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.