The Syrian Tiger: Assad's Biggest Threat May Be From Within

Damascus regime's counter-insurrection chief has become a cult hero for his battlefield prowess. But Bashar al-Assad is unlikely to stand for long for worship of anyone else but himself.

Colonel Suhail al-Hassan (rt) greeting troops
Colonel Suhail al-Hassan (rt) greeting troops
Benjamin Barthe

BEIRUT — He's the man at the heart of the Syrian security apparatus. Immediately recognizable because of his mustache and the way he wears his kepi tilted forward, Col. Suhail al-Hassan, known as al-Nimr ("the Tiger"), is the principal figure of the Damascus counter-insurrection strategy the government launched in spring 2013.

The feathers in his cap include raising the siege in the loyalist neighborhoods of Aleppo and recapturing the suburbs northeast of the city — a possible prelude to surrounding the neighborhoods to the east controlled by the rebels.

In October, after having destroyed the city of Morek with barrel explosives, his troops also recaptured it so that government forces could then use it to launch into the province of Idlib.

These victories gave Suhail al-Hassan an outsized aura in loyalist circles. Dozens of pages followed by tens of thousands of fans were created in his honor on Facebook. The officer was hailed as the "right man for the job," the "symbol of victory" and "the hero of our time."

A real first in the autocratic regime of President Bashar al-Assad, the cult of Hassan says a great deal about the malfunctioning of Syrian power. "It's the Samir Geagea syndrome," says Jihad Yazigi, a Syrian analyst, referring to the former leader of the Lebanese militia who converted to politics. "Hassan will also be tempted to ask for his due when the conflict is over. But he would do well not to forget that in the Syrian system the only person one may idolize is the president."

The colonel, estimated to be in his early fifties, has two things going for him: his post in the Air Force Intelligence Directorate, the country's most powerful security service, and the fact that he is a member of the minority Alawite sect, as are the Assad family and all of the regime bigwigs. The militarization of the Syrian uprising in 2012 opened the way for him.

"Ground forces were faced with a challenge — adapt or die," explains Aram Nerguizian, an expert on Middle East military matters. "The big units were divided into smaller, more reactive units. Incompetent or aging commanders were pushed aside, which made it possible for less experienced officers to take on more responsibility."

What goes up must come down

Familiar, almost addicted, to the terrain, the "Tiger" gradually emerged as the flying fireman of Damascus. At the front, he knew he could count on the support of higher-ups. "If he asks for aerial bombing, he always gets it," says Mohammed Aboud, a deserter who became a rebel leader.

Pictures of President Assad in Damascus — Photo: upyernoz

The Hassan method has two components: bombs and rockets first and a house by house cleanup afterwards. It's a scorched earth policy he applies with particular zeal. "He was one of those officers who fired on unarmed demonstrators in 2011, even when official instructions were to calm the situation," Aboud says accusingly.

Logically, the Syrian regime would have forced him to keep a low profile to protect him from the rebels and keep him off the radar of the international organizations investigating war crimes committed in Syria. But last spring a video featuring the "Tiger" was posted online. Filmed by the pro-government Sama TV, it shows Hassan visiting the troops at the front in Aleppo. With almost theatrical woodenness, he listens to one of his men improvise a poem in his honor, then showers the man with manly words of praise.

The scene opened the gates to Hassan's star status. Tired of sending their kids off to be killed in a conflict to which they see no end, and terrified by the rise of ISIS, the Alawites tend to view Col. Hassan as a hero. "It was very savvy on the part of the regime," says Fares Bayouch, a former major who joined rebel forces. "You don't wage war without one heroic figure who can galvanize energies. Not finding such a figure was one of our failures. But as soon as a profile like that emerges, he is tainted by rumors of corruption."

But there are several indications that the regime is not entirely pleased with the enthusiasm that surrounds Hassan. At the end of August, security forces arrested pro-government lawyer Mudar Hassan. On Twitter he had been demanding that the authorities shed light on the disappearance of hundreds of soldiers in combat against ISIS. He had also been fighting for Col. Hassan to replace the current defense minister. At the same time, a Facebook page was created calling for Col. Hassan's "enthronement as president of the Syrian Republic." Unverifiable rumors spread by the Arab press present the "Tiger" as the candidate Russians and Iranians prefer, with a view towards political transition.

These are things that could hasten Hassan's downfall. The Assad regime doesn't tolerate people who embarrass it or who are ambitious, particularly when they're military officers. General Ali Duba, baron of the regime of Bashar’s father Hafez al-Assad, was pushed into retirement in 2000. Ghazi Kanaan, head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, was privy to a number of cumbersome secrets and was probably "suicided" in 2005. Fares Bayouch predicts that this story will repeat itself. "Suhail will finish the dirty work and then be taken out," he believes.

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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