Small Wars Journal

Syria’s Desert Hawks and the Loyalist Response to ISIS

Share this Post

Syria’s Desert Hawks and the Loyalist Response to ISIS

Lucas Winter

In the summer of 2012, a loose alliance of anti-government fighters advanced along Syria’s Euphrates River Valley, both downriver from the border with Turkey and upriver from the border with Iraq. The rebels worked in small, mobile groups that could quickly take over soft government targets such as administrative buildings and oilfields. By late 2012 they were able to mass forces and conduct larger, coordinated strikes against semi-fortified positions.[1] In March 2013 a large rebel coalition attacked the city of Raqqa from several fronts, fully expelling the Syrian government from the city within days. ISIS was established the following month, with Raqqa its de facto Syrian capital. The Euphrates Valley and surrounding desert provided ISIS with ample depth to protect its new urban stronghold. True to its twin strategic pillars of “remaining and expanding,” ISIS immediately began consolidating its control over rebel groups in the Euphrates Valley (finally achieved in January 2014), while at the same time expanding into the vast expanse of arid and semi-arid steppe known as the Syrian Badia or Shamiya (the Syrian Desert or Syrian Steppe).

The badia radiates as a triangle southward from the city of Aleppo to separate Euphrates Valley population centers from the Aleppo-Hama-Homs-Damascus axis known as “vital Syria” (“useful Syria”). The badia comprises the majority of Syria’s territory and provides much of the country’s hydrocarbon energy, but it contains only a minimal fraction of Syria’s total population. The arid, rocky and sparsely populated desert steppes of Syria and Iraq are favorable operational environments for ISIS’s mobile decentralized units. Iraqi analyst Nibras Kazimi calls them ISIS’s “strategic depth.”[2] For the Syrian Arab Army (SyAA), which in the summer of 2013 was barely able to defend Syria’s main cities, defending the badia from ISIS’s mobile attacks presented a major challenge.

In August 2013 the Syrian government passed Legislative Decree No 55 allowing private companies to bid on government contracts to protect oil and petroleum infrastructure against rebel attacks.[3] As with Syrian privatizations from the 2000s, regime insiders were the new law’s main beneficiaries. The president’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, for instance, was granted the concession to guard the Shaer (Sha’ir) Gas and Oil Field through his charitable foundation, the al-Bustan Committee for Charity Work.[4] Makhlouf had become Syria’s wealthiest man on the heels of finance and telecommunications sector privatizations in the 2000s. The security privatization was marred by corruption and incompetence, as the tale of a Russian Private Military Corporation (PMC) called the Slavonic Corps illustrates: contracted to guard oil facilities in Deir Ezzour Province, the Russian fighters withdrew after a series of mishaps in the badia prevented them from ever reaching the facilities they were meant to guard.[5]

The privatizing of infrastructure protection was part of a broader Syrian government effort to replenish the SyAA’s depleted infantry, which had been nearly halved by defections, desertions, conscription evasion and fatalities after two years of conflict. The effort relied on a variety of recruitment methods, including communal defense (for local actors) and the protection of Shi’a religious heritage (for foreign fighters). By the summer of 2013 the SyAA, largely through its elite Republican Guard forces, had created a supplementary infantry force that became collectively known as the  “reserve forces” (al-quwwat al-radifa).[6] The profit motive was more transparent in these new forces, as civilian regime profiteers became deeply involved in recruiting and arming their own units. Looting and other forms of illicit enrichment were pervasive, making many of the new units PMCs in practice if not in principle. Nonetheless, the new militias mostly remained under the command and control of SyAA leadership.

Most of the Syrian reserve forces were organized as communal defense militias operating within their fighters’ home territories. As a consequence, they were present in virtually all loyalist minority communities. In the badia, where settlements were sparse and mostly populated by Sunni tribes with social ties across the porous desert border to the Arabian Peninsula, the communal defense model was inadequate for defending government territory. At some point in 2013 and with the goal of protecting the oil and gas deposits of the badia from rebel attackers, a top Republican Guard soldier and high-level regime profiteers together established a badia strike force called the Desert Hawks (Suqqur al-Sahara).

