WASHINGTON — The powerful brother of Syrian President Bashar Assad is suspected of authorizing the chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds of Syrian civilians, according to a United Nations official who monitors armed conflicts in the region.
Maher Assad, the younger brother of the president, commands the regime's Republican Guard and controls the Syrian Army's 4th Armored Division, an elite unit that the opposition says launched the Aug. 21 attack on the eastern Ghouta suburbs of the capital, Damascus.
The use of chemical weapons may have been a brash action by Maher Assad rather than a strategic decision by the president, according to the U.N. official, who asked not to be named.
Identifying the chain of command behind the chemical attack would go into calculations about who, what and how to strike in any retaliatory action, the U.N. official said. If Maher Assad is the culprit, for example, a Republican Guard stronghold may be targeted rather than a presidential facility, the official said.
Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, doubts that such an important action — openly defying President Barack Obama's "red line" against the use of chemical weapons — would be done without Bashar Assad's approval.
"It's inconceivable to me," Landis said in a phone interview. "There has been nothing to indicate that Bashar is just a figurehead."
For now, Maher's role is largely a matter of conjecture. He's a shadowy figure with a reputation for loyalty to his brother and brutality toward their opponents. Early in the uprising, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly denounced his "savagery."
"I don't doubt that he is ruthless, but I also don't doubt that Bashar is ruthless," said Landis. "Is he more ruthless than Bashar? I think that is a useless line of inquiry because they are both killing people with abandon."
The opposition says as many as 1,300 people, many of them women and children, died and many more were injured in the pre- dawn attack after rebel advances in the area. U.N. inspectors visited the area on Aug. 26 to gather evidence from victims and the attack scene to help determine whether and what kind of chemicals were used. Their mandate doesn't extend to determining who was responsible.
The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation Wednesday said the Syrian government must be held "legally and morally" accountable for the "heinous" crime, according to a statement issued by the group.
The timing of the attack was surprising because the U.N. chemical-weapons inspection team was already in Damascus, initially assigned to investigating several previous small incidents. Also, it came at a time when the regime, bolstered by Iran and the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah militia, has strengthened its position and recaptured some lost ground.
The Assad brothers are bound together in a effort to maintain their family's four-decade rule in the face of an uprising by the dominant Sunni population and an influx of radical Islamist fighters allied with al-Qaida. More than 100,000 people have died since the uprising began with peaceful protests in March 2011, according to the UN.
Their father, Hafez Assad, who took control of Syria in a 1970 coup, established a security structure that relied on loyalty from family, those who shared their minority Alawite faith, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and some members of the country's Sunni elite, as well as some Christians and members of the Druze sect.
Hafez Assad put his younger brother, Rifaat, in charge of the elite Alawite forces that defend the leadership. Rifaat Assad led a crackdown against a 1982 Sunni uprising in which an estimated 25,000 people were killed in the city of Hama.
Hafez chose Bashar, an ophthalmologist by training, over Maher as his heir after their brother Bassel, who was being groomed to follow his father, died in a car accident in 1994. Bashar, who took power in 2000 following his father's death, installed Maher as his security chief.
"Maher is the knee-capper in this operation," said Landis. "He is in charge of doing the heavy lifting of punishing people and preserving the regime through military means."
Maher commands the Republican Guard, as well as having effective command of the elite 4th Armored Division's force of 20,000 to 25,000 troops.
"The 4th Armored Division has performed as Bashar Assad's indispensable elite unit since the outset of the 2011 uprising," according to a February report by the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington research group. "Almost all of the division's troops are career soldiers, and former Syrian Army officers estimate that 80 percent of the division's ranks are Alawites."
Maher's position within the regime's inner circle is further strengthened by his role in coordinating the operations of the Alawite Shabiha militia, according to Torbjorn Soltvedt, senior analyst at Maplecroft, a Britain-based risk consultant. The Shabiha militias, made up of Alawites loyal to the regime, were cited by a U.N. panel for committing crimes against humanity, including torture and murder.
"He's been present during some of the most brutal campaigns to suppress the opposition," Andrew Tabler, a Syria analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in a phone interview. Given his role, it's unlikely he would use chemical weapons independently of his brother, Tabler said.
_ With assistance from Onur Ant in Ankara.