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Tiger Forces (Syrian 25th Special Mission Forces Division)


Introduction & Overview


The Tiger Forces are an elite formation of the Syrian Arab Army that was formed in 2013 by drawing select personnel from other special forces units and reorganizing them under the Air Force Intelligence Directorate, the most prominent Syrian intelligence service.

The Tiger Forces were renamed as the “25th Special Mission Forces Division” in 2019 and placed under Syrian Arab Army command, but they continue operating as a brigade-size special force. They are regarded as one of the most effective military formations loyal to the Baathist regime, having served on almost all fronts while going from strength to strength. History & Foundations The history of the Tiger Forces is directly bound to that of the Syrian Civil War, as they were founded in the midst of the conflict. While the unit was formally created on the orders of the Air Force Intelligence Directorate, the Tiger Forces’ history is closely tied to that of their commander and leader, Major-General Suheil Salman al-Hassan (1), himself nicknamed “The Tiger”. The biography of Major-General al-Hassan is the subject of much speculation; he is said to have attended the Homs Military College, which he left with the rank of lieutenant in 1991 (2). A native of Latakia’s Alawite region (3), he joined the spec-ops unit of the Syrian Arab Air Force, where he oversaw the training of paratrooper units; at some point around 2005 or 2006, he was moved to the Air Force Intelligence Directorate HQ in Damascus, where he worked on infiltrating and dismantling Al-Qaeda cells in Syria (4). By that time, he had become a colonel (5). When the Syrian Civil War broke out, al-Hassan is reported to have embedded with regular army units together with his trusted men, acting as a sort of “political commissar” ensuring that rank-and-file soldiers carried out orders and reportedly executing those deemed unreliable (6). He is also reported as having given ‘shoot-to-kill’ orders against civilian protestors in the Daraa province, as well as overseeing the increased use of ‘barrel bombs’ in the Hama province in 2012 (7), while taking control of critical operations in the area (8). It is during this period that he developed an awe-inspiring reputation amongst Syrian Arab Army personnel, which has evolved throughout the years into an almost ‘mythological’ aura, compounded by regime propaganda but also by a genuinely eccentric personality. Indeed, he is known to write poetry and to broadcast his verses over loudspeakers towards enemy lines, while also ruthlessly carrying out operations (9).

A Facebook post by the Tiger Forces captioned: "Trust in God.. Trust in God.. There is no power or strength except in God.. In the name of God from every direction."


According to some sources, al-Hassan was tasked with the creation of a special forces unit in 2013 (10), although OSINT analyses have recorded few mentions of the group in that year, with most SOCINT information becoming more available throughout 2014 and 2015 (11). It is likely that the Tiger Forces emerged firstly as a moniker (a nickname) for all troops commanded by Colonel Suheil “the Tiger” al-Hassan, rather than as a structured military unit. By 2014, al-Hassan was in charge of all Syrian government forces in the Hama region and repelled a rebel offensive (12). His complete control generated hostility amongst other military officers, and it has been reported that several assassination plots masterminded by military intelligence officers were foiled in the Hama region (13). By 2015, the Tiger Forces had taken heavy casualties during a rebel offensive across the Idlib and Hama provinces, and al-Hassan’s formation was relieved from the frontlines to undergo a radical reorganization (14). It was during this time that “the Tiger” passed over a promotion to brigadier-general to remain close to his men (something which, be it fact or fiction, is likely to have played into his perceived aura of a mythical warrior), but was eventually promoted to major-general anyway, a rank which he still holds (15).


A Facebook post by the Tiger Forces glorifying Major-General Suheil Salman al-Hassan.


Starting in 2015, a series of reforms within the Syrian military was implemented under the supervision of the Russian Armed Forces, which had joined the Syrian Civil War to support the Baathist regime in the same year (16). It is during this time that the Tiger Forces acquired their current shape and their order of battle, while “the Tiger” al-Hassan has forged close ties with the Russian military and has become one of the most prominent members of the “Russophile” faction of the Syrian armed forces, as opposed to the “Persophile” faction, headed by the Republican Guard’s commander, Bashar al-Assad’s brother Maher al-Assad (17). In this context, Tiger Forces have incorporated a number of other preexisting formations, as well as others which have been founded anew, among which are the Cheetah Forces, the Panther Forces, the Taha Group, the Raqqa Hawks Brigade, the Termah Regiment, the Shawaheen Hawks, and others (18). As many as 24 sub-units are thought to have been part of the Tiger Forces at some point or another (19), but despite their titular names (“regiment”, “brigade”), it is thought that the total numbers of fighters at this time was about 8000, equivalent to two brigades (20). In 2019, the Tiger Forces were reformed as the 25th Special Mission Forces Division, and its subunits were reorganized under a conventional structure of seven regiments (21). It was also subordinated directly to the high command of the Syrian Arab Army, while it previously was under the Air Force Intelligence Directorate (22). Ideology & Objectives As a military formation, the Tiger Forces have little ideological depth. In general, they can be understood as Baathist loyalists who brutally oppose any deviation from the status quo of the Assad regime. Their social media frequently post Baathist propaganda, while also revering Bashar al-Assad.


