Tiger Forces, Part 3: Roots in the Desert Hawks

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Three years into the Syrian Civil War, the government had largely managed to halt rebel advances around Damascus by massively reinforcing the capital, leaving vast swathes of the country weakly defended. To compensate, several “elite” units backed by private investors and intelligence branches stepped in, ferrying from one crisis to another. The most well-known of these militias were the Desert Hawks and the Tiger Forces, both of which rose to prominence in 2013.

Each component militia of the Desert Hawks and Tiger Forces has its own strongman and is often staffed by fighters from the same town as their leader. These “groups,” as they often to refer to themselves, have shifted their affiliations over the course of the war as they seek out stronger and more profitable backers.

An excellent example of these shifting loyalties is found in the history of the Shaheen/Hamza Groups, an Alawite-commanded militia founded by the brothers Yusuf and Suleiman Shaheen from the Masyaf, Hama area. The Shaheen/Hamza Groups have been official components of the Tiger Forces since at least September 2015. However, these groups were also founding members of the Desert Hawks and fought under the command of Mohammad Jaber during the government’s offensive in the Shaer Gas fields in late 2014 and early 2015. It was not until some point after the rebel capture of Jisr al-Shughur, Idlib, in late April 2015 that the groups’ affiliation shifted to the Tiger Forces. While members of the Desert Hawks, the group went by  the name “Hamza Groups” after its leader Suleiman Shaheen, alias “Abu Hamza.” However, once it officially joined the Tiger Forces it changed its name to “Shaheen Groups” while occasionally still being referred to as “Hamza Groups” on social media.

Yet the available evidence suggests that the Shaheen brothers held longstanding connections to the Air Intelligence that predated their membership with the Desert Hawks. Furthermore, this author has found additional Tiger Forces commanders and fighters who previously fought with the Desert Hawks, all while claiming to be affiliated with the Air Intelligence. These facts run contrary to the common notion that the Desert Hawks were founded with Republican Guard and Military Intelligence support.1.Winter, Lucas. “Syria’s Desert Hawks and the Loyalist Response to ISIS” Small Wars Journal While these organisations may have provided the initial support for the Desert Hawks it is clear that the Air Intelligence, and later the Tiger Forces, also had extensive ties to the militia’s commanders.

This third installment of the Tiger Forces series documents the historic ties between the Desert Hawks, Tiger Forces, and the Air Intelligence. Part 1 of the series covers Tiger Forces self-documented war crimes while Part 2 documents the widespread use of child soldiers.

2014: The Desert Hawks

On June 9, 2018, Suleiman Shaheen posted a lengthy status on his personal Facebook page in which he claimed that the “Hamza/Shaheen Groups” were among the first groups to join the Desert Hawks. The clearest evidence of the Hamza Groups’ affiliation with the Desert Hawks comes through Jaber Naser Sarhan. Sarhan was a Hamza Groups field commander since at least late 2014 who died when rebels seized Jisr al-Shughur in April 2015. In his martyrdom announcements, Sarhan is identified as both “a leader in the Desert Hawks” (top) and as “a leader in the Hamza Groups” (bottom).

Martyrdom announcement listing Jaber Sarhan as a commander in the Desert Hawks.
Martyrdom announcement listing Jaber Sarhan as a commander in the Desert Hawks.
Martyrdom announcement by Suleiman Shaheen listing Jaber Sarhan, Hafez Hamoud, and Hassan Bida' Shaheen as commanders in the Hamza Groups.
Martyrdom announcement by Suleiman Shaheen listing Jaber Sarhan, Hafez Hamoud, and Hassan Bida’ Shaheen as commanders in the Hamza Groups.

The same martyrdom announcement that identifies Sarhan as being a leader in the Hamza Groups claims that Hassan Bida’ Shaheen – the younger brother of Suleiman and Yusuf Shaheen – was also a field commander in Hamza. Both men can be seen together wearing Desert Hawks patches in an undated picture posted on Hassan Bida’ Shaheen’s Facebook page in May 2015 (posted a month after their deaths).

Jaber Sarhan (left) and Hassan Bida’ Shaheen (right). Note the Desert Hawks patches on their left shoulders.
Jaber Sarhan (left) and Hassan Bida’ Shaheen (right). Note the Desert Hawks patches on their left shoulders.