The Desert Hawks were financed and controlled by brothers Ayman and Mohammed Jaber, key regime figures whose wealth and influence derived from their links to the president’s family and their influence over Syria’s energy, iron, and steel industries.[7] Like the president and his inner circle, they hailed from an Alawite community in Lattakia Province. The Jabers hired Staff Colonel Mohsen Said Hussein, an elite SyAA Republican Guard paratrooper in his late forties, as commander of their new militia.[8] After deploying to quell protests in the eastern suburbs of Damascus when the Syrian revolt first began in 2011, Mohsen Hussein was in 2012 transferred to the Syrian Army’s Military Intelligence branch in Palmyra (Branch 221), also known as the Badia Branch, where he became deputy commander and was put in charge of operations.[9]

When Mohsen Hussein established the Desert Hawks, “around 2,000 civilians” joined his new formation according to loyalist sources.[10] It is not clear exactly who these men were, though an opposition media account described them as former soldiers aged between 25 and 40 and numbering “in the hundreds.”[11] Mohsen Hussein established other loyalist militias in addition to the Desert Hawks, including a parallel force based in Lattakia called the Naval Commandos and a badia unit staffed with local fighters from the Shuaytat tribe, which was called the “Eastern Lions” (Usud al-Sharqiya).[12] He also continued to work as deputy commander in the Badia Branch.

Mohsen Hussein’s new anti-ISIS strike force consisted of convoys of “technicals” with anywhere from 25 to 200 men. The Desert Hawks employed tactics similar to those of ISIS.[13] They relied on speed and superior firepower to conduct rapid counterstrikes against advancing ISIS forces and occasionally received support fire from Syrian air force and artillery units.[14] The badia was favorable terrain for ISIS’s “small, disparate mobile desert units” which, when attacked, could easily “dissolve away into the desert, leaving small and determined bands of fighters to deflect and bleed-out the invading force.”[15] For both ISIS and the Desert Hawks, the difficulty came not in striking targets but in holding terrain.

By late 2013, Mohsen Hussein’s forces had successfully expelled ISIS attackers – often numbering in the hundreds – from semi-fortified positions throughout the badia.[16] In 2014 the Desert Hawks led a government counterattack to retake the town of Kassab, located in forested mountains near the border with Turkey. The physical and human terrain surrounding Kassab is very different than that of the Sunni-majority badia, and the Desert Hawks’ ability to successfully operate in both environments established their reputation as an elite loyalist strike force with rapid deployment capabilities.[17] From the spring of 2014 until the end of the year, the Desert Hawks spearheaded – in quick succession – offensives in Kassab, the Shaer Oil and Gas Fields, Hama Military Airport, and Shaer (again).

The Shaer offensive represented the Desert Hawks’ first engagement with ISIS’s self-declared “caliphate army.” ISIS was by then a significantly upgraded force, after its fighters seized massive amounts of advanced weaponry from sites throughout Syria and Iraq, most notably the city of Mosul. ISIS had seized the Shaer facilities and surrounding territory in a July 2014 surprise attack, and within days Mohsen Hussein led government efforts to retake the field with an alleged 600-man strong Desert Hawks contingent.[18] His forces advanced as quickly as the ISIS attackers had and chased them out of the area within days.

Although Mohsen Hussein established an effective counterattacking badia force, he was unable to defend semi-fortified badia positions from new ISIS incursions. The Syrian War’s many open fronts and the constant shortages in effective loyalist manpower meant that the defense of non-essential territory fell on heavily armed though poorly coordinated and generally unprepared groups of conventional troops and militiamen. These well-stocked positions were attractive targets for mobile ISIS units speeding across the badia, and in consequence badia positions changed hands regularly. In the fall of 2014, only months after being dislodged from Shaer, ISIS units returned and retook the field. The Desert Hawks once again led the successful strike to regain the territory, though at the price of losing their leader Mohsen Hussein, who was killed in battle in November 2014.

