Mohammad Tawfiq al-Assad, cousin of President Bashar al-Assad and believed to be one of the founders of the Syrian regime’s infamous shabeeha militias, has been assassinated in the village of Qardaha, the country’s main Alawite stronghold and the Assad family’s spiritual home.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights—which monitors the conflict in Syria using a network of sources on the ground—said Mohammad Tawfiq was shot in the head five times as a result of a dispute with a member of another prominent Alawite family in the village, which lies in the northwestern Lattakia province.
Official Syrian media outlets allied to the Assad regime however said Mohammad Tawfiq was killed “while fulfilling his national duty” fighting insurgents in the Dourine village on the rural outskirts of the province.
A senior member of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the armed wing of the main Syrian opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, denied that Mohammad Tawfiq was killed during fighting in Lattakia.
The FSA source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Asharq Al-Awsat Mohammad Tawfiq was a divisive figure in the area and had previously clashed not only with members of his own Assad family but with other prominent Alawite figures in Qardaha.
“Even until recently, his relationship with the Assad family wasn’t that great. Basil al-Assad, the late older brother of Bashar, had previously thrown him and some of his aides in jail over several offenses including drug-smuggling, kidnapping and theft,” the source said.
But he was subsequently freed by Bashar, the source said, after the Syrian conflict erupted in 2011, in order to lead the recruitment of young Syrian men for the regime’s shabeeha militias, who have been accused of committing numerous atrocities against civilians throughout the now four-year conflict.
Other sources have speculated that Mohammad Tawfiq’s assassination was a revenge attack for an incident that occurred in 2012, as opposition forces were making inroads in the conflict, before the regime began to turn the tide of the war in its own favor.
The sources said prominent Alawite families in Qardaha were worried about possible revenge attacks on Alawites in the village should it fall to the opposition, due to the atrocities committed by the shabeeha.
The dispute came to a head in October 2012 when Mohammad Tawfiq was spending the evening at a caf