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Syria's "thug-in chief"

Meet the man behind the violence sweeping Syria.

In a family often likened to a violent mafia — in 1999 Maher reportedly shot his brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, now deputy head of the army, in the stomach when Shawkat dared to criticise Rifaat — Maher appeared a moody, unstable character to those who knew him.

“He was a bad tempered guy, shy and polite, but at the same time when he got angry he was scary and did not make sense,” said Maher al-Assad’s sister-in-law, Majd al-Jadaan, who now lives in exile in Washington. “He is a very stubborn man and there is no way to make him change his ideas.”

Jadaan, 48, whose sister Manal, 41, is married and has two daughters with Maher, was forced to leave Damascus in August 2008 after years of arguments with Maher.

“I never believed a word of what they say,” said Jadaan, who founded the Syrian International School, which was closed down when she was forced out of the country.

“Though there was a time where I tried to work according to their way of thinking, I could not hold on for long. I knew that no one can talk about nationalism and cause this much harm to my country.”

Jadan confirmed that a recently released video showing a chubby man in a tracksuit standing among uniformed soldiers while taking photos of dozens of mutilated corpses is indeed Maher.

“He was always a mysterious man, the kind that gives you the feeling he would love to hide who he is inside his heart. He never gives you a solid answer about anything and also never shows his real intentions,” she said.

“When I saw the video I was shocked and I cried for two days, not believing the other side of him, the hidden personality, the one I could sense but tried to deny all those years.”

But having inspired fear for decades, a name once dared only to be whispered is now chanted in regular abandon by protesters on Syrian streets.

“Ya Maher, subrak, subrak! Qatana am tuhfour abrak!” chant the young protesters on a video apparently shot in Qatana, 15 miles west of Damascus, during a protest on June 17.

Roughly translated, the chant means: “Oh Maher, patient, patient, Qatana is digging your grave.”