Tiger Forces, Part 4: Russia’s Partner Force

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On 30 September 2015, Russia officially entered the Syrian Civil War alongside the Syrian government. Russian air, artillery, and special forces immediately supported the Air Intelligence-backed Tiger Forces, a partnership that only grew deeper in the subsequent years. Russian generals, officers, and special forces soldiers have been pictured in the field alongside Tiger Forces fighters and commanders, indicating an intimate integration of Russian assets alongside their chosen partner force. During the March 2018 East Ghouta offensive, Alexander Ivanov, the spokesman for Russian forces headquartered at the Khmeimim airbase, wrote:

We will provide the necessary air support to the forces of Brigadier General Suheil al-Hassan… We have real confidence in their ability to accomplish the mission.1.“Russia’s Favorite Syrian Warlord” : The Atlantic

Ivanov made it clear: Russian air support would be granted to Suheil – not the Republican Guard and not the Syrian Arab Army (SAA).

While there are countless pictures of Suheil al-Hassan alongside Russian commanders and generals in Syria, this article will focus on evidence showing Russian forces embedded alongside Tiger Forces group and field commanders, demonstrating a high degree of integration between the two forces. This is the final installment of International Review’s four-part Tiger Forces series. Part 1 documents some of the Tiger Forces war crimes, Part 2 documents the widespread use of child soldiers, and Part 3 examines the historic ties between the Tiger Forces and the Desert Hawks.

Suheil and the Russian Command

In December 2017, Suheil al-Hassan, wearing the insignia of a Brigadier General, sat alongside Bashar al-Assad and 11 Russian officers as Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated him personally on his victory in Deir-ez-Zor.

Your Russian colleagues told me that you and your men fight incisively, courageously and in a results-oriented way.

Putin told the only Syrian officer in the room.2.“Russia’s Favorite Syrian Warlord” : The Atlantic

Suheil’s relationship with the Russian military command predates this meeting, however. During the government’s Aleppo offensive in the last months of 2016, Suheil was pictured meeting with a Russian Lieutenant General and Major General Zaid Ali Salah, deputy commander of the Republican Guard and overall Syrian commander of the Aleppo offensive. Suheil is the only other Syrian commander pictured meeting directly with this Russian general during the offensive.

Major General Ziad Salah (left) with Suheil al-Hassan and
Major General Ziad Salah (left) with Suheil al-Hassan and a Russian Lieutenant General (center left) in Aleppo.

In August 2017, Suheil met with Russian Chief of Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov in the Russian base at Hmeimim, Latakia. Gerasimov awarded Suheil a ceremonial sword in recognition of the Syrian commander’s role in lifting the siege of Deir-ez-Zor.

Suheil al-Hassan is awarded by Russian Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov on August 20, 2017.
Suheil al-Hassan is awarded by Russian Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov on August 20, 2017.

On 11 May 2018, Suheil and Tiger Forces Brigadier General Salah Abdullah Saba’a met with several Russian officers at an unknown location.

Suheil al-Hassan and Brigadier General Salah Abdullah Saba'a meet with Russian officers on May 11, 2018.
Suheil al-Hassan and Brigadier General Salah Abdullah Saba’a meet with Russian officers on May 11, 2018.

Aside from regular meetings with Russian command – there are countless pictures beyond the ones shown above – Suheil also has a personal escort of Russian special operations forces. These bodyguards appeared in pictures and videos as early as October 2017.

Suheil al-Hassan with his Russian body guard and Major General Jamil al-Hassan (left).
Suheil al-Hassan with his Russian body guard and Major General Jamil al-Hassan (left).

A History of Cooperation

Pictures showing Russian soldiers alongside Tiger Forces commanders surfaced less than a month after the Russian intervention. A June 2018 post on a Hoareth Regiment Facebook page shows two Russians soldiers alongside Hoareth field commander Zain al-Abbadin abu Ali stationed atop Tal Sukayk. The text accompanying the picture states: “From the memory of the battles of rif Hama _ Tal Sukayk _ Field Commander Zain al-Abbadin abu Ali with the Russian friends.” The only battles for Tal Sukayk that occurred after the Russian intervention began on 10 October 2015, when government forces first seized the hill, and ended on 5 November 2015, when rebel forces recaptured the hill. While reporting at this time only mentioned Russian air force involvement, this picture clearly shows that Russian ground forces were already embedded alongside Tiger Force platoons within weeks of deploying to Syria.

Hoareth field commander Zain al-Abadeen Abu Ali with Russian soldiers in October 2015.
Hoareth field commander Zain al-Abbadin Abu Ali with Russian soldiers in October 2015.

On May 29, 2016, Ali Mhna, commander of the Kawkab and Tartous-based Sahabat Regiment, was pictured alongside two Russian soldiers at their base in Tartous.

Ali Mhna poses with two Russian soldiers in Tartous on May 29, 2016.
Ali Mhna poses with two Russian soldiers in Tartous on May 29, 2016.

On January 26, 2017, Majbal Hamdou al-Salah Abu Uday posted a picture of himself alongside three members of a Russian Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) team in an unknown location. Abu Uday is a high ranking commander in the al-Ghab-based Ali Taha Regiment.

Taha Regiment deputy commander Abu Uday alongside a Russian EOD team in what appears to be Aleppo.
Taha Regiment field commander Abu Uday alongside a Russian EOD team.

