“All men die, only a few will be remembered.”
It’s a mantra said to be fondly used by Syria’s most notorious commander, Colonel Suheil Al-Hassan, who certainly won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
Known as The Tiger, he leads a special forces brigade of soldiers and has developed a cult-like celebrity status among loyalists to the Syrian government.
In a country so deeply entrenched in a war viewed as a righteous necessity by its participants, it’s the soldiers who are the stars. And on the side fighting against rebel groups such as the Islamic State, he’s the biggest star of them all.
The 45-year-old writes poetry and is known to broadcast his poems over the loudspeaker at his enemies before attacking them.
He frequently poses for pictures with his admirers – many of which appear on his dedicated Facebook page. But when British journalist and Middle East Correspondent Robert Fisk met with Hassan last year, he called him “one of the most frightening men I have ever met.”
Hassan is widely known as Bashar al-Assad’s favourite soldier and has been touted by many as the most credible replacement to the controversial leader of the country.
He’s shrouded in mythology and wartime hyperbole. Part propaganda, part rumour and part genuine adulation.
Among the myths is the story that he has never lost a battle – something which is clearly erroneous. He has also been reported as dead on a number of occasions but continues to seemingly rise from the ashes.
It’s easy to understand his appeal to Syrian loyalists but as the saying goes; one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.
In the murky world of Syria’s ongoing civil war, there are very few “good guys”. And Hassan is far from an exception to the rule.
Born in the city of Jableh, Latakia in 1970, Hassan has come to prominence during the last two years of the Syrian conflict after serving nearly two decades in the Syrian air force and Intelligence Service.
Hassan and his unit, known as Tiger Force, are credited with a number of important victories for the government cause. In August 2013, they retook the strategically important city of Ariha in Idlib from rebel groups in a bloody 10 day battle.
In October of 2013, Hassan reclaimed a vital town of town of Khanasir, reclaiming the government’s last land supply route passing through the desert to the city of Aleppo. In early November 2014, he took part in the operation to retake a gas field in the Homs Desert which had been seized by IS militants.
Syria: Drone footage captures Syrian army advance in Latakia Governorate
On Tuesday this week, Syrian troops broke a year-long jihadist siege of a military air base in the country’s northern Aleppo province, scoring its first major breakthrough since the beginning of Russia’s air campaign.
At least 22 people were killed and 62 others wounded in mortar fire on eastern neighbourhoods of Latakia city, Syrian state television reported. And somewhere among that fire was The Tiger Force.
If possible Hassan will reportedly offer his enemies a chance to surrender.
“There is an alternative to war and destruction,” he told The Independent last year. “In the presence of religious men, men from the government, I say to them: ‘You can leave. You can get out safely. Don’t let me destroy you.’”
But he is merciless to those who refuse or try and betray him.
“They are not like human beings. They are creatures, not human beings. They have drugs and suicide belts and knives and very advanced weapons,” he said of rebels that refuse to surrender.
He has also been accused of a number of heinous acts that were perfectly avoidable.
According to Mohammed Aboud, a deserter of the Syrian army who became a rebel leader, Hassan was among officers who fired on unarmed demonstrators in 2011, even when official instructions were to calm the situation.
His tactical approach to the war is often described as employing a scorched earth policy. Hassan’s brigade typically relies on bombs and rockets before sweeping through and conducting house to house clean ups of villages.
The West, while bombing ISIS, wants Assad outed as Syrian leader. However Russia’s intervention into the war has made such an objective far more difficult as Putin is keen to prop up the Assad regime and keep him in power.
If and when the dust settles on the Syrian conflict, Hassan will likely be there as a possible leader in the government – he certainly has the favour of the people and many of those in the military.
“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 idolise is the president,” Syrian analyst Jihad Yazigi said in December.
There are also reports that suggest the Syrian regime is not entirely happy about the enthusiasm surrounding Hassan. In 2014 pro-government lawyer Mudar Hassan who was campaigning for Hassan to replace the Defence Minister was mysteriously arrested.
Hassan says he’s prepared to die and become a martyr for the cause. An outcome that is certainly possible when you consider that one of his bodyguards was killed by sniper fire in June this year.
His growing popularity means that many people view him as potential leader to perhaps succeed Assad as president sometime in the near future.