Syria arrests cousin of Assad over officer killing
Syrian authorities have arrested a relative of President Bashar Assad on suspicion of shooting a senior army officer in a traffic dispute, setting off rare protests in a coastal stronghold of the Assad family.
Latakia's Gov. Khodr al-Salem said in comments published late Monday by state-run news agency SANA that Suleiman Assad was arrested at a farm in the province's countryside.
He said Assad, the son of the president's first cousin, Hilal, will be subject to legal measures that apply to any similar case.
Suleiman Assad had been on the run since he reportedly killed the army officer in a road rage incident two days ago.
The killing sparked mass protests in Latakia where more than 1,000 Latakians held a sit-in at al-Zaraa square demanding that Suleiman al-Assad be put to death for the alleged crime.
Most of the protesters are thought to be from the president's Alawite community, who are said to be growing increasingly disillusioned with the Assad regime.
The rare protests among former Assad-loyalists was sparked following the fatal shooting of army colonel Hassan al-Sheikh in front of his children.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights say that the colonel overtook Assad's car, leading to Sheikh being fatally shot.
Other reports suggest that it was Suleiman al-Assad who blocked the road.
"[Suleiman] overtook us and then blocked the road," said Sheikh's brother, who was in the car at the time of the killing, during an interview with Syria's Sham Radio and reported in British newspaper The Independent.
"My brother got out of the car and identified himself as an officer; the guy cursed my brother and the Syrian army. He then pointed a Kalashnikov out of the car's window and shot at us, and that's when I saw my brother was killed," he said.
Pro-regime newspaper, al-Watan, reported that Assad has spoken to Sheikh's widow and vowed to punish Suleiman al-Assad.
Mayssa Ghanem told the daily that she had "received a promise from President Assad to punish the perpetrator, whoever he is".
The pledge was passed to her by "official delegations that came to Latakia to express their sympathies", she said.
"I have confidence in the word of the president, who is personally taking charge. We will get our rights," Associated Press reported the widow saying.
Opposition among the Alawite community is growing in Latakia following a series of major military defeats by the regime in Jisr al-Shaggour in Idlib by rebel forces, and in Palmyra by the Islamic State group.
Rebel groups are now inching closer to the Alawite areas in the regime's stronghold of Latakia.
Many previously pro-regime supporters fear that the fall of the province in imminent.
The death toll is rising with the Syrian Observatory reporting that 729 regime soldiers and allied militiamen - including foreign fighters - were killed between 26 July and 8 August.
Many in the Alawite community feel that they have made enough sacrifices for the regime, and that the Assad family are taking an easy ride in the conflict.
Suleiman al-Assad's father, Hilal, was the local leader of the National Defence Force - a reserve force – and killed during a rebel offensive on Latakia in March 2014.
However, his son has an infamous reputation in the Syrian city of Latakia, where members of the president's family are known to act outside the law and with impunity.
Latakia, and other areas of regime-held territory, are also suffering from rampant inflation for basic goods, and social inequality in becoming clearer.