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    The Tiger and his Cubs: The Syrian Regime’s Tiger Forces

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    1. Intro:

    The 25th Special Mission Forces Division, more commonly known by its previous name “Tiger Forces,” is a special forces unit in the Syrian Arab Army (SAA). In Arabic, the unit goes by the Quwwat al-Nimr. They serve as the shock troops of the Syrian regime, being present in almost every major offensive the SAA has launched in the decade-long civil war. The Tiger Forces are a “hot commodity for any government offensive” because of their high levels of training and flexibility. (Source)

    They are commanded by Suheil al-Hassan: one of the most talented generals in the SAA, who has seen many successes against rebel forces throughout his career. He is reported as vastly preferring the Russians and principal backer over Iranians. The Tiger Forces and their commander have a rivalry with the more pro-Iranian traditional elite unit, the republican guard, which is commanded by Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother. (Source) With fighting resuming in part of Syria and the apparent deployment of some members of the Tiger Forces to Ukraine, they will increasingly play a role in Syria’s future. 

    Tiger Forces Badge

    2. History of the Syrian Tiger Forces:

    They found the Tiger Forces when Colonel Suheil al-Hassan in 2013, was tasked by the Syrian Armed Forces Central Command to create and lead a Special Forces unit that could serve in an offensive capacity. (Source) Tiger Forces were operated by the Air Force Intelligence (AFI) until 2019, which ensured the unit had access to the limited air support available. (Source) Since its foundation, the unit has won a string of victories in the Syrian Civil War all under their commander. Most notably, the Tiger Forces played an instrumental role in the 2016 Aleppo offensive cutting off rebel supply lines. They are also responsible for recapturing Palmyra from ISIL forces. Every major offensive since the unit’s formation has had Tiger Forces as the tip of the spear. 

    In 2019, following a partial demobilisation and the Idlib offensive, the unit was renamed to the 25th Special Mission Forces and placed under the Syrian Army’s central command. (Source) Furthermore, there are multiple reports of Tiger Force members serving in Ukraine for a subsidiary of the Wagner group in security roles. The Syrian government has admitted to 50 Syrian casualties in Ukraine so far. (Source) It is likely that with increasing Russian casualties and high salaries being offered to Syrian troops, we will see more Syrians in Ukraine in the future. Especially since the idea first received a promotion as early as March 2022. (Source)

    There are also various war crime accusations against the Tiger Forces, such as:

    1. The recruiting of child soldiers. (Source)
    2. Mutilation of corpses through beheadings. (Source)
    3. Executing captured rebel fighters in Aleppo. (Source)

    Since the Russian intervention in Syria in 2015, they accused the Tiger Force and their commander of being Russian proxies because of their relatively modern Russian equipment and high level of Russian oversight. Russian special forces troops and officers were regularly seen embedded in the unit, contributing to its high level of combat effectiveness. (Source)

    Tiger Forces fighters pose with a collection of RPGs

    2.1 The commander of the Syrian Tiger Forces Suheil al-Hassan:

    Suheil al-Hassan is the commander and founder of the Tiger Forces. He is part of the Syrian Alawite minority, like Bashar al-Assad. (Source) al-Hassan is known for being one of the most talented commanders in the SAA with favouritism for scorched earth tactics and house-to-house clearing. (Source)

    He allegedly refused promotion to Brigadier General so he could stay with his unit but was eventually promoted to Major General in 2015. (Source) Even if not true, the rumour of it contributes to the image that he cares deeply for the Tiger Forces motivating his troops and adding to his image as “The Tiger”. A video of him directly calling the Syrian minister of defence, while in combat in Idlib demanding more ammo so he and his men can sacrifice themselves for the nation only adds to this legend. (Source

    Al-Hassan started his career training paratroopers before joining Air Force Intelligence Headquarters. Under the AFI he was responsible for the infiltration and destruction of Al-Qaeda cells within Syria. In which he earned a reputation for his relentless nature. After the outbreak of the civil war, al-Hassan led Syrian special forces units against the Al-Nusra front until 2013 when he was ordered to create the Tiger Forces. (Source) Since then he has also led operations against Hayat Sham el-Tahir (HTS) the successor to the al-Nusra front. 

