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The Great Damascus Antiquities Bust?

December 8, 2018

News spread across the internet today of a major new discovery with regards to antiquities trafficking in Syria. Reports, originating with leaders and media of the Syrian opposition, alleged that a raid had discovered two metric tons of antiquities in a house in Damascus:

In short, this is the story: Major General Jamil Hassan, the head of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence Directorate, acting on the orders of Major General Maher al-Assad, brother of Bashar al-Assad and commander of the Republican Guard, sent a force to raid a house in the Mezzeh 86 neighborhood of Damascus belonging to Brigadier General Suhail al-Hassan, the commander of the Syrian Army’s elite Tiger Force unit. There, according to Hassan, they found a stash of looted antiquities weighing two metric tons.

There is no indication as of yet of what was found in this raid. According to Brigadier General Ahmed Rahal, a former Deputy Defense Minister who defected to the opposition in 2012 but remains a well-connected source of news about Syria, al-Hassan denied all charges:

Suhail al-Hassan maintains that he knew nothing of the antiquities in the house, that he had not entered the house in the past four years, and accuses Maher al-Assad, Jamil Hassan, and Major General Rafiq Shahadah, the head of the Military Intelligence Directorate, of conspiring against him.

It is unclear where Elkhaldy and Rahal are getting their information, although they appear to have sources independent of one another. Therefore, it is not possible to independently verify this at this time. However, the story remains interesting for what it can reveal about the inner workings of the Syrian regime and the role played by archaeological artifacts in the war in Syria.

The Rise of Militias

Tiger Force fighters in Deir ez-Zor, September 2017.

The Syrian Arab Army suffered massive losses in 2012 and 2013 from battle and desertion as rebels took control of most of Syria. Bashar al-Assad rebuilt his military forces, at the price that his grip on power now depends on a patchwork of military units, paramilitary organizations, political party militias, local defense militias organized along ethnic lines, foreign volunteers, and private military companies.

Militias in turn became a tool of advancement for many men who seized the opportunity to raise their wealth and social status through warlordism. One of these men was Suhail al-Hassan, a colonel in Air Force Intelligence who displayed a notable combination of loyalty, brutality, and military competence during the early stages of the uprising from 2011-2013. In late 2013, he was given the task of forming a special unit known as “Tiger Force,” designed to act as a spearhead for offensives to retake rebel-held areas.

Tiger Force was not formed in the manner of most elite military units, that is, through selecting the best men from a variety of regular army units. Rather, Tiger Force is an amalgamation of Alawite militias, most of them led by a local leader and consisting of men from his village. The entire venture was allegedly funded not from the military budget but privately by Bashar al-Assad’s billionaire cousin Rami Makhlouf, the owner of Syria’s largest cell phone company Syriatel and one of the wealthiest men in Syria. Tiger Force also operated outside of the regular military command structure, reporting not to the Syrian Arab Army but to Jamil Hassan’s Air Force Intelligence Directorate. (Hafez al-Assad was the former commander of the Syrian Air Force, and as a result relied on Air Force Intelligence for a wide variety of internal security functions and covert operations).

Suhail al-Hassan (center) and Jamil Hassan (left) along with a Russian special forces bodyguard, October 2017. (source)

Tiger Force turned out to be a highly effective military force, helping to turn the tide of the war in favor of Assad in 2014 and 2015 through heavy fighting in Aleppo, Hama, and Kuweires Airport. Battlefield successes raised Suhail al-Hassan’s profile considerably, earning him a promotion to Brigadier General as well as considerable media coverage in Syria and Russia. He even appears to have received a personal protection detail of Russian special forces soldiers after several assassination attempts.

Like any good warlord, Suhail al-Hassan has also worked to cultivate his own personal mythology. His men call him al-Nimr, “the Tiger.” He entertained western journalists with tales of broadcasting his own original war poetry to the enemy over the radio prior to an attack and claimed to have never lost a battle. Der Spiegel dubbed him “The Devil’s General,” while Robert Fisk called him “one of the most-frightening men I have ever met.”

Outside of shows put on for credulous journalists, al-Hassan and the Tiger Force are said to profit from black market trafficking in oil and weapons, including with ISIS. Tiger Force and a similar privately funded military unit called the Desert Hawks, whose founder Muhammad Jaber made his fortune carrying out illegal trade in violation of UN sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s, are widely reported to be enriching themselves by plundering private property in newly captured areas. The power of men like Jaber and al-Hassan likely depends on their ability to deliver the goods to their men, who otherwise will find another warlord to attach themselves to.


