BEIRUT – Russia has awarded its second-highest state decoration to Syrian Colonel Suheil al-Hassan, a figure so popular among regime supporters he has been seen as a potential rival to the Syrian president himself.
The Russian government-owned Sputnik news reported Tuesday morning that Hassan, who is known by his nickname the "Tiger," was bestowed the Order of Friendship, an honor given to foreign nationals who have worked toward improving ties with Moscow.
Hassan received the medal during a ceremony at the Hmeimim airbase outside Latakia, from where Russia has been conducting aerial strikes on behalf of the Syrian regime since September 30.
Sputnik said that Russian aerial command in the base "praised the great courage and leading personality with which colonel Hassan is endowed, as well as his high level of coordination with the Russian Air Force."
The "Tiger's" cult of personality
During the course of the Syrian civil war, Hassan has risen from obscurity to become a widely-popular icon of the Syrian regime with his own cult of personality.
Leading French daily Le Monde postulated in a December 2014 report that Hassan's celebrity status—especially among Syrian Alawites—could even put him in a position to rival Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Hassan has risen rapidly through the ranks of the Syrian army during the course of the civil war in the country, gaining prominence in 2013 when he was tasked with forming his own crack elite unit to conduct offensive operations.
His "Tiger Forces" gained fame for relieving regime troops besieged in the Aleppo Central Prison in early 2014 and retaking the Shaer gas field later that year from ISIS.
The battlefield successes boosted Hassan's media profile, with regime supporters praising him as a hero who never loses battles, despite his troops' mid-2015 reverses in the Idlib province and adjacent Al-Ghab Plain.
Facebook pages devoted to the Syrian colonel have tens of thousands of followers, while videos show adoring fans surrounding him.
In August, Syrian Social Affairs Minister Kinda al-Shammat was dismissed from her post only hours after a picture of her hugging the Tiger Force commander made the rounds on social media.
NOW's English news desk editor Albin Szakola (@AlbinSzakola) wrote this report. Ullin Hope translated the Arabic-language source material.