BEIRUT—Early on the morning of February 18, Syrian regime forces gathered on a field on the edge of eastern Ghouta, a rebel-held region near Damascus. The sky had just cleared after a weekend of torrential rain that had grounded Russian and Syrian regime warplanes conducting airstrikes on the area. Soon, a stout, bearded man began to speak. Many of the men gathered held up their cellphones to film him as he delivered a message to the rebels in eastern Ghouta: They would “see hell’s flames” if they mounted any resistance to his forces. “You will find no one to help you and if you cry for help, you will be succored with water as hot as melting metal,” Brigadier General Suheil al-Hassan warned them. “At your service my master the Tiger!” shouted one of the men in the crowd, using the intimidating nom de guerre he has acquired over the years. “If you’re not with God then you’re with the devil. Be on the side of God so that God will be with you,” Hassan said.
Through Syria’s civil war, Hassan, a member of the minority Alawite sect like Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, has become something of a celebrity. In the lead-up to Russia’s intervention in the Syrian war in the fall of 2015, Hassan was believed to have been fatally injured in battle. But he re-emerged, transformed into a regime hero with a growing fan base and legions of admirers on social media. (Some speculated that the real Tiger was dead and that this man was an imposter drafted by the regime to boost morale after the major defeats it suffered before Russia came to the rescue.)