Protests erupted over the weekend in the Syrian city of Latakia after a relative of President Bashar al-Assad reportedly shot and killed a high-ranking army officer in a brutal act of road rage.
Syrian media reports say that Suleiman al-Assad, a cousin once removed of the president, shot Colonel Hassan Sheikh after the officer "overtook him at a crossroads."
"Suleiman is a total asshole… he used his Assad name to throw his weight around and scare people," Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the School of International and Area Studies at the University of Oklahoma, and editor of the website Syria Comment, told VICE News.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, thousands of people took to the streets in protest on Saturday in Latakia — a stronghold of the ruling Alawite religious community of which Assad is a member — to call for justice. The demonstrators carried photos of Sheikh and Assad, and chanted "the people want the execution of Suleiman."
Demands by pro-Assad Latakia for execution of Assad's cousin, for killing a general. If only Assad dismissed his generals in Deraa in 2011?
— Hassan Hassan (@hxhassan)August 9, 2015
On Monday, the Syrian government pledged to Sheikh's family that justice will be served, though Suleiman's whereabouts are unknown. Suleiman proclaimed his innocence in a Facebook post on Monday, accusing his detractors of being "dogs" and "draft dodgers."
The killing and protests could have wide-ranging political implications in Syria. Latakia and the surrounding region are fiercely loyal to the Assad regime, and many young men from the region serve as officers in the Syrian army.
According to Landis, the killing of an officer by a member of the ruling family has the potential to drive a wedge between the regime and its closest allies. "A lot of young guys sitting at road blocks, they feel like chopped meat to be sacrificed," he said. "When you get an honored colonel shot because of some road rage issue, it underscores how the burden of this terrible war is not being shared equally."
Sheikh's brother openly criticized the Assad regime over the weekend, saying he hoped "the blood of my brother will save us from these criminal actions that kill people on the streets," a reference to pro-Assad militias that have sprung up since the beginning of the civil war.
The incident comes as the Syrian military is losing ground against Islamic State militants and al-Nusra Front, a rebel group aligned with al Qaeda. Over the past few months the government has lost control of parts of Idlib province, which border Latakia, and the Syrian army is increasingly operating with poor discipline and low morale. The president also recently admitted the army faces a "shortage of manpower."
"Obviously the killing of an army officer by a member of the Assad family further undermines the integrity and morale of the military," Landis said, adding that it also has the potential to prompt reflection among Syria's Alawite minority — which comprises around 10 percent of the country's population — about its support for the Assad family.
"Other Alawites don't feel the Assads are sharing the burden," Landis said. "There are many Alawites tweeting, or on Facebook saying 'If we had only done something a few years ago, we wouldn't be in this crappy situation we are today."
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