BEIRUT — An apparent road-rage incident that caused the death of a Syrian colonel last week has led to a rare eruption of anger against the family of President Bashar al-Assad in a key stronghold of his minority sect in northwestern Syria.
Although some Assad supporters say a bodyguard fired the shot that killed the colonel, others allege that a relative of the president pulled the trigger of the Kalashnikov assault rifle.
Either way, the incident has enraged residents of an area long loyal to Assad at a time when his government is losing substantial territory elsewhere in the country to rebels. During a protest Saturday, dozens in the coastal city of Latakia called for Suleiman al-Assad, the president’s cousin, to be tried — and even executed — for the colonel’s shooting death during a roadside scuffle Thursday. On social media, the vitriol was harsh, with much of it directed at the president and his family.
“This is not the first time that a thug from the Assad family attacks an Alawite citizen in Latakia,” Louay Hussain, a well-known critic of the president, wrote in a Facebook post.
Such public criticism of an Assad family member has been rare in government strongholds such as Latakia over the course of Syria’s four-year-old conflict. The city is dominated by the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam whose members control the government and the upper echelons of the military and security agencies. Most members of the minority group — about 10 percent of Syria’s prewar population of 24 million — have remained loyal to Assad, a fellow Alawite.
But that loyalty is rooted in fear of the Sunni Islamist rebels leading the fight against the government, not love for the president, said Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. Alawites also have suffered huge casualties battling the rebels, which is fueling anger, Khatib said.
“The Alawite community is losing confidence in the ability of the Assad regime to protect them,” she said.
Shortly after Col. Hassan al-Sheikh’s killing, his relatives began issuing public demands for the arrest of Suleiman al-Assad, a pro-government militia leader in his 20s who is a first cousin once removed of the president.
Sheikh overtook a Toyota carrying Suleiman, and an altercation between the two men — both Alawites — broke out after they pulled to the side of the road, a brother of Sheikh told state-affiliated radio afterward. That is when Suleiman shot Sheikh with a Kalashnikov, according to the brother, who is calling for protests.
Senior officials have not commented on the incident, although apparent Assad sympathizers have said on social media that Suleiman’s bodyguard probably fired the weapon.
In a Monday post on his Facebook page, Suleiman, whose whereabouts are unknown, denied the allegations against him. He also lashed out at critics, calling them “dogs” and “traitors” who dodged mandatory military service.
The Facebook posts have drawn hundreds of angry responses, including from fellow Alawites frustrated at the apparent impunity enjoyed by those close to Assad.
“You, Assad family, have mastered crime in every way possible,” one person wrote.
The unusual outcry, however, has jolted at least some government officials into damage-control mode.
During the protest Saturday, the governor of Latakia, Ibrahim al-Salem, told “the people that there would be justice for this killing,” a 34-year-old resident of the city said by telephone.
“The people can no longer tolerate this,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of concern for his safety.
Sam Alrefaie contributed to this report.