14 Mar 2015 02:17 PM PDT – By: Mohammad D. – For Syria Comment, March 14, 2015
Muhammad Tawfiq al-Assad, a.k.a Shaykh al-Jabal, a well known second cousin of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was killed two days ago. He was the son of Tawfic al-Assad. His grandfather, Ismail al-Assad, was a half-brother of the late president Hafez al-Assad. Muhammad al-Assad, a.k.a Shaykh al-Jabal, was the best known and most feared member of the second generation of shabiha that emerged from the al-Assad family in rural Latakia in the early 1980s. In his death announcement (Na’wa نعوة), he is listed as both a Doctor and Mujahid. He was 48 years old.
His being given the honorific title “Mujahid” made people ask where and when Muhammad al-Assad, a.k.a Shaykh al-Jabal, was fighting. His supporters claimed that he was killed in the vicious battle underway in Doreen دورين, east of Latakia.
The Battle of Doreen is important and has been heated for some time. The Syria Arab Army and National Defense Forces (al-Difa’ al-Watani) attacked recently and were able to achieve some success. The Hill of Doreen fell first, then Doreen itself. But since then it has become a tough back-and-forth slog against a coalition of rebel militias that include Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Jabha al-Islamiyah. The rebels are trying to retake the high ground and break through into the Alawite areas below Doreen. The high ground also allows for rockets to be fired at Latakia.
Doreen is a well known summer resort in the mountains next to Salma. It is a Sunni village and was held by the anti Assad groups for years. Salma is the biggest and only important stronghold left in the hands of the anti Assad forces East of Latakia in the Jabal al-Akrad region.
Doreen is strategically important because it is a high point and puts Salma, a major rebel stronghold, under the guns of Assad forces. The fall of Salma would provide a major victory for al-Assad in the coastal areas. Thus, the battles are heated. To put Muhammad al-Assad, a.k.a, Shaykh al-Jabal in the midst of this battle would mean that he was a Mujahid, as his death notice claims.
The Question is: was Shaykh al-Jabal really fighting there? Alawite sources that I have contacted in Latakia, and one in al-Qurdaha itself, all claim he was not. They confirm one story: Shaykh al-Jabal was killed near al-Qurdaha by a man named Ali Salhab علي سلهب. This happened after Shaykh al-Jabal had a long night of drinking and partying. Whether or not Ali Salhab was drinking is debated because many said he ambushed Shaykh al-Jabal, then shot him dead.
There was bad blood between these two men. One of the sources said that “Shaykh al-Jabal ” was killed because he had put Ali Salhab in prison and tortured him. According to this source, Mohammad al-Assad had his own prison. Another source said that Ali Salhab killed him because of a land deal gone bad, and that Assad’s body was then taken to Doreen in order to provide him with an honorable death at the battle front.
When asking a pro-Assad supporter about the doctorate degree Muhammad al-Assad A.K.A. Shaykh al-Jabal claimed on his death notice, he said: “His degree is false…he was no doctor…just a smuggler… he bought his doctorate from an Eastern European country the same way he bought the name Shaykh al-Jabal for himself. See, the real Shaykh al-Jabal are the fighters who are cold, most likely hungry, and fighting in the mountains…”
Muhammad al-Assad gave himself the name Shaykh al-Jabal, when he was an up-and-coming smuggler in the late 1980s and one of the Shabiha. But, he was not the top Shabih by any measure. That position was held by Fawaz al-Assad, the son Hafiz al-Assad’s full brother Jamil. Despite being under the shadow of Fawaz, “Shaykh al-Jabal” was able to assemble a notorious gang of smugglers that operated for a long time. But when the age of smuggling came to an end with the opening up of the economy, Muhammad al-Assad bought himself a Ph.D and upgraded along with the rest of Syria.
Stories about his bad behavior are many, the most notorious of which is the story of Hala ‘Aqel, a very beautiful Alawite 18 year old who died in mysterious circumstances twenty-five years ago. Anti-Assad agitators claimed that Shaykh al-Jabal killed her. I myself was living in Latakia when this happened and to my knowledge no one knew how she died. No investigation was carried out into the reasons for her sudden death. This left the door open for those who had been hurt by the Assads to claim that Muhammad had killed her.
Bashar al-Assad’s many second cousins and distant relatives who share his family name do not orbit in the same sphere as his first cousins, many of whom are trusted to fill sensitive positions in running security or the economy. Mohammad al-Assad may have shared the president’s last name, but his notoriety came from being a smuggler and highway robber (qata’ al-tariq) and not as a man of consequence.
Note: Jabal means mountain in Arabic. Shaykh al-Jabal means: The Chief of the Mountain.