In this Jan. 19, 2018 photo, Syrian children cross a street in front a banner showing Syrian President Bashar Assad, in Aleppo, Syria.

In this Jan. 19, 2018 photo, Syrian children cross a street in front a banner showing Syrian President Bashar Assad, in Aleppo, Syria. Hassan Ammar/AP

Russia's Favorite Syrian Warlord

Brigadier General Suheil al-Hassan has won over Putin and played a central role in the assault on eastern Ghouta.

BEIRUT—Early on the morning of February 18, Syrian regime forces gathered on a field on the edge of eastern Ghouta, a rebel-held region near Damascus. The sky had just cleared after a weekend of torrential rain that had grounded Russian and Syrian regime warplanes conducting airstrikes on the area. Soon, a stout, bearded man began to speak. Many of the men gathered held up their cellphones to film him as he delivered a message to the rebels in eastern Ghouta: They would “see hell’s flames” if they mounted any resistance to his forces. “You will find no one to help you and if you cry for help, you will be succored with water as hot as melting metal,” Brigadier General Suheil al-Hassan warned them. “At your service my master the Tiger!” shouted one of the men in the crowd, using the intimidating nom de guerre he has acquired over the years.  “If you’re not with God then you’re with the devil. Be on the side of God so that God will be with you,” Hassan said.

Through Syria’s civil war, Hassan, a member of the minority Alawite sect like Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, has become something of a celebrity. In the lead-up to Russia’s intervention in the Syrian war in the fall of 2015, Hassan was believed to have been fatally injured in battle. But he re-emerged, transformed into a regime hero with a growing fan base and legions of admirers on social media. (Some speculated that the real Tiger was dead and that this man was an imposter drafted by the regime to boost morale after the major defeats it suffered before Russia came to the rescue.)

Unlike the more staid Assad, the flamboyant 48-year-old Hassan has often boasted of his efforts to exterminate regime enemies. This has endeared him to loyalists—and, it seems, to Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia. As he delivered his sermon of fire and fury that day on the edge of Ghouta, next to him stood four mysterious-looking soldiers dressed in full combat gear and masks. They appeared to be part of a personal security detail provided by the Russians.

True to Hassan’s words, Syrian government forces and their Russian backers unleashed hell on eastern Ghouta shortly after he spoke. Spokespeople for the Russian military in Syria disseminated a stream of messages via official social media accounts identifying Hassan, commander of the so-called “Tiger Forces,” as the leader of the land troops closing in on the areaThe messages said that Russia was backing Hassan and his men with airstrikes and Russian-supplied T-90 tanks, BM-30 Smerch multiple rocket launchers (considered to be among the deadliest in the world) and Tochka ballistic missiles. “We will provide the necessary air support to the forces of Brigadier General Suheil al-Hassan … We have real confidence in their ability to accomplish the mission,” Alexander Ivanov, the spokesman for Russian forces headquartered at the Hmeimim airbase in western Syrian, wrote on the base’s official Facebook page. Later, a pro-Syrian regime website also reported that several Russian army officers were on the ground working with Hassan in a command center in eastern Ghouta.

Since the Russian-backed campaign to retake eastern Ghouta began on February 18, it has killed at least 600 civilians, of whom at least 100 were children. Several thousand people have been wounded. Last weekend, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution calling for a 30-day ceasefire across Syria. The ceasefire, negotiated on Moscow’s terms, excluded groups that Putin and Assad regarded as terrorists—anyone who has taken up arms to fight the regime. On Monday, Putin ordered a daily five-hour “humanitarian pause” in eastern Ghouta rather than an outright 30-day halt to fighting.  

But Russia’s contribution to the destruction in eastern Ghouta has extended beyond providing overwhelming firepower and dictating the terms of surrender. The relentless assault has further revealed Russia’s instrumental role in supporting and promoting Hassan, one of Syria’s most notorious warlords.

On several occasions, the Russian military has acknowledged training and equipping what it has called “detachments” operating under Hassan’s command. These groups, like the Tiger Forces and the 4th and 5th Volunteer Assault Corps, are effectively paramilitary groups attached to regime forces. There are also reports that Russia pays the salaries of these Syrian militia-like formations. Still, Russia has pointed to its support for Hassan and his forces to make two claims: That the Russian army and its local partners defeated the Islamic State in Syria, and that Russian forces, unlike the U.S. military and others, are working with Syria’s legitimate government troops rather than militias or mercenaries.

“Units [commanded by] General Suheil al-Hassan accomplished the most important missions in main battles including [the] liberation of Kuweires Military Airbase, Palmyra, Aleppo, Hama, Deir Ezzour, Mayadin and the Euphrates Valley,” General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of staff of Russia’s armed forces, said last November. “Certainly, all the actions were held under support of the Russian aircraft and other hardware. The ISIS main forces have been defeated.” Of course, this telling left out the instrumental role played in these battles by the tens of thousands of Shiite militiamen under the command of Assad’s allies Iran and the Lebanese group Hezbollah.

