Maher Al Assad (left) and Bashar Al Assad. Maher was said to be his brother’s right-hand-man since the war broke out in 2011. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: Amidst high speculation on whether the move was a promotion or demotion, President Bashar Al Assad relieved his younger brother Maher Al Assad of his duties in the Republican Guard, an elite unit charged with presidential security.

Maher, rumoured to be the second most powerful man in Syria, was his brother’s right-hand-man and confidant since the outbreak of the Syria War in 2011.

Earlier this week, Al Assad signed off on a controversial military decree, relieving his brother, a senior officer in the Republican Guard, from his duties at the 4th armoured division of the Syrian army.

Maher has been tentatively assigned to army headquarters in Damascus, sparking huge speculation on whether this was a demotion or promotion, both within the regime itself and among opposition circles.

For Maher, all options are on the table — from defence minister and commander of army operations, to more ceremonial jobs like deputy chief-of-staff of the Syrian army.

Any of these jobs would need a promotion in rank, however, which happens twice annually every January and June.

There is no record of mistrust or intrigue between the two brothers Maher and Bashar, unlike the relationship between their father Hafez Al Assad and his younger brother Rifaat, who tried and failed to stage a coup and seize power for himself back in 1982.

Rifaat was relieved of his army post and appointed ceremonial vice-president of the republic, then banished from the country for an entire decade, returning briefly to take part in his mother’s funeral in 1994.

Until 2011, Maher was a relatively unknown figure in Syrian political circles, despite being appointed to the central command of the ruling Baath Party shortly after President Hafez Al Assad’s death in the summer of 2000.

He rose to fame with the outbreak of hostilities, as his army unit was charged with delicate operations on the Syrian battlefield. The pro-regime street swore by his name, dedicating entire Facebook pages to him.

His photos started to appear on car windows, side-by-side with those of the president, their father, and their late brother Basel, who was killed in a car accident back in 1994.

The decision to relieve Maher of his duties, first leaked through a Facebook page that streams news from the coastal city of Latakia, took the pro-regime streets by storm.

That decision was announced the very same day Russia announced its decision to withdraw some troops from Syria.

Members of the Syrian Opposition insist the Russians are side-stepping an entire generation of regime officials before reaching a political breakthrough with the US, while pro-regime circles confirm that this is just a tentative move ahead of transferring Maher to a more senior job in the Syrian army, actually at the advice of the Russians, who need a Syrian strongman and interlocutor in their “war on terror.”

The opposition got it wrong about Maher before, when they insisted he had been killed in 2012 and that he had lost an arm and leg during the battles around Damascus, two rumours that were refuted by his appearance alongside celebrated Syrian singer George Wassouf in 2014.

Maher, the youngest of Hafez Al Assad’s three male children, was born in December 1967.