This is the first of several entries on the pro-government Syrian militia known as the Tiger Forces. Each entry will provide unique analysis on a specific element of the militia. Part 1 and Part 2 address documented war crimes committed by various militias within the Tiger Forces. Part 3 details the history of the Shaheen Groups as a specific example of the fluidity of militias’ affiliations to both the Tiger Forces and the Air Intelligence. Part 4 will document the Russian presence alongside and within the Tiger Forces.
CONTENT WARNING: The article below displays severed heads and dead bodies consistent with the war crimes documented in the author’s research. Please proceed at your own discretion.
Since autumn of 2013, Syria’s Air Intelligence-affiliated Tiger Forces (TF) have served as one of the government’s key offensive units in the civil war.1.“The Decay of the Syrian Regime Is Much Worse Than You Think” : War on the Rocks The Tiger Forces are led by Brigadier General Suheil Hassan (nicknamed “The Tiger”) and ultimately answer to Major General Jamil Hassan, the director of the country’s Air Intelligence. Rather than operating as a centralised unit akin to a regular western military formation, the Tiger Forces are a collection of local militias, originating from Hama, Homs, and the coast and often founded and commanded by prominent Alawite families.
Of the 15 subgroups that form the Tiger Forces, the Cheetahs have among the oldest social media presence, with posts dating back to August 2014. The unit was founded by Ali al-Haji, an Alawite from the Talkalakh area of western Homs and has almost excursively been commanded by men from the al-Haji family. The Cheetahs have operated as a core Tiger Forces unit since late 2014, participating in every major TF offensive from Sha’er in 2014, al-Ghab in 2015, Aleppo in 2016, and the Raqq, Deir Ez Zor, and East Ghouta offensives of 2017 and 2018. Contrary to what many pro-government propaganda outlets claim, the Cheetahs are not commanded by Ali Shaheen – who instead commands the Leouth Groups – and are in fact the same militia as the “Panther Groups” (a non-existent group whose media appearance resulted from pro-government authors not understanding basic Arabic).
One of the earliest Cheetah Groups Facebook posts shows one of their fighters holding three severed heads with the caption “The men of the tiger are coming.” The photo was posted by Aktham al-Haji who has served as the overall commander of the unit since late 2017 or early 2018. Prior to this he commanded the “Cheetah Group 9.” The mutilation of dead bodies – if the beheading indeed occurred after their deaths – is a war crime under Article 8 of International Criminal Court, to which Syria is a signatory.2.Refer to internationally accepted IHL customs.
This case of decapitation was not a on-off event for the Tiger Forces. On September 9, 2015, a Syrian Army fan page posted the following picture with the caption “a morning gift from the heroes of the Hadi Regiment [Tiger Forces], the head of a Daeshi for the mothers of the martyrs.” The Hadi Regiment is a prominent Tiger Forces militia originating from Masyaf, Hama.
On December 13, 2016, then-commander of the Cheetahs Suleiman al-Hayek posted three pictures from Aleppo to his personal Facebook page. Two of the pictures showed al-Hayek and five other Cheetahs fighters standing over four kneeling men with their hands bound behind their backs. The third picture shows all four men slumped on the now bloody ground in what appears to be a prisoner execution. According to Trent Schoenborn, who has documented thousands of videos for his ongoing research, the lack of visible viscera and the amount of blood on the ground immediately following the shooting is consistent with executions by small arms (pistols and rifles). This war crime occurred during the final days of government’s Aleppo offensive amid reports that government fighters were executing rebels and civilians throughout the city.5.“Russia: Syria establishes control over eastern Aleppo” : CNN.
Al-Hayek can be seen wearing the same uniform and hat and with the same beard in a December 12 picture, confirming his presence in the above photos.
Al-Hayek was not a low-level commander at the time of these photos. On October 6, 2016 he posted a picture of himself beside Major General Jamil al-Hassan, the commander of the Syrian Air Intelligence. On November 18, 2016 he was pictured alongside Brigadier General Suheil al-Hassan. In researching the Tiger Forces unit structure this author found that it is rare for group commanders to be pictured with both Jamil Hassan and Suheil Hassan; only commanders of prominent groups – such as the Taha Regiment and Tarmeh Groups – are granted such honors. Most commanders meet with Suheil’s officers: Brigadier General Salah Abdullah Al-Saba’a, Colonel Yunis Mohammad, and Lieutenant Colonel Derid Awoud. The fact that al-Hayek met with both Jamil and Suheil indicates his prominent role within the Cheetahs Groups. Al-Hayek continued to be pictured with core Tiger Forces leaders until his death in Deir Ez Zor on November 28, 2017. On September 5, 2017 he met with Brigadier General Salah Abdullah al-Saba’, a former 7th Division Colonel who has served as a military officer in the Tiger Forces since 2015. On October 20, a month before his death, Suheil al-Hassan presented al-Hayek with a Russian award “for his achievements” in the government’s Deir Ez Zor offensive.
As with the beheadings documented above, al-Hayek’s execution of the four prisoners is part of a broader trend of war crimes committed by the Tiger Forces. On September 25, 2017, Meis Jarkas of Qardaha, Latakia posted pictures to his personal Facebook page of himself and another fighter executing three prisoners in Deir Ez Zor. In July 2017 Meis was tagged alongside seven other men in multiple posts sharing pictures and videos of the Sari Makhlouf group, a Latakia-based group within the Tiger Forces’ Hourath Regiment. All of the men tagged in these posts appear to be members of the Sari Makhlouf group. 6.https://twitter.com/LostWeapons/status/912466392649146368
War crimes committed by the Syrian government are regularly under-reported due to the strict social media laws within government-held regions of the country and the more image-aware nature of pro-government forces compared to some opposition forces. In spite of this, the Tiger Forces and their leaders are well known for their brutality. Suheil al-Hassan is accused of carrying out some of the worst atrocities against anti-government protesters in 2011, including the use of torture, executing Syrian soldiers who refused to fire on protesters, and assisting in the April 2011 Dara’a massacre that left nearly 100 dead.8.“Russia’s Favorite Syrian Warlord” : The Atlantic9.“Syria: ‘Shoot to Kill’ Commanders Named” : HRW Report Furthermore, on June 8, 2018, Germany’s Chief Federal Prosecutor issued an arrest warrant for Major General Jamil al-Hassan, head of the Air Intellgence, for “crimes against humanity” relating to torture of prisoners in Air Intelligence detention centers.10.European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights press briefing. Both of these men are regularly pictured meeting with Tiger Forces group and sub-group commanders. There is little doubt that Suheil and Jamil Hassan’s disdain for human rights has created a culture of brutality and atrocities within the Tiger Forces command structure; a culture that has likely accelerated the rate of atrocities in an already bloody war.
Beyond the brutal war crimes of executions and decapitations, the Cheetah Groups have also broken international law by recruiting child soldiers and deploying them in front line units. This issue is covered in greater detail in Part 2 of this series.