Monday, August 10, 2015

Murder triggers protests in Assad stronghold

Protesters demand execution of president's relative 

By Brian Whitaker

Sulaiman al-Assad likes posing with tanks and posting the pictures on his Facebook page

There are few things more likely to infuriate Arab citizens than blatant abuse of privilege – when those with powerful connections behave as if the law does not apply to them. This is what led to a rare public outburst at the weekend in the Syrian city of Latakia in the Assad regime's heartland.
Demonstrators took to the streets declaring their loyalty to President Assad while simultaneously demanding the execution of his cousin's son, Sulaiman al-Assad, for murdering a military officer in what appears to have been a fit of road rage.
On Thursday, according to witnesses (of whom there seem to be plenty), Sulaiman al-Assad overtook a car driven by Colonel Hassan al-Sheikh, and blocked the way in front of it. He was apparently angry at having been overtaken earlier by the colonel's car.
The Independent reports:
The brother of Al-Sheikh, who was in the car at the time of the incident, spoke to Syrian radio station Sham FM, "[Suleiman] overtook us and then blocked the road."
"My brother got out of the car and identified himself as an officer; the guy cursed my brother and the Syrian army. He then pointed a Kalashnikov [assault rifle] out of the car's window and shot at us, and that's when I saw my brother was killed."
"The shot was fatal and my brother died instantly," he said, adding that the colonel's wife and twins were present in the car with them and witnessed the entire incident.
The colonel’s brother has filed an official complaint accusing the President’s cousin and reports say that eye witness accounts agree with his claims.
While this might be viewed as just one more death among countless thousands in Syria, it has serious implications for the Assad regime. In a speech last month, the president conceded that the regime is withdrawing from some parts of the country in order to consolidate in those it believes it can hold on to – among them Latakia.
In the same speech, Assad also spoke openly about the depletion of his military forces. Scott Lucas writes:
He acknowledged for the first time that his military faces crippling shortages of manpower: “Everything is available [for the armed forces], but there is a shortfall in human capacity.”
In recent months, Syrian authorities have stepped up detentions at checkpoints to enforce conscription and raised the maximum age for service to well over 40. There are reports of raids on houses to seize more men for the battlefield. Earlier in July, Damascus announced the creation of new brigades, offering salaries well above the average soldier’s income and seeking commitments of at least two years.
Now Assad has granted amnesty to everyone has deserted or defected from the Syrian military during the four-year conflict, hoping they might return to the army.
The murder of an officer by a member of the Assad clan is scarcely going to assist this recruitment drive, but there's more to the public expressions of anger than a single incident. There's a long history of abuse by this particular branch of the family.
Before his death last year – apparently at the hands of rebel fighters – Sulaiman's father, Hilal al-Assad, was head of the Latakia branch of the National Defence Forces (NDF), Syria’s main pro-government militia. It was a position he had obviously got through family connections rather than military skill. Aron Lund notes:
"Virtually all other NDF commanders (there’s one per province) are career officers, typically at the rank of colonel or brigadier general. But despite commanding one of the most important NDF branches, that in Latakia, Hilal al-Assad was not a military figure at all."
Hilal had originally grown rich through smuggling but when that became less lucrative in the 1990s he enrolled for a degree in business studies and somehow managed to pass the exams – allegedly without attending any classes.
This apparently qualified him to be put in charge of the Latakia branch of Mu’assasat al-Iskan al-Askari, construction company owned by the defence ministry. As an employer, he did little to make himself popular, becoming notorious for later payment of wages. According to an article for Syria Comment, "When workers complained about their late wages, they had to face Military Intelligence, which Hilal would summon to deal with them."
The article also gives a portrait of Hilal's son, Sulaiman:
"He is a trouble maker and stories about him fill the internet. Some of these stories are true, while others are exaggerations by known anti-Assad agitators, who expound on the bad behavior of members of al-Assad clan. 
"He is almost always seen with his armed bodyguards, even on the beach, where his favorite pastime was to make hairpin turns with his all-terrain vehicle so that sand would spray those trying to relax at the shore. Reports of him shooting at people are many, but cannot be confirmed. Sulayman poses frequently with tanks belonging to the al-Difa’ al-Watani. He posts these on his Facebook page. 
"His reactions after the death of his father added to the troubles of the city. It increased the level of fear amongst all. Reports said that Sulayman went on a rampage twice, the first was the day when his father died. The second was few days later, when he went with some armed men to al-Slaybeh, a traditional Sunni neighborhood in the old city, and destroyed some of the furniture of al-Tabusheh famous cafe as well as that of a few other stores in the neighborhood. He ran away when the Mukhabarat showed up. This attack only deepened the sectarian divisions in the city."
Such is the anger in Latakia over Colonel Sheikh's murder that the regime seems to have recognised it cannot be ignored. A report on Sunday said a warrant had been issued for Sulaiman's arrest and another report claims he is now being held by "the competent authorities". Whether these reports are true, or merely an attempt to placate the protesters, remains to be seen. There are also claims that Sulaiman has been sighted in Damascus and Lebanon.
In the current military situation, the regime will probably have few qualms about eliminating Sulaiman if that proves necessary. But there are plenty of other thugs in the Assad family to provide unwelcome company for Syria's Alawites as they hunker down in the west of the country.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Monday, 10 August 2015  

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