Assad runs what’s left of Syria; the rest only lend a hand when needed.
Jusiyah crossing between Syria and Lebanon: The banner reads, “welcome to al-Assad Syria.”
Nizar al-Assad was placed under EU sanctions in 2019 and was assumed to be Bashar’s cousin; he is not.
The Blacklist book from Pro Justice, launched at the Middle East Institute, claims that Zuhair al-Assad — photographed on the cover and the third on the list of war criminals in Syria — is the son-in-law of Hafez al-Assad; he’s actually the son of Hafez’s nephew Tawfiq.
Orient said that Ghaidak Deeb is Hafez’s nephew; but Ghaidak is the grand grandson of Hafez’s sister.
Syria Comment claimed that Anwar is the son of Ibrahim al-Assad — he’s actually the son of Ahmad al-Assad.
Eqtisad claimed that Adnan al-Assad’s father was Abu Anwar (Anwar’s father), who is Ahmad al-Assad, which is wrong. Adnan’s father is Ibrahim, not Ahmad.
Jnubieh claimed that Namir al-Assad is Hafez’s nephew. He is Hafez’s second-degree cousin.
Step News claims Zuhair al-Assad is the nephew of Hafez; Zuhair is the son of Hafez’s nephew.
Zaman al-Wasl claims to have records on crimes committed in Syria (the ones with a court ruling). The articles published by Zaman al-Wasl are very popular and have been quoted by various sources. I’ve opted not to use Zaman al-Wasl leaks on the crimes of al-Assad family members, as I could not substantiate some of the claims included in them. For example, while they claim that Badee’ Aziz al-Assad has a son named Sadeq, I found no evidence of that. Furthermore, while the commentary of Zaman al-Wasl refers to Intisar Badee’ Aziz al-Assad as a female, the supposed court ruling in the article refers to her as a male instead. Zaman al-Wasl also claimed that Anwar is Hafez’s brother when in fact Anwar is Hafez’s nephew. Finally, Zaman al-Wasl claims Ammar al-Assad is wanted by Interpol, which couldn’t be substantiated.
[ii] The U.S. Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons list includes the following Assad family members: Bashar al-Assad, Maher al-Assad, and Hafez’s nephew, Zuhair Shalish. The EU sanctioned members are Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asama, Maher al-Assad and his wife Manal, Bushra al-Assad, Hael al-Assad, Munzer al-Assad, Hafez’s nephews (Zuhair Shalish, Riyad Shalish), and Kamal’s son-in-law Ayman Jaber. It is not clear what methodology is followed in sanctioning these family members but not others. On April 3, 2017, the Council of the EU stated in its strategy on Syria that the EU would continue to consider further restrictive measures targeting “Syrian individuals and entities supporting the regime as long as the repression continues.” If this is one of the criteria, then why aren’t other family members, such as Zuhair al-Assad and Hussein al-Assad, sanctioned? They are more responsible for supporting the regime and repressing the population than, say, Manal Jadaan (Maher’s wife) or Zuhair Shalish. Manal is not known for having played any role in the regime.
[iii] Note that the advantages of being an Assad accrue mostly to men. The Alawite society is as patriarchal as that of the Sunnis — do not mistake the act of not wearing a headscarf for gender equality. A man who marries an Assad, however, is in luck. In the family tree above, see Assef Shawkat (married Bushra), Yousef al-Ahmad (Rau’a), Jihad Barakat (Intisar), and Ayman Jaber (unknown name/Kamal’s daughter).
[iv] The Makhloufs come from a more aristocratic background and are less known for their thuggery. Bashar’s reliance on the Makhloufs, especially Rami, was much greater than his father’s.
[v] After the 2011 uprising, the word Shabiha became more widely used in reference to all state-sponsored illicit activities, including tormenting the protesters.
[vi] To compensate for the common perception that the Assads are not the greatest thinkers, some members and their relatives particularly enjoy(ed) being called Doctor. This includes Jamil, Fawaz and Ammar al-Assad, as well as Jihad Barakat (Intisar al-Assad’s husband), whose academic credentials I couldn’t verify.
[vii] These gangs are operated by Karram Zuhair, Waseem Badee’, Bashar Talal, and Yasar Talal al-Assad.