The third name listed in the same martyrdom announcement that claims Sarhan is from the Hamza Groups is that of field commander Hafez Hamoud. Again, this post claims that Hamoud also fought in the Hamza Groups at the time of his death. However, other martyrdom announcements list Hamoud as a Desert Hawks commander (both posts have identical details regarding the size of his command and location of death)

Martyrdom announcement listing Hafez Hamoud as “a falcon from the Desert Hawks.”
Martyrdom announcement listing Hafez Hamoud as “a falcon from the Desert Hawks.”

Another Desert Hawks fighter, Samir Abu al-Joud, aka Samir Asif Ismail, posted a picture on January 26, 2014 of Jaber Sarhan and Suleiman Shaheen together on the Shaer frontlines with the caption “Our youth in the Shaer Fields this morning… Suleiman Shaheen and Abu Ali Jaber and the rest of our comrades.”

Jaber Sarhan (left) with Suleiman Shaheen (right) at the Shaer gas fields, December 26, 2017, posted by Samir Abu al-Joud.
Jaber Sarhan (left) with Suleiman Shaheen (right) at the Shaer gas fields, December 26, 2017, posted by Samir Abu al-Joud.
Samir al-Joud, foreground, posing in front of a group of Desert Hawks fighters around Shaer in late 2014. The Desert Hawks patch is just visible on his left shoulder.
Samir al-Joud, foreground, posing in front of a group of Desert Hawks fighters around Shaer in late 2014. The Desert Hawks patch is just visible on his left shoulder.

Further evidence supports the assertion that the Shaheen Groups are the same as the Hamza Groups and thus were a part of the Desert Hawks. A July 23, 2017 post mentions “Shaheen (Hamza) Groups” fighting ISIS in Raqqa. Prior to that, a September 2016 post eulogizing Hassan Bida’ Shaheen states that he fought “with the groups of his brother Suleiman Shaheen.”

A July 23, 2017 post refers to the “Shaheen ((Hamza)) Groups” in Raqqa.
A July 23, 2017 post refers to the “Shaheen ((Hamza)) Groups” in Raqqa.
A September 2016 post claiming Hassan Bida' Shaheen fought under the command of Suleiman Shaheen.
A September 2016 post claiming Hassan Bida’ Shaheen fought under the command of Suleiman Shaheen.

Both Suleiman and Yusuf Shaheen were regularly pictured with Hassan Bida’ Shaheen, Jaber Sarhan, Hafez Hamoud, and Samir al-Joud – all men confirmed to be members of the Hamza Groups and Desert Hawks. Suleiman Shaheen also eulogised Hassan, Sarhan, and Hamoud on his personal Facebook profile after the mens’ deaths, further implying a close working relationship between them.

From right to left: Suleiman Shaheen, Samir al-Joud, Yusuf Shaheen, and Jaber Sarhan. Likely taken in late 2014 near Shaer gas fields.
From right to left: Suleiman Shaheen, Samir al-Joud, Yusuf Shaheen, and Jaber Sarhan. Picture from December 7, 2014 in the Shaer gas fields.
From right to left: Hussein Shaheen, Hassan Bda' Shaheen, Jaber Sarhan, and Suleiman Shaheen. Note the edge of the Desert Hawks patch just visible on Hussein Shaheen's left shoulder and the Desert Hawks patch on Hassan Bida' Shaheen’s left shoulder.
From right to left: Hussein Shaheen, Hassan Bida’ Shaheen, Jaber Sarhan, and Suleiman Shaheen. Note the edge of the Desert Hawks patch just visible on Hussein Shaheen’s left shoulder and the Desert Hawks patch on Hassan Bida’ Shaheen’s left shoulder.
A post by Suleiman Shaheen eulogizing Jaber Sarhan and Hafez Hamoud. Picture is from the Shaer gas fields.
A post by Suleiman Shaheen eulogizing Jaber Sarhan and Hafez Hamoud. Picture is from the Shaer gas fields.

Shaheen family members continued to post about the Hamza Groups through 2017. On October 22, 2015, Suleiman Shaheen posted a Russia Today video to his Facebook page about the Hamza Groups’ recent operations in Hama. On November 4, 2016, Ahmed Shaheen posted pictures of himself and Yusuf Shaheen alongside “Hamza Groups” fighters in Aleppo posing next to a truck with an emblem that reads “Men of the Tiger, Shaheen Groups.” Lastly, on November 4, 2017, Suleiman Shaheen posted a long status on his profile about the Tiger Forces’ offensive in Deir-ez-Zor. In his post he references “our groups of Shaheen / Hamza.”

