A CAR bomb in Damascus on February 21st was the latest violence to hit the capital where many members of President Bashar Assad’s ruling cabal remain in place. Rebel forces have taken over villages and towns in the east and north of Syria and around Damascus, while Mr Assad’s allies have consolidated their grip along the north-south axis from Damascus, through Homs and Hama, to the coastal area around the port of Latakia. Power is concentrated within an ever smaller circle: the Assad family, the Makhloufs—Mr Assad’s mother’s relatives—and a handful of security chiefs. Defections have mostly been from the lower ranks of the army and government, both largely powerless. Some family members have left the country but those left are believed to be hunkering down on and around Mount Qassioun in Damascus, in heavily fortified palaces which they can more easily defend and from whose heights they can shell the areas around them.
Bashar Assad: Previously a winner of popularity polls among Arab leaders, Bashar once boasted that he could drive his own car around Syria without bodyguards. Today, detested by most of his countrymen, public appearances are rare, unannounced and carried out under heavy security. His last was in late January, praying in a mosque in northern Damascus. As the war has worsened, diplomats say the president has become increasingly defiant and brazen. He has shrugged off requests that he step down, even hinting that he plans to run in elections in 2014 if a political solution with the opposition can be negotiated. Reports in a Saudi newspaper Bashar is living on a Russia warship off the Syrian coast and uses a helicopter to fly in for meetings are false: he is believed to still reside in Damascus.
Asma Assad: Despite persistent rumours that she has fled, Bashar’s wife, Asma, is also believed to be holed up in Damascus with her husband and their three children. Many hoped that with to her British upbringing and charity work in Syria before the uprising, she might prove to be a force for reform. But when emails leaked to the Guardian, a British newspaper, in March 2012 showed her shopping for expensive shoes and vases as her husband’s forces slaughtered Syrians, they turned against her. Vogue magazine took down an uncomfortably gushing feature that had described her as the “freshest and most magnetic of first ladies”.
Maher Assad: Maher Assad, the president’s only living brother, is an important military voice within the regime and is believed to be one of the masterminds of the current crackdown, which has left over 60,000 dead. Many hard-line Alawites—the sect who make up the bulk of the security forces and of which the Assads are members—say Maher should become president if Bashar goes. His mother was said to favour Maher rather than Bashar for the presidency but was overruled by her husband, former president Hafez Assad. Maher was rumoured to have lost a leg in the bombing of a security building in Damascus on July 18th, but this has not been confirmed.
Bushra Assad: Bushra’s husband, security bigwig Assef Shawkat, was killed in the July 18th bombing. His is the regime’s biggest loss yet. After this Bushra, who is the president’s sister, moved to Dubai with her five children. A trained pharmacist, she has a fearsome reputation in Damascus and was believed to exercise considerable influence over Bashar.
Anisa Makhlouf: The widow of former president Hafez Assad and Bashar’s mother, Anisa is a formidable figure. Some say she advocated an even stronger response to Syrian protests than the already heavy-handed approach favoured by her son. As the war worsened, she become one of the few people Bashar still consulted. In January she left Syria and is now living in Dubai with her daughter and grandchildren.
Rami Makhlouf: The president’s cousin, a business tycoon who has been the subject of American sanctions since 2008 for « public corruption », tried to redeem the regime’s failing reputation in June 2011 by saying he would retire and dedicate himself to charity work. Documents later released by Wikileaks show Mr Makhlouf buying shares in two private banks after making this announcement. After a bellicose interview with the New York Times in which Mr Makhlouf said the regime would fight to the end, he, like most members of the regime, disappeared from public view.
Hafez Makhlouf: Like his brother Rami, Hafez, a member of the inner circle, felt the bite of American sanctions even before the uprising. In late 2011 he was denied entry to Switzerland to meet his lawyers regarding money that had been frozen in bank accounts he holds there. He is believed to have been injured in the July 18th bombing, but is still in charge of security in Damascus.