    Analysts believe al-Hassan vastly prefers Russia as a sponsor to Iran, unlike the other traditional elite unit of the SAA, the Republican Guard led by Assad’s brother. (Source) This has led to tension within the ranks as the Tiger Forces are regularly engaged in winning the war. Whereas elements of the republican guard under Assad seem more interested in trafficking narcotics. There are rumours that Assad himself feels threatened by the cult of personality that al-Hassan has acquired over time and that Russia prefers him as a potential leader figure. (Source)

    Indeed, high up Russian officials have suggested that Suheil al-Hassan should be promoted to the head of the SAA. Due to the SAA having too many corrupt and incompetent commanders resulting in low morale. This has faced intense opposition from the Republican Guard under the command of Maher al-Assad and from his Iranian backers. (Source)

    Furthermore, there are accusations that Suheil al-Hassan has fostered a culture of brutality in the Tiger Forces leading to frequent war crimes. He himself is accused of: (Source)

    • Torturing protestors in the 2011 protests.
    • Torture during his time in Air Force Intelligence.
    • Executing soldiers who refused to fire on protestors.
    • Taking part in the killing of 100 civilians in the Dara’a massacre 2011.
    Suheil al-Hassan arriving in Aleppo

    3. Organization of Syrian Tiger Forces

    The organisation of the Tiger Forces has been of an ad-hoc nature since they were founded under the AFI in 2013. With heavy reliance on militia elements, it grew to one of the largest fighting elements on the Syrian battlefield. With approximately 24 groups of roughly 4000 troops each with integrated armour and artillery units, various militia groups also are attached when needed. (Source)

    The Tiger Forces contain two full strength infantry brigades and the ability to call on the Syrian and Russian air forces for air support. (Source) The AFI’s extensive resources meant the unit was well paid and the integration of Russian officers and assets post 2015 all contributed to its success. (Source)

    Suheil al-Hassan with a Russian KSSO bodyguard on the right

    Notable subunits include:

    1. Cheetah Forces or Qawat al-Fahoud is the largest subgroup of the Tiger Forces and was involved in the Aleppo encirclement. (Source) There is also an array of war crime accusations against this particular force. (Source)
    2. Panther Forces, another large brigade subgroup was involved in the 2016 palmyra offensive. (Source)
    3. Taha Group is an assault unit formed in 2014 led by Ali Taha and possesses around 2,500 members. (Source)
    4. Raqqa Hawks Brigade. (Source)
    5. Termah Regiment based in northern Hama.
    6. The Shaheen Group fought in both Palmyra and Aleppo. (Source) Also notable for having the only female sub-commander in the Tiger Forces. (Source)
    7. The Shawaheen Hawks are considered a more elite subgroup with a particularly nasty streak. Videos emerged of the sub-commander feeding live horses to his pet tiger. (Source)

    In 2019 the SAA forced the Tiger Forces into a regular change of command and separated them from the AFI. This change also came with a dramatic change in organisation with the Tiger forces becoming the 25th Special Mission Forces Division. It is now made up of 7 regiments all led by traditional officers, a sharp departure from its original ad-hoc nature. (Source) This came after chief financiers criticised the regime and suggested al-Hassan should be president instead. (Source) This normalised the role of the unit in a post-war environment and left Russia with greater influence over the SAA. It has left the SAA and Russians without a quick reaction force which they are attempting to remedy. (Source)

    Tarmeh Group Commander Wadah Hamoud with a Russian soldier

    4. Equipment of the Syrian Tiger Forces

    The Syrian civil war is rife with various different weapons platforms and as a result equipment of units can be quite varied. However, as the Tiger Forces are part of the SAA their equipment will be similar. Their close relationship with Russia also results in newer models of vehicles being used than the rest of the army. Furthermore, the special forces nature of the unit leads to some more personal bits of equipment being utilised.

    Suheil al-Hassan poses with Tiger Forces troops using various AK platforms with GP-25 grenade launchers

    4.1 Small Arms 

    Most of the weapons used by the Tiger Forces are different members of the AK family, but mainly utilise the AK-74M. Other small arms include:

    • PKP Machine Guns. By far the most popular model of machine gun in Syria.
    • RPK Machine Gun.
    • GP-25 Grenade Launchers attached to AK models.
    • AGS 30 Atlan Grenade Launchers.
    • RPG 7, 18 and 22. The 18 and 22 resemble a US LAW missile launcher.
    • M16A2s have been pictured but are a likely, not standard issue but rather trophies
    • AK-104/105 variants are in service with special forces units such as the Tiger Forces. (Source)
    • VKS-94 Marksman Rifles are in service with Syrian special forces.
    • Golan S-01 anti material rifle. An unlicensed clone of the HS .50 firing the 12.7x108mm cartridge.
    • MP-446 Viking Handgun. Russian supplied exclusively used by the 25th Mission Forces Division. (Source)
    Tiger Forces commander with a trophy M16A4 with attached GP-25 grenade launcher