Despite the death of their field commander, the Desert Hawks continued growing in numbers in 2015. Brothers Mohammed and Ayman Jaber began playing a more direct role, with Mohammed, a retired SyAA colonel, becoming the Desert Hawks operations commander, and Ayman a key recruiter in Lattakia. The Jabers’ militias opened recruitment branches in loyalist areas throughout 2015 and established subunits in Hama, Tartous, and Lattakia provinces.[19] A September 2015 report estimated the Desert Hawks as having 7,000 fighters.[20]

The Desert Hawks were able to recruit effectively in part because pay and conditions were better with the Jabers than in the army or other militias.[21] Desert Hawks recruits could avoid the SyAA’s entrenched venality and corruption and had an unobstructed line to the presidency and top military officials through their leaders. A Saudi media source report claimed that Desert Hawks “financing, ammunition and weapons were independent of the army,” and that its injured were taken to a special wing in the National Hospital, where they were tended exclusively by their own doctors and paramedics.[22] According to loyalist accounts, the Desert Hawks procured their own weapons.[23]

In May 2015 ISIS expelled loyalist forces from Palmyra, the badia’s largest and most important population center and one-time site of a Roman garrison to guard against Persian invaders. As with other successful ISIS attacks in the badia, SyAA defenses quickly collapsed in a disorganized retreat. Although many defenders escaped, ISIS killed prominent officers including the local head of Military Intelligence.[24] A loyalist counterattack was not feasible, as elite government units – including Desert Hawks – had been transferred to Idlib Province in an attempt to reverse rebel gains and shore up the defense of Lattakia Province, the regime’s heartland.

The ease with which a position as heavily fortified as Palmyra had fallen to ISIS gave rise to intense speculation about the relationship between ISIS and the Syrian government. Opposition sources claimed there had been collusion. In February 2016 the Syrian government’s attorney general in Palmyra defected and gave an extensive interview, describing the fall of Palmyra as a regime-concocted ruse to accelerate Russian intervention and carried out in coordination with ISIS leadership.[25]

Purported links between ISIS and the Syrian government are often traced to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, when Syrian security and intelligence agencies sought to bolster the Iraqi insurgency in order to keep U.S. troops and jihadists too preoccupied with one another to focus on Syria.[26] The Syrian revolt of 2011 partially severed links whatever links may have remained between the government and jihadists, and one of Mohsen Hussein’s missions in the Badia Branch likely involved reestablishing and strengthening informant networks in light of changing political conditions. By 2015 the Badia Branch claimed to have infiltrated ISIS to the extent of being able to direct the organization’s operations, according to testimony from the government’s attorney general in Palmyra following his defection.[27] Residents of jihadist-controlled territory were regularly detained and forcibly recruited as informants, and the government retained some leverage by continuing to pay the wages of state employees in the Euphrates Valley and other jihadist-controlled locales.

ISIS heavy-handedness and extreme violence furthermore drove many residents of the self-proclaimed caliphate into loyalist arms. The most notable example comes from members of the Shuaytat (Shaitat) tribe, whose men flocked to the Desert Hawks-linked “Eastern Lions” seeking revenge after ISIS fighters murdered hundreds of their kinsmen in Deir Ezzour.[28] The Shuaytat tribe was divided, as their men also represented a significant number of ISIS’s Syrian ranks. The presence of ISIS members’ neighbors and relatives in the loyalist camp naturally facilitated the potential for both cooptation and cooperation between the parties.

According to the former attorney general of Palmyra, in 2013 the Syrian government began relying on middlemen such as the Jabers to help contain the threat of ISIS. With the Desert Hawks acting as their private militia, the Jaber brothers established themselves as key brokers in trades between ISIS and the government involving oil, gas, wheat, barley and livestock, in addition to medicine and consumer goods.[29] They are accused of paying ISIS in weapons, under the cover of allowing the group to overrun heavily stocked government positions.

