OE Watch Commentary: Syrian Army Brigadier General Suheil al-Hassan recently took command of the loyalist campaign to retake the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus. Al-Hassan (aka “The Tiger”), a former paramilitary commander in the regime’s Air Force Intelligence, has risen to become the loyalist camp’s most effective military commander. He leads the so-called “Tiger Forces,” the regime’s most capable strike force which is credited with key battlefield victories in Idlib, Aleppo, Hama, the Syrian Desert and Deir Ezzor. Al-Hassan has also emerged as Russia’s favored Syrian commander. When President Vladimir Putin and Russian military leadership visited the Hmeimim Airbase in Syria in December 2017, al-Hassan was the only Syrian at the table besides President Bashar al-Assad.
Al-Hassan’s appointment to lead the Ghouta offensive, according to the first accompanying article, came at Russia’s behest. The article, published in the Saudi daily al-Sharq al-Awsat, cites an exchange on Facebook in which Alexander Ivanov, the spokesman for the Russian forces in Syria, calls al-Hassan’s appointment “necessary given his abilities to lead battles that many others have been unable to.” The statement came in response to a comment from a supporter of Colonel Ghayath Dallah, from the Syrian Army’s 4th Armored Division, whom the comment’s author insinuated was “as capable if not more so than Suheil al-Hassan” and that if the Russians “[provided] Colonel Ghayath Dallah with half of what you gave al-Hassan” they would be able to see it for themselves.
The deployment of the Tiger Forces to Damascus will have an impact on Syrian military politics. The Republican Guard and the 4th Armored Division, which are considered the Syrian Army’s elite units, traditionally guard the capital’s various entry points, increasingly with help from allied and dependent militias. In early January, rebels took terrain from Republican Guard forces in Harasta, a strategically located Damascus countryside suburb that had been under an informal truce for some time. According to the second accompanying passage, from the pro-opposition Lebanese news site al-Modon, the losses in Harasta meant that “legions of militias came to the city and its surroundings to regain what the Republican Guard had lost.” Harasta became a “site to display victories, earn the trust of leaders and marginalize others.” The field commander for the Tiger Forces’ deployment to Damascus, the article notes, is a collaborator of Suheil al-Hassan’s from Harasta.
The Ghouta Front is considered among the most complicated and treacherous from within, given the multitude of competing interests and goals within both the loyalist and opposition camps. Al-Hassan and his forces are to operate in tandem with elite Syrian Army formations, Shi’i militias, local militias (of uncertain loyalties), private militias and regime paramilitary forces, all of whom seek to curry favor with their backers and hope to control the spoils and terrain that would result from loyalist advances. Russia has placed its bet on al-Hassan succeeding in this complex environment, which is why he is now being shadowed by a Russian personal security detail, as the third passage from the pro-opposition news network Orient News describes. End OE Watch Commentary (Winter)
Areas around Harasta, in Damascus’s Eastern Ghouta, saw hundreds from loyalist militias head to the area over the past several days, with names that do not suggest belonging to a national military, but rather resemble small groups, each with their own leader… For loyalist militias, Harasta became a site to display victories, earn the trust of leaders and marginalize others… The Republican Guard, through its 104th and 105th Brigades, has been considered the true military force in charge of Harasta for some time, but the blows that it received during the second stage of the “They Were Wronged” battle, and its loss of sensitive positions, made the regime leadership lose trust in it... Legions of militias came to the city and its surroundings to regain what the Republican Guard had lost. The first of these militias was the “Qalamoun Shield”… [but many of its] fighters defected [to the opposition], fought the Republican Guard, and handed areas over to the opposition. The “Qalamoun Shield” was unable to absorb opposition attacks and a campaign by loyalist and backers of the 4th Division began against the “Qalamoun Shield” and those who had entered truces with the government… As soon as the [4th Division’s “Ghayath Forces” arrived] the disagreements with the Republican Guard began, and they recurred in every battle that joined the two, regarding deployment and movement as well as leadership over the battle. The “Ghayath Forces” took over the area of “al-Balaa” in Qaboun… [and] began their shelling independently of other formations and without coordinating with them, which increased tensions between the groups amidst constant recriminations against the Republican Guard and assertions that their positions should be handed over to the 4th Armored Division…
The Harasta highway has in the past few days become an arena to flex one’s muscles. A group linked to Suheil al-Hassan’s “Tiger Forces” arrived in the area, led by Abu Arab Shuhaymi, a regime loyalist from Harasta and former confidant of Dhu al-Hima Shalish who has worked with Suheil al-Hassan for years. Having always been associated with fronts in the north and the east of the country, the Tiger Forces sought to make their presence felt in rural Damascus, to have a seat reserved in Damascus.