Ahmed Shaheen (fifth from right, standing) and Yusuf Shaheen (right on Ahmed, hat and sunglasses) alongside “Hamza Groups” fighters and a truck with the Shaheen Groups emblem in Aleppo.
Ahmed Shaheen (fifth from right, standing) and Yusuf Shaheen (right of Ahmed, hat and sunglasses) alongside “Hamza Groups” fighters and a truck with the Shaheen Groups emblem in Aleppo.
Suleiman Shaheen writes “our groups of Shaheen / Hamza” in a November 4, 2017 post.
Suleiman Shaheen writes “our groups of Shaheen / Hamza” in a November 4, 2017 post.

All of the available evidence supports Suleiman Shaheen’s claims that the Hamza/Shaheen Groups were components of the Desert Hawks until at least April 2015.

2015: The Tiger Forces

There is no question that the Shaheen/Hamza groups are currently a Tiger Forces militia. In the same November 4, 2017 post by Suleiman Shaheen as above, Suleiman is pictured on the Deir-ez-Zor frontlines alongside Colonel Yunis Mohammad, the commander of Tiger Forces operations.

Suleiman Shaheen (right) with Colonel Yunis Mohammad (center) in Deir Ez Zor.
Suleiman Shaheen (right) with Colonel Yunis Mohammad (center) in Deir-ez-Zor.

This operational relationship dates back to at least late 2014 or early 2015 during either the Shaer offensive or rebel Idlib offensive. On March 31, 2015, Jaber Sarhan posted an undated picture of himself alongside Samir al-Joud, Suleiman Shaheen, and then-Colonel Suheil al-Hassan, the overall commander of the Tiger Forces.

From right to left: Gabeer Sarhan, Samir al-Joud, Suheil al-Hassan, Suleiman Shaheen.
From right to left: Gabeer Sarhan, Samir al-Joud, Suheil al-Hassan, Suleiman Shaheen.

During the Shaer campaign of late 2014 and early 2015 the Shaheen brothers worked closely with both Mohammad Jaber, the commander of the Desert Hawks, and Suheil al-Hassan. 

Red boxes right to left: Yusuf Shaheen, Suheil al-Hassan, and Mohammad Jaber in Shaer, Homs.
Red boxes right to left: Yusuf Shaheen, Suheil al-Hassan, and Mohammad Jaber in Shaer, Homs.

When the Syrian opposition launched an offensive on Jisr al-Shugur in Idlib in April 2015, it was Yusuf Shaheen and the Shaheen/Hamza Groups “of the Desert Hawks” who had reinforced the city “alongside Hezbollah’s Radwan Battalion.” Field commanders Jaber Sarhan and Hassan Bida’ Shaheen, along with 25 of the group’s 140 deployed fighters, were killed in Jisr by the time government forces retreated on April 25.

By August 19, 2015, the Shaheen/Hamza Groups were regularly referred to as members of the Tiger Forces. Both Yusuf and Suleiman Shaheen regularly met with the Tiger Forces’ officer corps while on deployment. Yusuf Shaheen was pictured multiple times with Brigadier General Salah Saba’a during the Raqqa offensive in June and July 2017 while on numerous occasions throughout the Deir-ez-Zor offensive both Yusuf and Suleiman met with Suheil, Brigadier General Saba’a, Colonel Yunis Mohammad, and other Tiger Forces group commanders.

From right to left: Yunis Mohammad, Yusuf Shaheen, Suheil al-Hassan, Salah Saba’a, and Ali Mhna (Sahabat Regiment) in Deir Ez Zor.
From right to left: Yunis Mohammad, Yusuf Shaheen, Suheil al-Hassan, Salah Saba’a, and Ali Mhna (Sahabat Regiment) in Deir-ez-Zor.

However, additional posts indicate that the relationship between the Shaheen/Hamza groups and Tiger Forces may have been more than just operational in 2015. On November 11, 2016, Yusuf Shaheen wrote a Facebook post detailing the “biography of the two Shaheens [Yusuf and Suleiman]” in which he claimed both men trained under “Colonel Suheil al-Hassan” before fighting alongside him “in the liberation of Khattab, Morek and Zilaqiyat and then to the Shaer fields which we liberated.” Yusuf goes on to list other battles which occurred throughout 2015 and 2016, including the fighting in Jisr al-Shughur. But it is his inclusion of the battles quoted above – all of which took place in 2014 – that indicate that the Shaheen brothers and their militia had ties to the Air Intelligence Directorate that extended beyond operational, all while still fighting for the Desert Hawks.