The Jabers have also become key partners of the Syrian government’s foreign backers, most notably Russia.[30] The relationship between Russia and the Desert Hawks was solidified in late November 2015, when Desert Hawks fighters played a leading role in extricating a Russian search and rescue team whose helicopter had been brought down by rebels in Lattakia Province. Ayman Jaber claimed to have quickly and directly coordinated the operation with Russian military authorities. The Desert Hawks received commendations from the Russian military and their brand grew further.[31]

Perhaps the most delicate intermediation role played by the Desert Hawks is between the Syrian regime and the Syrian military.[32] Powerful brokers are acceptable in Syria so long as they challenge neither the presidency nor the armed forces. In the summer of 2016, Mohammed Jaber was forced to publicly state his loyalty to the army and the presidency amidst accusations that he claimed the Desert Hawks ultimately responded to him rather than to the army and the president.[33] In June 2016 the Desert Hawks became the first loyalist forces to enter ISIS-held Raqqa Province in two years, as part of an ill-conceived offensive that collapsed ignominiously following an ISIS ambush of rearguard positions. Some loyalists blamed the Desert Hawks for the fiasco; Mohammed Jaber released a statement blaming other loyalist forces. The Desert Hawks were transferred to a front in Lattakia’s Jabal al-Akrad shortly thereafter.[34]

The Desert Hawks are a hybrid entity, both SyAA strike force and Jaber brothers PMC. The latter role has allowed them to emerge as successful loyalist intermediaries, facilitating transactions between the larger entities involved in the Syrian conflict including ISIS, the SyAA, the Syrian regime, and Russia. Thriving as brokers in the war economy, groups like the Desert Hawks may favor a continuation of hostilities so long as the conflict can be contained and regime survival is not at stake.

The views expressed in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

The Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO) assesses regional military and security issues through open-source media and direct engagement with foreign military and security specialists to advise army leadership on issues of policy and planning critical to the U.S. Army and the wider military community.

End Notes

[1] For instance the Mayadin Artillery base (Deir Ezzour Province) and the Dibse Afnan Barracks (Raqqa Province), both taken in November 2012.

[2] Nibras Kazimi. “Where is the Strategic Depth of the Islamic State?” Talisman Gate Blog, 23 November 2015. Accessed 29 July 2016, https://talisman-gate.com/2015/11/23/where-is-the-strategic-depth-of-the-islamic-state/

[3] “President Al-Assad Issues Decree No. 55.” Syria Times, 5 August 2013. Accessed 29 July 2016, http://syriatimes.sy/index.php/news/local/7226-president-al-assad-issues-decree-no-55

[4] Shaer was a vital source of natural gas and electricity for cities in vital Syria. “Islamic State’s Homs Offensive Endangers Syria’s Energy Supply.” Al-Safir (via al-Monitor), 23 July 2014. Accessed 29 July 2016, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/security/2014/07/ayria-isis-advance-hama-homs-shair-field-energy-control.html

[5] “The Last Battle of the ‘Slavonic Corps’.” The Interpreter, 16 November 2013. Accessed 29 July 2016, http://www.interpretermag.com/the-last-battle-of-the-slavonic-corps/

[6] The bulk of them were self-defense forces armed and controlled by the SyAA’s Republican Guard, collectively known as the “Popular Committees” (later called  “National Defense Forces”). The reserve forces also included Lebanese and Iraqi militias, as well as a smattering of smaller Syrian paramilitary units.

