In memory of General Issam Zahreddine

(To Andrea Gaspardo)

Since time immemorial, anniversaries have played a very important role in the collective memory of a country, especially if at war. On October 18, Syrians of all ages and walks of life stopped to remember the memory of a man who has regularly peeped in the Middle East news reports for years.

If it is true that some men manage with their faces and charisma to become "symbols" of the times in which they live, the major general Issam Jad'aan Zahreddine was undoubtedly one of them. Thanks to his exploits and his iconic figure, General Zahreddine has gained over the years an almost mystical aura during the "Syrian Civil War" and the premature death on the battlefields of Deir ez-Zor has done nothing but cement further the fame of a man who, for the Syrians, and in particular for the soldiers who fought under his command, is already a national hero, despite the fact that the war in which he distinguished himself has not yet ended .

Born in 1961 in the small rural village of Tarba, in the southern governorate of As-Suwayda, in a family of ancient military traditions, Zahreddine was perhaps, outside Syria, the best known face of the Syrian Druze community and contained all the characteristics of its people; free-spirited but at the same time deeply deferent and loyalist towards the established power, of a hard disposition, but used to carrying on without complaining.

The beginnings of his military career date back to 1980 when, just nineteen, he served as a conscript soldier not already in the Syrian armed forces but in the militia of the Ba'ath party (the main political formation of the Syrian constitutional landscape in recent decades).

At the end of his period of compulsory military service, in 1982, Zahreddine decided to continue his military career (something quite common among the Syrian Druze) becoming an officer of the Special Forces, at the time commanded by the legendary general Ali Haydar (photo), Alawite as the Assad family, who, having sensed his potential and ability, took him under his protection. Finally, in 1987, Zahreddine was transferred to the ranks of the Republican Guard, the elite force par excellence of the Syrian armed forces and, at the time, a "hunting reserve" almost barred from all Syrians who were not members of the Alawite community, first as officer among the armored and mechanized forces and then among the airborne ones.

The following five years saw the Druze-born officer progressively scale the levels of the military hierarchical ladder to become commander of the 104th brigade (the airborne unit within the Republican Guard), but it would have been the events subsequent to 2011 to constitute the real watershed in this man's life.

When, starting from March 2011, Syria was shaken by a series of massive popular demonstrations, soon degenerated into a violent civil war and a larger regional war still underway, the forces of the Republican Guard and other formations of The elite of the Syrian army were among the first to be mobilized, first in containing the demonstrations, and then in the repression of the armed revolt, when the events got completely out of hand.

As commander of the 104th Guard brigade, Zahreddine was detached, always at the head of his men, in the most diverse battle theaters around the country, distinguishing himself as the leader of a new generation of Syrian generals (among whom they deserve to be mentioned also Rukin Mohamed Khaddor and Suheil Salman al-Hassan) tempered by the war and able to treasure the unprecedented experiences that the conflict has subjected to the plastered and inflexible Syrian armed forces.

Among the places that saw the appearance of Zahreddine are the suburbs of Douma and Harasta in the city of Damascus, the Ghouta region in Rif Dimashq, Homs, Aleppo, As-Suwayda and even al-Hasakah, in the far north- east of Syria. However the place to which the memory of General Zahreddine will remain forever inextricably linked is the city of Deir ez-Zor, in the eastern part of Syria, along the middle course of the Euphrates River. Here General Zahreddine was deployed, together with a core of "his" 104th brigade, to coordinate the forces loyal to President Assad who remained in defense of the city against the spread of the rebels and, subsequently, of ISIS, and to replace the general Jameh Jameh recently killed in urban fighting.

From July 2014 until September 2017, Zahreddine managed to defend Deir ez-Zor by fighting against overwhelming enemy forces and being able to be supplied with food and weapons only through a constant airlift which, however, could not spare his men and civilians the sufferings and deprivations resulting from their situation as "open prisoners" were trapped in the besieged city.

The importance of the battle of Deir ez-Zor is threefold because on the one hand, during the entire duration of the siege, the city has remained a thorn in the side for ISIS which has not been able to use it either as a logistics hub or as center of aggregation and resistance as instead happened in other cities located along the course of the Euphrates and the Tigris. It should not be forgotten that, in order to isolate and maintain the pressure on Deir ez-Zor, ISIS had to constantly keep in the operation theater no less than 20-50.000 men, and a good part of its heavy equipment, which could have be profitably employed elsewhere. On the other hand, the fact that he managed to keep control of the city guaranteed President Assad's government to continue to claim a faint semblance of constitutional legitimacy in territories that would otherwise have completely escaped control of the Syrian nation and ended up under God. only he knows what foreign protection (which not only ISIS was aiming for but also a large number of other "external actors"). Finally, just like Kobane, al-Hasakah, the Kweiris air base and the village of Amerli (the latter in Iraq), Deir ez-Zor was crystallized in collective memory as a symbol, for all Syrian, Iraqi and Kurdish fighters, engaged in the war against ISIS, which even the black beast of the so-called "Caliphate" could eventually be tamed.