The militias of Assad’s Syria are but a reflection of how the state was run before the war began: with numerous redundant military and intelligence units operating at once in order to spy on each other and prevent any one person from becoming powerful enough to become a threat to Bashar al-Assad.

Unsurprisingly, the rise of up-and-coming warlords from outside the inner circle of the regime, leading privately funded armies which double as organized criminal networks while being guarded by Russian special forces has been perceived by the regime’s old guard as a threat to their power. Apparently baseless speculation in Western media that Russia is considering replacing Bashar al-Assad with Suhail al-Hassan likely has not helped the perception that al-Hassan has become too big for his own good.

Ali Shelly. (source)

In 2015, someone in Rafiq Shehahda’s Military Intelligence Directorate (an old rival to Air Force Intelligence) leaked an internal document detailing various crimes committed by Tiger Force, alleging that one of al-Hassan’s lieutenants named Ali Shelly was selling weapons and oil to rebels. In one instance, soldiers caught Shelly’s men smuggling weapons in trucks hidden under bags of wheat, resulting in a shootout between the Syrian Arab Army and Tiger Force. A few days later, men from the Military Intelligence Directorate were rounding up draft dodgers in an area controlled by Shelly’s men when they were ambushed and killed. In 2016 Shelly was eventually arrested, only to be released a few days later when Air Force Intelligence intervened on his behalf.

In the past year, the old guard of the Assad regime has taken steps to bring some of the militias in to line. In July 2017 Muhammad Jaber left Syria for Russia as the Assad regime disbanded the Desert Hawks and redistributed their men into other militias and regular army formations.

Tiger Force held on for a bit longer, protected by Suhail al-Hassan’s close links with Air Force Intelligence and with the Russian military. However, in August 2018 a facebook group linked to Syria’s Republican Guard (commanded by Bashar’s brother Maher al-Assad) published audio in which Suhail threatened to attack regime elements who tried to arrest Tiger Force members. The following month, the government canceled the contracts of 6,500 Tiger Force members, dramatically shrinking his force.

Which brings us back to the raid and the allegations against Suhail al-Hassan. He allegedly has accused three men of being behind the raid. Two of them, Maher al-Assad, the brother of the president and the commander of both the Republican Guard and the Syrian Arab Army’s 4th Armored Division, and Rafiq Shahadah of the Military Intelligence Directorate, have viewed Air Force Intelligence and Tiger Force as dangerous rivals for a while now. Jamil Hassan, however, was Suhail’s sponsor, without whose permission the others could not move against him.

Ali Shelly and Suhail al-Hassan. (source)

Due to his popularity, in order to take him down, his rivals must first take down his reputation. Allegations of criminal activity are a good way to do that. Allegations that he is profiting from the destruction of the ancient past while Bashar al-Assad has presented himself as fighting to preserve civilization against the forces of barbarism are even better. The fact that many members of the regime are likely profiting from the same sorts of enterprises is irrelevant – those who survive will cover it up while those for whom the knives are out will have their misdeeds exposed.

It is of course entirely likely that senior members of the Assad regime are trafficking in antiquities as well as weapons and oil. Many sites in regime-held territory, most famously the site of Apamea, have been looted. A great deal of antiquities trafficking takes place through Lebanon, which almost entirely borders territory held by Assad loyalists for most of the war.

But as the war winds down, the militias aren’t going anywhere, and conflict between the old guard and the new guard seems likely to continue. As one Syrian noted in 2013:

“After this crisis, there will be a 1,000 more crises — the militia leaders. Two years ago they went from nobody to somebody with guns and power. How can we tell these shabiha to go back to being a nobody again?”

The trafficking in antiquities and other looted property may well be one part of these power struggles. Financially, the impact of antiquities will be small, but as a propaganda weapon it may have an effect many times greater.

Article © Christopher Jones 2018.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Laguerre permalink
    December 9, 2018 2:51 AM

    So you’re now doing political propaganda on behalf of the US-directed anti-Asad opposition, instead of archaeology and antiquities. This is stuff straight out of their camp, and probably what Trump would call fake news.


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