[7] Ayman Jaber is married to a close relative of the president’s. Mohammed Jaber is a retired army colonel, though there is no detail on his military service in the open source. The Jabers became enmeshed in the Syrian war economy early on, gaining notoriety in 2012 for allegedly gifting the Syrian Air Force barrel bombs produced in their factories. “Who is Ayman Jaber?’ souriyati.com, 23 April 2015. (Arabic). Accessed 29 July 2016, http://www.souriyati.com/2015/04/23/5772.html

[8] He was a graduate of the Aleppo Military Academy specialized in field artillery. After graduating he had joined the security battalions of the elite Republican Guard. He was born in 1965 in an Alawite village near the town of Safita, in Tartous Province. His biography (Arabic) is available at “Desert Hawk… The Heroic Martyr Colonel Mohsen.” Al-Baath, 31 May 2016. (Arabic). Accessed 29 July 2016, http://goo.gl/5Y9IMr

[9] Like most of the Baathist bureaucracy, the Badia Branch was corrupt; according to several opposition accounts, a main activity among Palmyra’s security services in the years before and after the first protests was smuggling artifacts.

[10] The figure comes from subsequent testimony given by Mohsen Hussein’s wife. “Secrets of Steadfastness – Syria TV Video Documentary.” Prince of Martyrs Mujahid Staff Major General Mohsen Said Hussein, The Hawk and Lion of the Desert (Facebook Page), 12 July 2015. (Arabic). Accessed 29 July 2016 https://www.facebook.com/735423733216426/videos/852906058134859/

[11] “Desert Hawks Militias… From Oil Field Protection to Regime Strike Force Against Rebels in the Turkmen and Kurdish Mountains.” Zaman al-Wasl, 17 December 2015. (Arabic). https://zamanalwsl.net/news/67052.html

[12] “The Martyr Major General Mohsen Said Hussein.” Prince of Martyrs (Facebook Page), 28 September 2015. (Arabic). Accessed 29 July 2016 https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=895780663847398&id=735423733216426

[13] Opposition groups accused them of being no different than ISIS after pictures emerged of Desert Hawks holding up the severed heads of their adversaries in the battle to retake Palmyra. “’Desert Hawks’ Cut Off Heads of ISIS Fighters in Palmyra.” Enab Baladi, 28 March 2016. (Arabic). Accessed 29 July 2016. http://www.enabbaladi.net/archives/71427

[14] Their armament would become heavier as the war progressed, going from truck-mounted heavy machine guns to truck-mounted artillery, IRAMs, rocket launchers, and ATGMs.

[15] Nibras Kazimi. “Where is the Strategic Depth of the Islamic State?” Talisman Gate Blog, 23 November 2015. Accessed 29 July 2016, https://talisman-gate.com/2015/11/23/where-is-the-strategic-depth-of-the-islamic-state/

[16] According to Mohsen Hussein’s biography, key tasks performed by his forces – whether MI or Desert Hawks - included securing highways (Homs-Tanf, Qariyatin-Homs), expelling jihadist rebels from Qariyatin (twice), Sukhna (twice), al-Walid border crossing with Iraq, parts of Palmyra, Mehin town and its arms depot. It also notes his role in retaking Kasseb, Observation Point 45, Nisr Mountain (in coordination with the “Naval Forces” which Mohsen Hussein also helped create). He also helped retake Murk and Mahradha in Hama Province. He led numerous ambushes, including in Qariyatin Maqbara, Bir Yugoslavia, Wadi al-Daif Dam. He also participated in campaigns including Wadi al-Daif, Aqribat, Arak Mafraq and Station, and Wadi al-Abiadh Dam.

[17] The Desert Hawks deployments changed according to the terrain; company-sized convoys of speeding technicals characteristic of the badia operations were replaced by platoon-sized units of 20-40 fighters moving quietly by foot and relying on the ample cover provided by the mountainous, forested terrain. In built-up areas they used motorbikes

[18] “The Army Regains the Shaer Field… With Minimal Casualties.” Al-Akhbar, 26 July 2014. (Arabic). Accessed 29 July 2016, http://www.al-akhbar.com/node/211935

[19] Including a man named Saleh Asi, Western Hama’s most notorious regime thug “shabbihh” who appeared in a 2014 video as a Desert Hawks commander. Accessed 29 July 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ac4vabEa71c

