The 25th Division: Syria’s Tiger Forces get Rebranded

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On the evening of August 28, members and commanders of Syria’s Tiger Forces began posting on Facebook variations of the following: “By order and instruction of President Bashar al-Assad, Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Armed Forces, the creation of the 25th Special Tasks Division (Counter-Terrorism) led by Brigadier General Suhail Hassan.” The Tiger Forces, the infamous ‘elite’ militia of Syria’s feared Air Force Intelligence Directorate, is now under the command of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA). This change marks a major step in Minister of Defense Ali Ayoub’s ongoing efforts to dismantle the widespread and problem-riddled network of militias and warlords that dominate parts of the government-held Syria and to consolidate power under the country’s official armed forces.

Indeed it was this very plan that netted Ayoub the Minister of Defense position in the first place. Efforts to integrate Tiger Forces militias into the SAA began as early as the beginning of 2019, when the high command tried to use the highly esteemed – and Russian favorite – Brigadier General Murad Kheirbek to entice Homs-based units away from Suheil and into a new independent SAA division. These efforts were supported by the anti-Suheil faction within the Air Force Intelligence, which sought to limit Suheil’s power. They looked to Syrian businessman Samer Foz to provide the financial backing necessary to entice fighters away from their lucrative salaries in the Tiger Forces. 

At the same time, Ayoub initiated his plan for rebuilding the SAA’s special forces and Republican Guard units. Under Ayoub’s plan, some new graduates of Syria’s military academies are assigned to previously “dead” units — units that are either non-operational due to lack of manpower or which were made completely defunct at some point in the war. Here, the men are claimed to have the opportunity to “prove themselves” and gain quick promotions. Ayoub’s plan directly infringes on territory long held by Suheil who historically recruited many Tiger Force men from those very same military academies. If Ayoub couldn’t bring Suheil under his command, at least he could keep solid SAA men out of his control.

Kheirbek’s efforts to entice Homs-base Tigers ultimately failed early this spring, the government’s Russian-backed Hama offensive began, and Kheirbek has since fallen extremely ill.

Victory for Ayoub

Yet on August 28 Ayoub succeeded in removing the Tiger Forces from the control of the Air Force Intelligence and placing Suheil and his militias under the command of the SAA, thus significantly curtailing Suheil’s ability to operate independently.  According to a pro-government source speaking on the condition of anonymity, this move was facilitated by the recent crack down on Rami Makhlouf by Assad. Makhlouf, cousin to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, is widely regarded as the most powerful businessman in the country. He, along with several other crime bosses in Hama, most notably Talal Dakkak, had been key financial backers of the Tiger Forces. With much of Makhlouf’s finances seized, Suheil’s ability to challenge Ayoub evaporated.

The source further stated that Dakkak has been planning for this and has already begun laying the groundwork for a new local militia. Like the original Tigers, Dakkak’s militia plans to draw recruits from Hama, Tartous, and Latakia, ignoring the recent efforts by Suheil to recruit Sunnis from the eastern regions of Syria. Dakkak hopes to lure Tiger Force units and commander’s to his new militia with the promise of independence (by not operating under the noose of the SAA) and money (through backing from Samer Foz, more on this later).

The 25th Division

While no substantial changes have been made to the Tiger Forces yet, many can be expected in the coming months. Suheil remains the de facto commander of the 25th Division, but it should come as no surprise that he does not truly lead the unit. In fact, he barely leads the Tiger Forces even in the midst of their ongoing Idlib offensive, which has displaced more than 600,000 civilians in four months.1.https://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/79716 Military operations are led by Suheil’s advisers, and it is these men who will likely take key positions in the new division.

Brig Gen Salah Abdullah Al-Saba’a is a former 7th Division colonel who has long served as a military liaison and field commander for the Tigers. His ties to both the Tiger Forces and the SAA make him a likely candidate for a position in the division command.

Colonel Yunis Mohammad is the Tiger’s “Operations Commander” and is described as “extremely loyal”. As operations commander, he has likely taken the lead role in this year’s Hama/Idlib offensives and is almost guaranteed a spot in the division command.

Colonel Mohammad Malouk is reportedly the commander of a “5th Regiment” – likely a grouping of several Tiger Forces units. He is known to be an extremely hard worker and well respected and will likely take a brigade-level command position.

From Left to Right: Brig Gen Saba’a, Colonel Mohammad, Colonel Malouk

Colonel Rami Mowas is the “Security Officer” of the Tiger Forces and reportedly commanded several of the axis in the renewed Idlib offensive in August. He was widely pictured with various Tiger Forces commanders in Khan Sheikhoun following the cities capture.

Lieutenant Colonel Dourid Awad is the Tiger’s artillery commander and would be a top candidate for commanding the division’s inevitable artillery regiment.

Captain Sumer Mar’ai is the “special forces commander,” coordinating between each Tiger unit’s “storming” groups. With his low rank it is unlikely he will take any significant command position.