Long before Hassan became Putin’s favored Syrian commander, Syrian and international human rights groups linked him to some of the Assad regime’s worst atrocities. At the start of the peaceful anti-regime protests in 2011, Hassan led special operations for the dreaded Air Force Intelligence Directorate. In Damascus, he and his men embedded with Syrian forces to ensure they carried out orders to fire upon and kill protesters, according to witness testimonycompiled by Human Rights Watch. Soldiers that disobeyed were shot dead on the spot. Not long after the anti-government demonstrations began, Hassan also oversaw the often deadly torture of protestors. He and his unit were connected to one of the bloodiest massacres against protesters in the southern province of Daraa at the end of April 2011, which resulted in the killing of almost 100 people, according to Human Rights Watch.

As the protests gave way to armed sectarian conflict in late 2011, Hassan was transferred to Hama Air Base in central Syria. Several of those who fought alongside him from 2012 to 2014 told me that as defections from the Syrian army mounted, he partnered with a ragtag force composed of loyalist units in the army and Alawite militias. One Syrian army general with him at the time said Hassan was responsible for at least one of the massacres committed in 2012 in Hama against villages accused of harboring rebels and army defectors. “In Treimseh, Suheil and I just surrounded them and slaughtered about 250,” Brigadier General Jamal Younes, commander of the 555th Airborne Regiment of the Syrian army’s Fourth Division, told me in 2014, referring to one village they targeted. Hassan’s scorched-earth methods spread to neighboring Idlib and Aleppo provinces.

Hassan is among the Assad regime figures that foreign-based Syrian lawyers and activists and their Western colleagues would seek to prosecute in a hypothetical war-crimes tribunal. “Suheil al-Hassan is a barbaric figure. He is associated with countless massacres [from] when Bashar feared his regime was going to collapse in 2012 and was thinking of establishing a fallback Alawite rump state,” Anwar al-Bounni, a human rights lawyer representing victims of Syrian-regime torture, told me.

The Russian military and state media, meanwhile, seem to have an unlimited appetite for the Tiger’s exploits. Press releases and stories have described him as “one of Syria’s most renowned military commanders,” and have depicted his Tiger Forces as invincible. In the summer of 2017, for instance, Russian Ka-52 helicopters conducted a night-time air raid on an ISIS target in the province of Deir Ezzour, clearing the way for Hassan’s Tiger Force to follow with a ground assault. Russia’s defense ministry called this “a virtuosic tactical landing operation behind militants’ lines,” while also noting that Russian military advisers controlled the operation.

Moscow has openly embraced Hassan. Gerasimov awarded him with a sword during a ceremony at Hmeimim for his apparent “valor” in the operation. (A year earlier, he had been given one of the Russian army’s highest medals.) Aside from Assad, who holds the military rank of field marshal and is Syria’s commander-in-chief, Hassan was the only Syrian military commander to attend a meeting with Putin at Hmeimim base last December to mark the defeat of ISIS. “Your Russian colleagues told me that you and your men fight incisively, courageously and in a results-oriented way,” Putin told Hassan in Russian, according to footage broadcast by RT. “I hope this cooperation will allow us to achieve more success going forward.” Hassan, seated across from Putin, put his hand on his heart and nodded with gratitude.

How long will Russia continue its assault on eastern Ghouta? The deaths of some two-dozen people in Damascus since February 18 from rebel mortar shells, some of which reportedly landed close to the Russian embassy, appear to be a good enough reason to continue the barrage. Meanwhile, the area’s two largest rebel factions, the Turkey-backed Failaq al-Rahman and Saudi Arabia-supported Jaish al-Islam have insisted the ceasefire must allow for humanitarian and medical aid deliveries to the beleaguered zone, in accord with the UN resolution. Both pledged this week to help remove the most extreme insurgents from eastern Ghouta. But Russia and the Assad regime have repeatedly accused them of taking civilians hostage and preventing them from evacuating through designated humanitarian corridors. Sporadic fighting and bombing has continued.

With the battle in eastern Ghouta not yet over, some supporters of Assad, which means lion in Arabic, are already speaking of the Tiger’s certain victory at the “gates of the lion’s den” in Damascus. The Tiger himself likened Damascus to a bride waiting for him and his men to “dress her in the robe of victory.”

How will this end for Hassan? While Moscow may love him, opponents of the Assad regime that I spoke to have speculated that the Tiger, a powerful, popular partner for the Russians within a regime configured to worship one paramount leader,  may have become too successful for his own good. The Assad regime, they said, will likely seek to eliminate him and blame it on the “terrorists”—the fate of many inside the regime who have tried to steal the lion’s thunder.