On February 9, 2017, fighters of the Latakia and Tartous-based Yarob Regiment were also pictured alongside Russian soldiers and an EOD team in East Aleppo, south of al-Bab. Yarob Regiment commander Abu Iskandar al-Kawsa is pictured alongside a Russian soldier in the first image.

Abu Iskander and members of the Yarob Regiment alongside Russian soldiers in East Aleppo.
Abu Iskander and members of the Yarob Regiment alongside Russian soldiers in East Aleppo.

On September 3, 2017, a Russian man by the name “Alexander” was pictured alongside Suheil al-Hassan, Taha Regiment commander Ali Taha, and Brigadier General Salah Abdullah Saba’a “on the road to Ayyash” in Deir Ez Zor.

A Russian alongside Suheil al-Hassan, Ali Taha, and Salah Abdullah Saba'a.
A Russian alongside Suheil al-Hassan, Ali Taha, and Salah Abdullah Saba’a.

The same Russian was pictured alongside a field commander in the Sari Makhlouf Combat Group, a Latakia-based sub-group of the Hoareth Regiment, on the Deir Ez Zor frontlines on 4 September 2017. On September 25, Meis Jarkas, a member of the Sari Makhlouf Combat Group, documented himself executing three prisoners in Deir-ez-Zor.

Field Commanders of the Sari Makhlouf Group with "Alexander."
A Sari Makhlouf Group field commander and his brother with “Alexander.”

A 17 October 2017 post on a Cheetahs Groups page includes four pictures of Cheetahs Groups rank and file fighters alongside Afghan militiamen and a Russian soldier. The pictures reportedly come from “the entrance to Mayadeen, Deir-ez-Zor,” which had been captured from IS on 14 October.

Cheetahs fighters alongside Russian and Afghan fighters in Mayadeen, Deir Ez Zor.
Cheetahs fighters alongside Russian and Afghan fighters in Mayadeen, Deir Ez Zor.

A 9 December 2017 post by the former commander of the Qomhana-based Nabhan Groups, Ahmed Nabhan, includes a picture of himself alongside Suheil and a Russian commander in Deir Ez Zor. Ahmed Nabhan was killed in East Ghouta, Damascus on February 25, 2018 and his groups merged with the Qomhana-based Tarmeh Regiment on 20 July 2018 under the command of Ghassan Abu Naasan.

From Ledt to right: Suheil al-Hassan, Ahmed Nabhan, Russian General
From left to right: Suheil al-Hassan, Ahmed Nabhan, Russian General.

On 22 June 2018, Wadah Hamoud, commander of the Khattab-based Tarmeh Group 2 / Shaja’a Ibrahim Group posted a picture on his Facebook profile of himself and a Russian soldier “from Dara’a.”

Tarmeh Regiment group commander Wadah Hamoud with a Russian soldier in Dara'a in June 2018.
Tarmeh Regiment group commander Wadah Hamoud with a Russian soldier in Dara’a in June 2018.

On 28 August 2018, field commander Shadi al-Haraki of the Homs-based Sabbour Groups posted a picture of himself alongside Suheil and a man wearing a Russian Army patch and uniform, possibly along the West Aleppo front lines where the Sabbour Groups had recently deployed. This is the most recent outstanding example of integration that has been noted.

Shadi al-Haraki and Suheil al-Hassan with an apparent Russian soldier on August 28, 2018.
Shadi al-Haraki and Suheil al-Hassan with an apparent Russian soldier on August 28, 2018.

Russia’s Dedicated Partner

Syrian government propaganda outlets have made no attempt to hide the widespread presence of Russian ground forces alongside their Syrian counterparts, particularly during the mid-2017 Deir-ez-Zor offensive. However, these articles often simply state that Russian SOF operate alongside the Syrian Arab Army (SAA). This appears to be false. The author has spent that past four months investigating the Syrian Arab Army, Republican Guard, and Tiger Forces through the groups’ Facebook pages and those of affiliated fighters; pictures like those detailed above can only be found on pages associated with the Tiger Forces.

While the Russian military attempted to create a new proxy force in the form of the (Russian-commanded) 5th Corps, it is clear that the Tiger Forces have and will remain their preferred partner force in the country. Russian ground forces were embedded with Tiger Forces platoons within three weeks of entering Syria, participating in the government’s failed north Hama offensive in October 2015. Suheil al-Hassan has been granted unprecedented access to Russian military command in the country, his group and field commanders work alongside Russian soldiers in the field, and his forces enjoy unfettered Russian air support. Simply put, the Russian military is deeply embedded with the core Tiger Forces.

This article documented Russian officers and soldiers alongside commanders from seven Tiger Forces groups, including three of the six Battalion-sized groups. The Sahabat Regiment, Ali Taha Groups, and Cheetahs Groups have all been documented recruiting and deploying child soldiers in frontline combat units in violation of OPAC and Article 8.2.b.xxvi of the Rome Statute. Furthermore, both the Cheetahs Groups and Hoareth Regiment have been documented carrying out field executions in Aleppo and Deir-ez-Zor. Commanders and fighters from all of the aforementioned groups have been pictured alongside Russian military personnel while in these areas. Therefore the question must be asked: has the Russian military observed and ignored the war crimes regularly committed by its Syrian partners?

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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