[M]aher al-Assad has in many ways played a more decisive role in the country's civil war than his elder brother, commanding its most formidable military division as it claws back losses and leading the defence of Damascus against an opposition that remains entrenched on the capital's outskirts. The question many Syrians are asking, after last week's revelations of an apparent chemical attack on civilians in rebel-held areas, is what role the president's brother may have played in the atrocity.
Maher has remained a senior member of the Ba'ath party's central committee and a central pillar of a police state that, despite the ravages of war and insurrection, remains one of the most effective in the world.
As the trajectory of Syria's war has wobbled throughout the past year, opposition gains in parts being offset by regime advances elsewhere, the 4th Armoured Division Maher commands has been a chief protagonist on behalf of the regime. He has acted as division commander since at least 2000, and at the same time leads Syria's other premier fighting force, the Republican Guards. Both units have been at the vanguard of the war since its earliest days, and were active again last week as loyalist forces launched their biggest operation yet to root out rebel groups from the capital.
It was while this operation was under way that thousands of residents of east Ghouta were exposed to what scientists increasingly believe was a nerve agent, possibly sarin. Attempts to pin down who was responsible for the attack are now the subject of a global intelligence effort that has already started to zero in on loyalist military units as the likely suspects.