A Facebook post by the Tiger Forces, reading: "Ask us about the righteousness of the Levant and its hands. She tells you about tigers and their hurricanes. And that star will appear to you bright. This land knows its men."

Their commander, “The Tiger”, has been generally described as a hardliner (23). In fact, the cult-like aura of hero-worship that surrounds him is a major factor in what sets the Tiger Forces apart from other Syrian military formations. He is often depicted (both through the group’s propaganda and directly by its soldiers) as a selfless commander who does not shy away from leading his men at the frontlines (24). The objectives of the Tiger Forces are certainly overlapping with those of the regime they serve – essentially seeking the complete eradication of any military opponent and the restoration of Syrian statehood. As evidenced by the solid political connection of the Tiger Forces with foreign actors (chiefly Russia and, to a lesser extent, Iran), they are also growing their political weight inside the Syrian establishment, something that may be exploited in the future.

A Facebook post by the Tiger Forces stating: "the third stage of the process of destroying the enemy on the entire geography of Idlib."


Political & Military Abilities The Tiger Forces participated in most major government offensives as well as defensive operations ever since they were formed. They were amongst the units which spearheaded an attack on Aleppo’s prison in 2014, ultimately clearing it of rebel troops (25). In the same year, the Tiger Forces were deployed during the Hama campaign that had bled out other Syrian Arab Army units; their operations were able to quickly regain all territory lost to rebels and even reversed the situation, forcing them to defend and retreat (26).

The Siege of Kuweires Airport was laid in 2013 by rebel forces, until ISIS eliminated the rebels and continued besieging the military base hosting an airstrip and the cadets of the Military Aviation Institute. Here, it was not until 2015 that the Tiger Forces were deployed. Once present, the group successfully eliminated the ISIS forces and lifted the siege, finding only 300 survivors of the 1100 original personnel of the base (27). Moreover in 2018, the Tiger Forces participated in the closing of the Ghouta Pocket in the outskirts of Damascus (28). Prior to the 2019 refounding, the Tiger Forces operated as ad hoc battlegroups varying in size, from company to battalion size augmented by auxiliary forces of the Syrian Arab Army or other militias (29). In this sense, they were hardly ever deployed entirely in one area, and were instead sent to different fronts where the presence of skilled commanders and battle-hardened veterans could turn the tide, while conscripts and militiamen were entrusted with defensive operations or other low complexity operations (30). The Tiger Forces’ direct connection to their Russian allies has provided them with privileged access to prime materiel, such as modern T-90 tanks and various models of BMP APC (organized in an armoured unit), as well as their own artillery detachment, mostly relying on rocket launcher platforms (31). The Tiger Forces are almost always in contact with the Russian Air Force in Syria, and are often able to enjoy close air support (32). Other weapons they have been equipped with are PKP LMGs, various RPG models (7,18,22), rare AK-104/105 carbines, VSK-94 and Golan S-01 marksman rifles (33).


Quite notably for the Syrian war theatre, which has not seen any airborne landing operations, the Tiger Forces train their own paratroopers and seem to have at least some airborne capability using helicopters (34).

A video release by the Tiger Forces entitled "Parachute landing with full equipment, airdrop commandos."

In general, the Tiger Forces enjoy a secure position in Syria’s hierarchy of political and military power. This is not only because of their sheer military prowess, but also thanks to the direct relations between “the Tiger” al-Hassan and high-ranking Russian military officers (35). In this sense, it is clear that, from the point of view of the Syrian regime, they represent a double-edged sword insofar as they are highly needed to bring about a favourable end to the civil war, but they are also a Russian fifth column inside Syria (36). Their political weight is also likely to increase in any post-war scenario, adding to Baathist fears and suspicions (37). This tension has already led to some political friction, such as an instance where the companies of one of the most prominent financial patrons of the Tiger Forces were essentially expropriated (38).

International Relations & Alliances


Officers of the Tiger Forces are known to have liaised and met with Qasseim Soleimani, the late commander of the Jerusalem Brigade (often nicknamed Quds Force in the West) (39). Major-General al-Hassan was also able to garner Iranian support to establish further Tiger Forces subunits (40).


Nevertheless, the Tiger Forces have become one of the favourite partners of the Russian military in Syria, who have prioritized them over other formations when supplying military grade equipment (41). “The Tiger” al-Hassan received a Russian military award in 2016, and was subsequently presented with a ceremonial sword by General Gerasimov, one of the highest ranking generals in the Russian military (42). He was also present during one of Vladimir Putin’s visits to Syria as the only military officer on that occasion, and was praised by him directly (43). “The Tiger” has also worked directly with General Surovikin, the current commander of the Russian Aerospace Forces (44).

