Getting to know Syria's first family

An undated photo shows former Syrian President Hafez Assad seated with his wife, Anisa. Behind them from left to right are children Maher, Bashar, Basel, Majd and Bushra.

Story highlights

  • Behind the scenes, the relatives of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hold significant influence
  • Al-Assad has put some of them in important government positions
  • His brother Maher is a military leader often considered Syria's second most powerful man
  • His nephew Rami Makhlouf is regarded as the richest person in the country
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is the face of his country's regime, but his family members are also believed to wield a powerful influence on issues facing the country.
In the past year, as pressure on the regime increased, al-Assad's inner circle has become more of a family affair, said David Lesch, a professor of Middle East history and author of "The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Assad and Modern Syria."
"That's part of what Bashar has been doing ever since he came to power," Lesch said. "He has put members of his extended family ... in various parts of government and military security apparatus. If the day came -- and it did come -- where there was a threat to the regime, he could count on the loyalty of those closest to him."
Here is a closer look at the al-Assad family, an authoritarian dynasty that has been in place for more than 40 years.
The matriarch
Anisa Makhlouf al-Assad
Bashar's mother, Anisa, was married to Hafez Assad, Bashar's father and predecessor, who died in 2000.
The Makhlouf family gained wealth and status through Anisa's marriage to Hafez, taking on contracts in key industries, among them telecommunications, banking and oil. Anisa's nephew, Rami, is regarded as Syria's wealthiest man, worth some $5 billion.
Anisa is said to be an influential figure within the regime despite keeping an extremely low profile over the years (she was not even seen during coverage of her husband's funeral). Syrian writer Ayman Abdel Nour, who went to college with Bashar, says there was distance between Bashar and his father and that Anisa was "the mother and father and mentor of the family."
The first lady
Asma Akhras al-Assad
Asma al-Assad is the Syrian-British wife of the president. Born to a cardiologist father and a diplomat mother, she grew up in London, where she was known by friends and classmates as "Emma."
Asma graduated from King's College in London with a degree in computer science. She worked for JP Morgan as an investment banker before marrying Bashar in 2000, six months after he became president.
Experts say it's uncertain exactly how much influence first lady Asma al-Assad holds in Syria.
Her influence remains unclear. Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert who knew Asma al-Assad and worked with her told CNN: "No one can say what's happening behind closed palace doors, but I doubt she feels she has any control or would ultimately have much influence over what her husband is doing."
The last major profile of her was by Vogue in spring 2011; however, a cache of emails recently leaked to CNN shed deep light on the first lady's personal life over the past year, amidst the civilian uprisings taking place in her country. One e-mail features an apparent request to a friend for the latest "Harry Potter" DVD. Another series of e-mails features exchanges about shopping for high-end jewelry, furniture and art. (More about Asma al-Assad)
The younger brother
Maher al-Assad
Maher al-Assad is Bashar's youngest brother and considered by many to be the second most powerful man in Syria. He oversees two of the Syrian army's strongest units: the Republican Guard, which protects the regime in Damascus, and the elite Fourth Armored Division, which suppressed the early uprisings in the southern part of Syria.
A hard-liner with a reputation for being cruel and moody, according to television channel France 24, Maher allegedly shot his brother-in-law, Asef Shawkat, in the stomach during an argument in the presidential palace in 1999.
A New York Times profile on Maher reports that many Syrians who know him say he has a sharp intellect as well as a harsh and ruthless nature. He has apparently attempted to restructure Syria's military and intelligence so that both entities reflect his persona.
The older sister
Bushra al-Assad
Bushra al-Assad is the eldest of al-Assad's five siblings. A pharmacist by training, she is said to be very intelligent. She also had a close rela