An audience with ‘the Tiger’ – Bashar al-Assad’s favourite soldier

...and a man you wouldn’t want to cross

Share

Colonel Soheil Hassan is called ‘The Tiger’, and is one of the most-frightening men I have ever met. He is Bashar al-Assad’s favourite soldier and he sits straight in his chair by his field headquarters north of Aleppo.

The Tiger writes poetry but is a very ruthless soldier. He expects to die, and says with all the resolution of his Islamist enemies that he will be a “martyr”. And he describes with chilling details his 180-mile campaign from Hama to Aleppo to raise the siege of Syria’s largest city. 

Before battle he tries to persuade the men of Jabet al-Nusrah, Isis or al-Qaeda  to surrender.

“I myself broadcast over the loudspeaker. I told them they have a choice. ‘There is an alternative to war and destruction,’ I say. In the presence of religious men, men from the government, I say to them: ‘You can leave. You can get out safely. Don’t let me destroy you.’ And some came out. Hundreds of them. They got out, but they made a conspiracy against us and attacked us (after they surrendered). My soldiers told me the truth: all of them died who cheated me and also those who did not want to come out. Why do I do this? If you have somebody who says to you: ‘Leave your operations, come out’, I respect my commitment if they do it for real.”

This is a civil war in Syria – The Tiger and his comrades believe this is a battle against an international plot – but those words “all of them died who cheated me” has a Ba’athist ring to it. So do does Colonel Hassan’s disregard for his enemies.

“They are not like human beings. They are creatures, not human beings. They have drugs and suicide belts and knives and very advanced weapons. They made a whole factory for mortars and heavy shells, 120mm and above. They have very advanced technology and advanced experts. But all of those factories are in our hands.”

But what of another story which circulates about The Tiger: that he also broadcasts his own poetry across his enemies’ front lines?

He does not tell us this at first. He goes on about his belief in freedom, law, truth, not all qualities which one would associate with the Syrian regime but then he launches into the following piece of romanticism: “My heart is like a rock. My mind is as quiet as the sea. Nobody forgets that if the tide goes out, the sea swallows everything. The moonlight is very beautiful, but this moonlight can withdraw the oceans with the ebb and flow of the tide.”

Yes, he agrees after some seconds, he broadcasts this across the front lines. In separate conversations with us, his officers agree the story is true.

Does he wish to lull his enemies into ecstatic surrender – or bore them to death? But beware, The Tiger is no fool. When I caustically quote in English the Iraqi poet Mutanabi, who said that “if you see the teeth of a lion, it does not mean he is smiling at you”, I am sure the colonel sees the trap in my words. The Arabic for “lion” is “Assad”. But quick as a flash, he picks up on my words and completes the verse in Arabic. Yes, he says, he met the real Assad once, during a “military project” before he was president, but insists that he “sees” him every morning at dawn. I ponder this revelation. Did General Zhukov think of Stalin every morning during the Second World War?  Well yes, probably he did.

There is no doubt of the ferocity with which The Tiger chased his enemies northwards up the motorway towards Aleppo. He called it “Operation Kill or Be Killed”. He says the rebel groups lost thousands and that his own side had “sacrificed a lot”.

I asked him if his enemies ever spoke  to him.

“They tried,” he said, with the nearest thing to a smile he betrayed, a kind of movement under his moustache. “A man came on our operational radio net. He said he was Al-Sheikh Ahmed Hazrawi. I was attacking his biggest stronghold at the time. I didn’t reply. He tried again and mentioned my name and rank, and I said no. Then he said: ‘Sheikh Ahmed to Tiger, please reply. I am not going to say bad words to you.’ I didn’t reply. Then he called me very bad and dirty words. This man was an ex-prisoner from back in 2007 – he had been accused of contact with al-Qa’ida. I talk to the enemy only through a mediator, a clergyman. My enemy respects me because I don’t lie. They know I don’t lie. And I don’t promise them anything,” he said.

As the colonel’s soldiers fought their way round Aleppo towards the hulk of the prison still in government hands – where around 600 inmates had already died of wounds, sickness and hunger – the rebels came on the radio net once more.

“‘Call off your operations now, especially around the prison,’ they told me. They told me I would be killed. I replied: ‘You will get what you ask for.’”

And so, losing his own men in great numbers, The Tiger drove north-east from Aleppo into the dangerous, gentle grey sand hills of orchards and dark fields where his enemies still lie in wait.

As we spoke, occasional mortars soared over us from the men whose own front lines move each day, up to only 700 metres from the colonel’s own positions. His main supply route back towards the southbound motorway from Aleppo is still under night-time fire from snipers. He says that when he is fighting, he tries to understand the divisions within the militant opposition ranks – he calls them “terrorists”, of course – and use this to his advantage.  And divided they are, some fighting Kurdish militias, others the remnants of the Western-supported “Free Syria Army”.  But you don’t hear much about the FSA any more. The men whom Obama and Europe once supported as “moderates” cannot be found on this battlefield.

Colonel Hassan knows he’s popular among his men. There is plenty of pride. And self-regard, I think. He says he is in his forties but colleagues suggest he is 10 years older. He never made a joke. He is obedient, loyal to the regime, a safe pair of hands.    

Yet there are parallels between The Tiger and his enemies. The colonel says he has not seen his only son for four years.

“He was only two when I last saw him, now he is six. But this is my home, Syria, and I swear I will not see him until the victory of good over bad, or unless I die.”

When I ask him if he will write a book, he says that “time will write everything”, that “history will be written in the tears of  the people”.

He talks often of “martyrdom”. Tears, time, martyrdom. No wonder his enemies try to talk to The Tiger.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Opilio Recruitment: QA Automation Engineer

£30k - 38k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: An award-winning consume...

Opilio Recruitment: UX & Design Specialist

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

£30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

£35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A Pokot woman holds a razor blade after performing a circumcision on four girls  

The campaigns to end FGM are a welcomed step, but they don't go far enough

Charlotte Rachael Proudman
Our political system is fragmented, with disillusioned voters looking to the margins for satisfaction  

Politics of hope needed to avert flight to margins

Liam Fox
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game