BEIRUT – Syria's President Bashar Assad, beset by a popular upheaval that won't die, appears to be turning more and more to a tiny coterie of relatives, the backbone of a family dynasty that has kept Syria's 22 million people living in fear for decades.
Younger brother Maher is key, believed in command of much of the current bloody crackdown. Chief of Syria's elite forces, a man reputed to have once shot a brother-in-law in the stomach in a family feud, Maher's recent tactics have been denounced as inhumane by no less than the prime minister of neighboring Turkey.
A sister, an uncle and assorted cousins round out the family portrait, a picture of an entrenched power structure that relies on a vast, pervasive security apparatus and whose influence eclipses the role of Syria's formal government.
It all dates back to 1970 and a coup led by Bashar's father, the late President Hafez Assad, a member of the Alawites, a poor minority Muslim sect whose ambitious young men rose to power through the military. The brotherly right hand also dates back to those days, when Hafez Assad relied on sibling Rifaat as his enforcer.
As the anti-government uprising wears on, President Assad, a seemingly mild-mannered ophthalmologist, may find family lieutenants convenient foils, as well, for deflecting popular outrage away from himself. He has already jettisoned one cousin, focusing blame on him for 2011's first attacks on protesters.
Syrian pro-democracy activists and others see relatives' hands in the move to crack down harshly.
As protests spread in April, U.S. congressional researchers cited reports that the family fears that "easing up on protesters could embolden them, bringing much larger crowds into the streets."
Maher Assad, 42, is commander of the army's 4th Division, regarded as Syria's best-equipped and most highly trained forces, and of the six brigades of the Republican Guard, responsible for protecting the capital, Damascus.
Since the uprising began in mid-March, activists say, Maher's troops have played a role in anti-dissident operations in the southern city of Daraa, the coastal city of Banias, the central province of Homs and the northern province of Idlib, where thousands of terrified residents have fled into nearby Turkey. The activists report some 1,400 people killed and 10,000 detained in the crackdown.
On Thursday in Idlib, security forces pressed their operation, arresting hundreds of young men, activists said.
Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, clearly credits the reports about Maher Assad, saying earlier this month his actions approach "savagery."
Bassam Jaara, a Syrian journalist and opposition figure living in London, said the president's brother is highly influential. "Maher Assad is the commander of the two most powerful units in the military," he said. "It is natural that he has the final word."
Another dissident figure in exile, Muhieddine Lathkani, said Maher "is known to be moody and ruthless."
Unverified reports say the younger brother shot brother-in-law Assef Shawkat in the stomach in 1999 after an argument. "There are so many stories about Maher, such as killing this person, torturing another, slapping a senior official in the face," Lathkani said.
In 2005, an inadvertently released passage of a U.N. investigative report cited a witness saying Maher Assad and that same brother-in-law, Shawkat, head of military intelligence at the time, were among those behind the assassination of then-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri of Lebanon.
A draft sealed indictment is pending in the Hariri case, but no suspects' names are confirmed. This spring the U.S. and the European Union imposed financial sanctions against top Syrian officials, including Maher Assad.
Besides his brother, President Assad, 45, who took power in 2000 after his father's death, relies on brother-in-law Shawkat, now a major general and deputy army chief of staff; his cousin Rami Makhlouf, Syria's most influential businessman; Makhlouf's brother, Hafez, a senior intelligence officer; and cousin Zou al-Hima Shawish, in charge of presidential security.
The president's elder sister, Bushra, Shawkat's wife, is "rumored to be a key decision-maker," congressional researchers reported in April.
Most influential of all, some say, is Assad's maternal uncle, Mohammed Makhlouf, father of the Makhlouf cousins and a man highly respected by his sister Anisa, the president's widowed mother, and her children.
The Syrian leader has shown, however, that politics — and regime survival — can be more important than blood.
Days after the protests exploded in the southern town of Daraa, and were brutally suppressed, President Assad removed cousin Atef Najib from his post as security chief there. He had been accused by local people of driving protesters into the streets with his harsh treatment of some teenage pro-democracy graffiti writers.
Najib and the local governor were then referred to a court for investigation and were banned from leaving the country.
Bashar Assad, who has made only two public speeches since the uprising began, was apparently trying to distance his presidency from the bloody repression, seeking to preserve support for a post-uprising period.
In apparently the same vein, cousin Rami Makhlouf, reviled by many Syrians for alleged corruption, told reporters in Damascus on Thursday he would in the future devote profits from his 40-percent share in the SyriaTel mobile phone network to charity, and take other steps to help "as many Syrians as possible."
Whether such tactics score political points or not, analysts say, the family must stand together or fall together.
"It is a network of personal interests and family links setting up a protection network around the Assad family," said Syrian scholar Radwan Ziadeh, of Washington's George Washington University. "If the Assad family collapses, all this network will collapse."