Indeed, the figure of the general was often the subject of considerable controversy. During the repression of the demonstrations in Damascus in 2011 numerous activists of the Syrian opposition swore to have seen him personally guide his men, armed with a truncheon, in the act of beating the defenseless demonstrators, an event that earned him the certainly not edifying nickname of " the Druze Beast ". His role in the battles of Douma and Harasta attracted the arrows and reproach of Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Lebanese Druze, and the highest political authority among the Druze around the world, who accused Zahreddine of "killing his own people". Even the religious leaders of the Druze community of Syria officially disapproved of his conduct in February 2013, stating that, with his actions, Zahreddine "had slipped to the same level as the other violent and deserved to die", but this did not stop the growth of his popularity, especially among the younger Druze who flocked to join both the Republican Guard and other pro-government militias.

A serious event that probably involved General Zahreddine was the deliberate bombing of the so-called "Homs Media Center", during the savage battle of Baba Amr that took place in the middle of the decisive phase of the siege of Homs, in 2013. In that The occasion also lost the life, among others, the journalist and American war correspondent Marie Catherine Colvin, whose life and death then became the subject of the film "A Private War" of 2018, a film so praised by fans as criticized by detractors.

For all these reasons, the name of Issam Zahreddine was inscribed on the lists of members of the Syrian regime subjected to economic sanctions by the European Union. Even his military decisions sometimes attracted bitter criticism, such as when he allowed the most important weapons storage site in eastern Syria, located in the village of Ayyash, near Deir ez-Zor, to fall into the hands of ISIS almost without a blow. and without the precious reserves of weapons stored there being evacuated or destroyed in order to prevent their capture by the al-Baghdadi gorge cutters. Or when, in September 2015, he was absent for a few days from the Deir ez-Zor front, right in the middle of an ISIS offensive, to return to his native As-Suwayda to pay homage and attend the funeral of the Druze sheikh Wahid al-Balous, killed in a terrorist attack a few days earlier (photo).

Finally, his habit of fighting and directing his men directly on the front line, thus exposing themselves to very serious risks, was repeatedly ridiculed by foreign observers as "conduct inappropriate for the role of a general", when not equated to true just "racism". And yet, it was these characteristics that were so out of the box, and the effective narration given by the Russian war correspondent and correspondent "embedded" with the Syrian forces Ivan Sidorenko, which made Issam Zahreddine a true myth first in Syria and then between the general public of the whole world, who appreciated both the eccentricity and the characteristics more of a "battle general" than a real "leader". And just as a "battle general" he left, on October 18 2017, a month after the end of the siege of Deir ez-Zor, when the vehicle on which he traveled jumped on a mine, while the general drove, as always in first line, the advance of his men on the river island of Hawijat Saqr along the course of the Euphrates.

Whatever the opinion and however it can be thought about the account of General Issam Zahreddine and his earthly parable, three facts remain undeniable: being able to galvanize a front that, in 2014, appeared in full collapse, being successful to lead for 3 years the stubborn resistance of a handful of men against a thousand adversities and in a tactical and strategic situation apparently without escape, saving, at the same time, the lives of 200.000 civilians who, in case of defeat, would have been subjected to a massacre of biblical proportions (as promised on several occasions by the leadership of ISIS and by the same "caliph" al-Baghdadi), and having given luster and self-awareness again to a small community, that of the Syrian Druze, equal 3-5% of the population (450.000-736.000 souls at most) for decades confined to the margins of the country's political, economic and social scene and who now, thanks to the personal dedication of this man and of others like him in the armed forces, he is preparing to claim a new place in the sun in Syria to come.

To conclude even if "The Lion of the Republican Guard", as it was affectionately called by the inhabitants of Deir ez-Zor, has long since stopped roaring, his spirit still hovers on the battlefields of Syria where he fought and there are no words better than those pronounced on the occasion of his funeral by his son Yaroub (also an officer of the Republican Guard engaged in Deir ez-Zor under the command of his father and subsequently appointed head of the security office of the 4th division of the Syrian army in charge to manage security in the As-Suwayda area) to describe his attitude towards life and his sense of duty: "We thank all those who wanted to express their feelings, but, on the occasion of the death of my father, I and all my family reserve the right not to respond to manifestations of condolence, instead welcoming congratulations, best wishes and blessings".

If today Syria is slowly moving towards territorial reunification and national pacification, it is also due to the work and sacrifice of Issam Zahreddine, the Druze general who gave everything he could to serve your country and the your community.

Photo: web / SANA / Twitter