Works Cited (Chicago-style)

1 Waters, G. The Tiger Forces. In: Middle East Institute, 2018. pp. 2. Available at: https://www.mei.edu/sites/default/files/2018-11/TigerForces.pdf [Last consulted: 12/09/2023]


2 Fadel, L. Who is Colonel Suheil Al-Hassan of the Tiger Forces?. In: Al-Masdar News, 26/02/2015. Available at: web.archive.org/web/20200917203805/https://www.almasdarnews.com/article/colonel-suheil-al-hassan-tiger-forces/ [Last consulted: 12/09/2023]


3 Cfr.


4 Fadel, L. Who is Colonel Suheil Al-Hassan of the Tiger Forces?. Cit.


5 Ibidem.


6 Cfr. Winter, L. Suheil al-Hassan and the Syrian Army’s Tiger Forces. In: Small Wars Journal, 22/07/2016. Available at: smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/suheil-al-hassan-and-the-syrian-army’s-tiger-forces [Last consulted: 12/09/2023]


7 Ibidem.


8 Kasapoğlu, C. Syria's 'Shogun' in the making: russian-backed General Suheil al-Hassan and future of the Syrian Arab Armed Forces. In: Foreign Policy & Security, EDAM, 11, 2018. pp. 8.


9 Fisk, R. An audience with ‘the Tiger’ – Bashar al-Assad’s favourite soldier. In: The Independent, 10/06/2014. Available at www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/an-audience-with-the-tiger-bashar-alassad-s-favourite-soldier-9508736.html [Last consulted: 12/09/2023]


10 Cfr. Fadel, L. Who is Colonel Suheil Al-Hassan of the Tiger Forces?. Cit.


11 Cfr. Waters, G. The Tiger Forces. Cit. pp. 4.


12 Cfr. Winter, L. Suheil al-Hassan and the Syrian Army’s Tiger Forces. Cit.


13 Cfr. AA. VV. Who’s Who: Suheil Al-Hassan. In: The Syrian Observer, 25/11/2015. Available at: syrianobserver.com/who/28224/who_who_suheil_al_hassan.html


14 Cfr. Waters, G. The Tiger Forces. Cit. pp. 3.


15 Winter, L. Suheil al-Hassan and the Syrian Army’s Tiger Forces. Cit.


16 Cfr. Waters, G. The Lion and The Eagle: The Syrian Arab Army’s Destruction and Rebirth. In: Middle East Institute, 18/07/2023. Available at: www.mei.edu/publications/lion-and-eagle-syrian-arab-armys-destruction-and-rebirth#pt5 [Last consulted: 12/09/2023]


17 Cfr. Hickey, A. The Tiger and his Cubs: The Syrian Regime’s Tiger Forces. Cit.


18 Ibidem.


19 Ibidem.


20 Ibidem.


21 Waters, G. From Tiger Forces to the 16th Brigade: Russia’s evolving Syrian proxies. In: Middle East Institute, 12/9/2022. Available at: mei.edu/publications/tiger-forces-16th-brigade-russias-evolving-syrian-proxies#_ftn5 [Last consulted: 12/09/2023]


22 Ibidem.


23 Cfr. Kasapoğlu, C. Syria's 'Shogun' in the making: russian-backed General Suheil al-Hassan and future of the Syrian Arab Armed Forces. Cit. pp. 15.


24 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TyYfujPZZuA [Last consulted: 14/09/2023]


25 Hickey, A. The Tiger and his Cubs: The Syrian Regime’s Tiger Forces. Cit.


26 Ibidem.


27 Ibidem.


28 Ibidem.


29 Cfr. Waters, G. The Tiger Forces. Cit. pp. 6.


30 Cfr. Waters, G. The Tiger Forces. Cit. pp. 6.


31 Ibidem.


32 Cfr. Kasapoğlu, C. Syria's 'Shogun' in the making: russian-backed General Suheil al-Hassan and future of the Syrian Arab Armed Forces. Cit. pp. 13.


33 Cfr. Hickey, A. The Tiger and his Cubs: The Syrian Regime’s Tiger Forces. Cit.


34 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iTJRb2h8rzQ [Last consulted: 14/09/2023]


35 Kasapoğlu, C. Syria's 'Shogun' in the making: russian-backed General Suheil al-Hassan and future of the Syrian Arab Armed Forces. Cit. pp. 15.


36 Ibidem.


37 Ibidem.


38 Cfr. Waters, G. From Tiger Forces to the 16th Brigade: Russia’s evolving Syrian proxies. Cit.


39 Cfr. Waters, G. The Tiger Forces. Cit. pp. 7


40 Cfr. AA. VV. Who’s Who: Suheil Al-Hassan. Cit.


41 Cfr. Cfr. Winter, L. Suheil al-Hassan and the Syrian Army’s Tiger Forces. Cit.


42 Cfr. Kasapoğlu, C. Syria's 'Shogun' in the making: russian-backed General Suheil al-Hassan and future of the Syrian Arab Armed Forces. Cit. pp. 12.


43 Ibidem.


44 Ibidem, pp. 13.

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