Syria’s ‘Shogun’ in the Making: Russian-backed General Suheil al-Hassan and Future of the Syrian Arab Armed Forces


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Dr. Can Kasapoğlu, Defense Analyst, EDAM

Key Judgements

  • Current open-source intelligence pieces of evidence suggest that Syria could witness a serious intra-regime power struggle between General Suheil al-Hassan, the commander of the battle-hardened Tiger Forces (Qawat al-Nimr), and the incumbent Baathist military elite.
  • The underlying geopolitical reason of a potential break within the Syrian military apparatus would be the ongoing Russian – Iranian competition in shaping the future design of Syria. While Moscow seeks to expand its influence through state capacity building, Tehran strives to institutionalize militancy in the post-war era and exploit the power vacuum. The Syrian Arab Armed Forces’ unity of command and strategic orientation will remain at the epicenter of any political transition scenario in the future.
  • In case Moscow opts for backing the ‘Nimr’, as it has been doing hitherto, a takeover (attempt) for the high military command would be likely. Quite possibly, the change would not take place in the form of a political putsch overthrowing Bashar al-Assad to replace him with a generalissimo, but a forcible reshuffle of the top military leadership. To materialize its political goals in Syria, Russia should rein in profiteer paramilitary formations, restrict Iran-orchestrated Shiite militancy’s presence in the Syrian security sector, and ensure a unified chain of command to lay the foundations of the post-civil war doctrinal order of battle of the Syrian Arab Armed Forces.
  • In any Damascene power struggle scenario involving General al-Hassan and the Tiger Forces, General Maher al-Assad (Bashar al-Assad’s brother known for his brutality) and his combat-proven 4th Armored Division would play a key role in determining the limits of an intra-regime clash. In fact, following a period of relief from his command position, Maher al-Assad’s appointment as the commander of the praetorian 4th Armored Division meaningfully coincides with General Suheil al-Hassan’s assignment to lead the offensive in the outskirts of the capital Damascus in spring 2018, at Russia’s behest.
  • President Putin had to overcome Salafi jihadism and Sunni insurgency to ‘win the war’ in Syria. The Russian campaign has made a significant progress in this respect. Inevitably, for ‘winning the peace’ and rebuilding the civil war-torn country to serve Russia’s strategic interests, the Kremlin will have to contain Iran-backed Shiite militancy from now on. General Suheil al-Hassan appears to be Moscow’s ‘great white hope’ to re-unite the Syrian Arab Armed Forces to become the only military entity across Syria.  

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