A cousin of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad was arrested Monday after he allegedly killed a military officer in a brutal act of road rage. Suleiman al-Assad is accused of shooting Colonel Hassan Sheikh after the officer "overtook him at a crossroads," on August 6 in the province of Latakia. The incident sparked a series of protests over the weekend that put pressure on the government to act.
The Syrian news agency SANA reported late on Monday that al-Assad was arrested at a farm in the countryside, and transferred to the authorities for questioning. The governor of Latakia Said Khodr al-Salem issued a statement promising that Assad would be treated like any other criminal.
The Assads have run Syria for the last 45 years, and the arrest of ruling-family members is quite rare. But according to 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, Suleiman was not well-liked.
"Suleiman is a total asshole… he used his Assad name to throw his weight around and scare people," Landis 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 Suleimasheikn."
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 country's ongoing 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 borders 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."
Follow Avi Asher-Schapiro on Twitter: @AASchapiro
Watch the VICE News documentary, Pushing Back the Islamic State: The Battle for Rojava (Dispatch 1):