Suleiman Shaheen (left) with Mohammad Jaber (right) during the June 2017 East Hama offensive.
Suleiman Shaheen (left) with Mohammad Jaber (right) during the June 2017 East Hama offensive.

Despite officially fighting with the Tiger Forces after 2015, Suleiman Shaheen retained some connection to Mohammad Jaber and the Desert Hawks. On June 27, 2017, Suleiman met with Jaber “to discuss the start of military action in the area of ​​Ithriya and Uqayribat” in East Hama.

In the context of the contentious relationship between the Desert Hawks and Tiger Forces, it can be inferred that Suleiman and the Shaheen Groups served as a sort of intermediary between Mohammed Jaber and Suheil al-Hassan througout 2016 and 2017.2.Schneider, Tobias. “The Decay of the Syrian Regime Is Much Worse Than You Think” War on the Rocks.

Desert Hawks Exodus

It seems that after the the rebel capture of Idlib and the serious combat losses experienced by the both the Tiger Forces and Desert Hawks, both groups underwent a series of reorganisations. Throughout this author’s research on the 25 Tiger Forces sub-groups, only three groups were mentioned in any Facebook posts prior to mid-2015. While some groups claim they have fought with the Tiger Forces since 2014, there is no hard evidence to support these claims.3.“The Southern Campaign: Interview With the Tiger Forces’ Taha Regiment” : Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi Aside from the Shaheen/Hamza Groups, other Tiger Force commanders and fighters shifted allegiances from the Desert Hawks to the Tiger Forces during this period.

Fighters from the Salah A'asi Group of the Desert Hawks pose next to a Jabhat al-Nusra flag captured in Salma, Latakia.
Fighters from the Salah A’asi Group of the Desert Hawks pose next to a Jabhat al-Nusra flag captured in Salma, Latakia.

A January 15, 2016 post claimed to depict the Salah A’asi Group ‘Elite Forces’ in Salma, Latakia after capturing the town from Jabhat al-Nusra. The post referred to the men of the Salah A’asi Group as “Desert Hawks” yet by October of the same year, these men were officially members of the Shawaheen Hawks Regiment and affiliated with the Tiger Forces. Interestingly, one of the men named in the Salma picture, Mohammad Dirghem, is currently a field commander in the Tiger Forces’ Taha Regiment.

Another current member of the Salah A’asi Group of the Shawaheen Hawks Regiment lists his employment on Facebook as both “Air Intelligence_Tiger Forces” and “Desert Hawks Forces Regiment,” further indicating that this sub-group left the Desert Hawks at some point in mid-2016.

The Facebook 'Intro' section of a current Salah A'asi Group fighter.
The Facebook ‘Intro’ section of a current Salah A’asi Group fighter.

Similarly, a current member of the Tiger Forces’ Yarob Regiment claims on his Facebook page to have previously worked for both the Desert Hawks as well as the Intelligence Branch 217 “of the Homeland Shield Forces.”

The Facebook 'Intro' section of a current Yarob Regiment fighter.
The Facebook ‘Intro’ section of a current Yarob Regiment fighter.

While only a small number of cases, these examples suggest that throughout 2015 and 2016 the Air Intelligence shifted resources away from the Desert Hawks as it reorganized the Tiger Forces into a large Alawite-dominated militia structured around local strongmen from across the coast, Hama and Homs. This reorganisation coincided with the arrival of Russian forces in the country, forces which almost immediately partnered with the Tiger Forces. As individual fighters and militias continually sought the most profitable and strongest organisations, some turned to the Tiger Forces. However, as demonstrated above and seen in countless other examples, many of these groups maintain dual affiliations. This author has documented current Tiger Forces groups with past or present affiliations to the Desert Hawks (Shaheen Groups, Yarob Regiment, and Shawaheen Hawks Regiment), the 4th Division (Ali Sheli Hawks and al-Komeet Forces), the SSNP (Ali Taha and Hadi Regiments), the Bustan Association (al-Komeet Forces), the Iran-backed Local Defense Forces (Hadi Regiment), and the Makhlouf clan (Sari Makhlouf Combat Group and the W’ad Makhlouf Groups). But it is the presence of Air Intelligence-affiliated commanders and groups within the Desert Hawks prior to 2015 that is the most interesting – potentially shedding new light on the extent of Syrian government support for one the civil war’s most infamous militias.

 

Gregory Waters

Gregory Waters is a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley and 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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