    4.2 Vehicles

    Due to their close working relationship and sponsorship with Russia the vehicles the Tiger Forces use are of noticeably better quality than the rest of the SAA. Notable vehicles in use with the Tiger Forces include:

    • T-90 Main Battle Tanks. Tiger Forces were the first unit in the SAA to deploy T-90s as a result of their relationship with Russia. (Source)
    • Iveco LMV. Seen supplied by Russian forces. (Source)
    • GAZ-2975 Tigr. The Tiger Forces have a selection of these infantry mobility vehicles from Russian suppliers. 
    • Various different BMP infantry fighting vehicles.
    SAA fighter poses in front of a Russian supplied T-90 Main Battle Tank

    5. Notable Operations of the Syrian Tiger Forces

    The Tiger Forces under Suheil al-Hassan have been involved in almost every major offensive in the civil war since 2013. Due to their high morale, numbers and level of equipment they are the tip of the spear for the Syrian regime. Their favoured status with the Syrian and Russian Air Forces also enables this role as shock troops.

    5.1 The Battle of Aleppo 

    The battle of Aleppo lasted from 2012-106 and was one of the bloodiest battles in the history of the Syrian conflict. The Tiger Forces under Suheil al-Hassan played an important role in it in 2014 when they relieved SAA troops in the central prison which had been under siege for over a year. This cut off a key supply route for the rebels and was a symbolic victory for the regime forces. (Source

    Allegedly when a rebel commander phoned al-Hassan offering to exchange back captured Afghani fighters he responded “Do what you want with them. You can kill them, they’re just mercenaries. We can send you thousands of them.” (Source)

    5.2 The Hama Campaign

    The Hama Campaign in 2014 saw a massive offensive from the al-Nusra front (who are a subsidiary of Al-Qaeda at this time) in the Hama province. The situation was dire, and al-Hassan was placed in charge of the sector and quickly deployed the Tiger Forces. Tiger Forces launched a counteroffensive which quickly retook all lost territory and continued into previously rebel held territory. (Source) Al-Hassan was able to retake the strategic town of Moreh which the SAA had not been able to in a 10-month siege. (Source)

    5.3 Breaking the Siege of Kuweires Airport 

    The breaking the Siege of Kuweires Airport (october 2015-november 2015) is one of the greatest victories the Tiger Forces have achieved during the war. The Kuweires Airport near eastern Aleppo was besieged by Islamic State fighters since 2013 before Tiger Forces arrived in 2015. Tiger Forces under al-Hassan cleared ISIL fighters from village to village resulting in the breaking of the siege. (Source) Suheil al-Hassan was personally congratulated by Bashar al-Assad on the victory. (Source)

    5.4 Operation Damascus Steel

    Operation Damascus Steel was a massive SAA offensive launched in 2018, the aim was to capture the East Ghouta Pocket. This cluster of towns was a major rebel stronghold in Syria. (Source)

    The Capture of the Ghouta Pocket was the most significant victory for the Syrian regime since the capture of Aleppo in 2016. (Source) Yet again the Tiger Forces under Major Colonel al-Hassan played an instrumental role in driving far into the south of the pocket cutting off retreating rebels. (Source)

    6. Summary

    It is clear that the Tiger Forces under Suheil al-Hassan have played an instrumental role in the Syrian conflict. Being present at every major offensive regime forces have launched and had a large personnel count due to the old militia style organisation under the AFI. Furthermore, with the increasing number of Syrian fighters being located in Ukraine, it seems the Tiger Forces remain a fertile recruiting ground for the Wagner group. Indeed Suheil al-Hassan is a figure to watch in the future as he is a certified Alawite hero in the eyes of the government forces. In a regime which relies on a cult of personality around its president Bashar al-Assad, such fame and legend as “The Tiger” possesses can quickly become a curse.

    Aidan Hickey
    Aidan Hickey
    Aidan is a Third Year War Studies Student at King's College London with a keen interest in the Middle-East and Insurgency.

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