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.
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.
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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.