[20] A November 2014 article estimates around 2,000 while one from September 2015 claims 7,000 men fighting with the Desert Haws. 2,000 estimate from: “Loyalist ‘Desert Hawks’ Commander Killed in Rural East Homs.” Al-Araby al-Jadid, 19 November 2014. (Arabic). Accessed 29 July 2016. https://goo.gl/3QlcFt and 7,000 estimate from “Groups Assad Depends on to Continue Fighting Thousands of Syrians.” Al-Arabiya, 25 September 2015. (Arabic). Accessed 29 July 2016. http://goo.gl/XcQstg

[21] “Loyalist ‘Desert Hawks’ Commander Killed.” Al-Araby al-Jadid.

[22] “Assad relies on ‘Desert Hawks’ to Repel Rebels from Rural Hama.” Al-Arabiya, 26 August 2014. (Arabic). Accessed 29 July 2016. http://goo.gl/FFDNlP

[23] “Who Are the Syrian Desert Hawks?” Al-Masdar, 4 June 2016. Accessed 29 July 2016. https://www.almasdarnews.com/article/syrian-desert-hawks/

[24] “Major General and Head of Badia Branch Killed in Palmyra with Hundreds of Others.” Syria Live News, 23 May 2015. (Arabic). Accessed 29 July 2016. http://slnnews.co/?p=24441

[25] “Palmyra Attorney General Gives Details on Links between ISIS and the Regime.” Zaman al-Wasl, 15 February 2016. (Arabic). Accessed 29 July 2016. https://zamanalwsl.net/news/68741.html Loyalist forces quickly retook Palmyra in March 2016, largely due to extensive support from Russian forces.

[26] Hassan Hassan and Michael Weiss. ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. Simon and Schuster, 2015. Ch 7.

[27] “Palmyra Attorney General Gives Details on Links.” Zaman al-Wasl.

[28] Adnan Ali. “Militias in Syria… The Regime’s Strike Forces.” Al-Araby al-Jadid, 17 April 2016.  (Arabic). Accessed 29 July 2016, https://goo.gl/6mvAgi

[29] “Palmyra Attorney General Gives Details on Links.” Zaman al-Wasl.

[30] “Russia Enters Raqqa Battle via the ‘Desert Hawks’.” Al-Sharq al-Awsat, 6 June 2016. (Arabic). Accessed 29 July 2016. http://goo.gl/khKoln

[31] “Russia in Syria: 4th Corps and Desert Falcons.” Foreign Military Studies Office OE Watch, March 2016. Accessed 29 July 2016. http://fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/OEWatch/201603/OEE%20OE%20Watch%2003-2016.pdf

[32] An excellent overview on how dynamic tensions between the Syrian regime and the SyAA have led to “accidental resilience” can be found in Kheder Khaddour, “Strength in Weakness: The Syrian Army’s Accidental Resilience.” Carnegie Middle East Center Regional Insight, 14 March 2016. Accessed 11 April 2016. http://carnegie-mec.org/2016/03/14/strength-in- weakness-syrian-army-s-accidental-resilience/iuz7


[33] “Battle Over Assad’s Title of Commander After a Colonel Claims it for Himself.” Al-Arabiya, 13 March 2016. (Arabic). Accessed 29 July 2016. http://goo.gl/atwxsf

His Facebook page (in Arabic) can be found at: https://www.facebook.com/mohammadgaber11  Accessed 29 July 2016.

[34] “Suqur al-Sahra: This is the Truth of Why We Retreated from Raqqa.” Sham Times, 21 June 2016. (Arabic). Accessed 29 July 2016. http://www.shaamtimes.net/news-detailz.php?id=57664

 

Categories: Syria - Islamic State - ISIS - IS - Desert Hawks

About the Author(s)

Lucas Winter is an analyst on the Middle East for the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO) at Fort Leavenworth, KS. He has an M.A. in International Relations from Johns Hopkins SAIS and was an Arabic Language Flagship Fellow in Damascus, Syria in 2006-2007. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.