From Left to Right: Colonel Mowas, Lt Col Awad, Capt Mar’ai

The author has identified three other colonels in the Tiger Forces, but not enough is known about them to make an assessment as to their future in the 25th Division. Colonel Basil Matabaa, Colonel Yasser Deeb, and Colonel Yarob Sarhan all have unknown roles within the unit, although according to a source Deeb comes from a well respected and prominent military family.

From Left tot Right: Colonel’s Matabaa, Deeb, and Sarhan

Of course, we can only guess at who will take what command in the coming months. The army will also bring in their own officers in order to tighten their control over the unit. These staunch SAA men will likely take some of the brigade and division commands. More importantly, according the the source, Ayoub intends to end the “tribalism” within the Tiger Forces “with different factions here there and everywhere depending on loyalties, money and location.” Doing so means splitting up each group (sometimes self-referred to as regiments) and mixing them together.

Most of these groups are formed around specific towns, with the men recruited from those towns and the group’s commanders being prominent local figures. This localization means that some units are nearly all Sunni (the Tarmeh Regiment for example) while most are heavily drawn from Alawites and Ismailis. To destroy such a structure can lead to harsh backlash if men feel that they are being stripped of power. How Ayoub deals with these lower level commanders – the equivalent of platoon, company, and battalion commanders – and how he chooses to mix localised units of different sects will be crucial for shaping the future of the 25th Division.

Talal Dakkak’s Return

Yet while Ayoub scored a major victory in the 25th Division, Talal Dakkak may soon pose a new challenge to the SAA’s absorption of militias. How successful will Dakkak’s endeavor be? If indeed he has secured the financial backing of Samer Foz, Dakkak will almost certainly be able to form a new militia. The source interviewed for this article claims that Foz has already begun efforts transferring the entire Coastal Shield Militia, a unit manned by former Republican Guard and Desert Hawks members, to Dakkak’s command.

Local Hama warlord Talal Dakkak

Furthermore, it is highly likely that the following five Tiger Forces units will leave the 25th Division and join Dakkak’s militia: the Shawaheen Hawks Regiment (Dakkak’s former Tiger Forces militia), the Shahabat Regiment (the most infamous Tiger Force militia that has largely been sidelined due to its criminality), the Komeet Forces (a loosely-affiliated Tiger Forces militia with ties to both Makhlouf’s Bustan Association and Hezbollah), the Yarob Regiment (a semi-independent Tiger Forces militia), and the Ali Sheli Hawks (a formerly Tiger Forces, now 4th Division-affiliated militia). It is possible that not all of these units will join Dakkak (although Ali Sheli Hawks and Komeet are almost guaranteed) and that other Tiger Forces units or commanders may also join him.

Further complicating matters is the (re)emergence of Brigadier General Ali Hassan Turkmani, a key confident of Assad who is also close to the Russians. Turkmani was appointed to be the security adviser for the presidential palace on July 8, 2019 and has reportedly spent time in Russia.2.https://syrianobserver.com/EN/features/51589/ali-mamlouk-deputy-to-bashar-and-the-russians-achieve-more-influence.html According to the source, Turkmani is reportedly also a potential backer of Dakkak’s new militia, bringing added prestige and weight to an already infamous cohort of backers.

Turkmani’s involvement raises an interesting conundrum regarding what exactly Assad and Russia want. If Turkmani really is helping Dakkak establish a new militia, he must be doing so with Assad’s support and will no doubt use his connections to try and leverage Russian support for this new unit. However, Ayoub clearly wants the end of militias and the return of the SAA as the sole bearer of power in Syria. For this, Ayoub certainly has Russia’s backing – it has been one of Russia’s major goals since their intervention four years ago – and presumably also has the support of Assad. What then is Russia and Assad hoping to get by playing both “sides”?

Perhaps the answer is simply that neither fully knows what they are doing with regards to restructuring the Syrian Army. In fact, this merger and the potential return of Dakkak leave far more questions than they do answers. What role will Dakkak’s militia play in north Syria? What will happen to the “25th Division” if many of the Tiger Forces group commanders defect to Dakkak? How will Ayoub restructure the Tiger Forces, which commanders will be promoted and which ones will be stripped of their power? Ayoub’s power play, while a crucial step towards rebuilding the Syrian armed forces, has left a tumultuous path ahead for one of Damascus’ most important units.

This article was sourced via the authors own observation tracking and speaking with members of Syria’s Tiger Forces as well from an extensive interview with a pro-government Syrian with ties to both the Tiger Forces and SAA.

Gregory Waters

Gregory Waters holds a Masters in Global Studies from the University of California, Berkeley and is a fellow at the UC Berkeley Human Rights Investigations Lab. He researches conflicts and political transitions in the MENA region, primarily using open source information. His current research focuses on mapping Syrian militia unit structures. He publishes his research here and on Twitter.

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