The attack on a meeting in Damascus on 18 July killed four members of Mr Assad’s inner circle, including his brother-in-law, and emboldened rebels to take their fight to the capital for the first time in a 17-month long uprising.
Maher has not been seen in public since the bombing, while Mr Assad himself has restricted appearances to recorded clips broadcast on television, leading to speculation that his authority is waning.
Maher had acquired a fearsome reputation as the commander of the Syrian army’s Republican Guard and 4th Division, elite formations largely composed of troops from the Assads’ minority Alawite sect, whose loyalty can be relied on in the fight against the mainly Sunni rebels.
“We heard that he [Maher al-Assad] lost one of his legs during the explosion, but don’t know any more,” a western diplomat said yesterday.
A Gulf source confirmed the report: “He lost one of his legs. The news is true.”
The disclosure of Maher’s injury came as fears grew that the conflict that has already claimed the lives of at least 20,000 people in Syria was starting to spill over its borders into a region already torn by sectarian divisions. Air raids on Tuesday in the Turkish border town of Azaz are thought to have killed 40 people and injured hundreds.
Gulf Arab states told their citizens to leave Lebanon after a Lebanese Shiite clan kidnapped more than 20 people in Beirut and initially threatened to seize more Arab nationals.
The gunmen said a Turkish hostage, whose country is a key backer of Syria’s Sunni-led insurgency, would be the first to die if one of their kinsmen held by Syrian rebels in Damascus were killed. The powerful Meqdad family is seeking to put pressure on rebels to release clan member Hassan al-Meqdad, who has been held by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) for two days.
An earlier threat by the kidnappers to seize Saudis, Turks and Qataris to secure the release of their kinsman bore ominous echoes of Lebanon’s own civil war – and Arab governments lost no time in urging visitors to leave Beirut’s popular summer tourist haunts. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain all told their nationals to leave at once. Some nations have already begun flying their citizens home.
“The snowball will grow,” warned Hatem al-Meqdad, a senior member of the Meqdad family.
Mr Assad, whose Alawite minority is an offshoot of Shia Islam, has long relied on support from Shia Iran and its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon. He accuses the Sunni powers of the Gulf and Turkey of promoting the revolt against him, which grew out of Arab Spring demonstrations.
The kidnapping by the Meqdad clan on Wednesday will damage a Lebanese economy inwhich Gulf tourists have played a part in recovery after 15 years of civil war ended in 1990.
Maher al-Meqdad, the clan’s spokesman, said they were only targeting the Free Syrian Army and Turks, insisting that Saudis, Qataris and other Gulf nationals were not targets.
“If Hassan is killed, the first hostage we will kill is the Turk,” he said. He later said the clan had “halted military operations”, signalling it would stage no further abductions.