THE SYRIAN REGIME’S ANSWER TO THE ISLAMIC STATE: MAJOR GENERAL MUHAMMAD KHADDOUR
Nicholas A. Heras
Major General Muhammad Khaddour is currently the overall commander of the Syrian Arab Army’s (SAA) Eastern District, which provides him with authority over the al-Assad government’s military operations in Raqqa, Deir al-Zor and al-Hasakah governorates (al-Quds al-Arabi, November 12). In this capacity he is the preeminent loyalist commander responsible for the SAA’s operations against the Islamic State and for managing the civil-military relationship between the al-Assad government and the Kurdish-led, autonomous governance structure centered in northeastern Syria’s al-Hasakah governorate (All4Syria [Hasakah], July 2; see also Terrorism Monitor, April 3). General Khaddour is a career SAA officer who is also an Alawite commander that rose through the ranks of the SAA’s elite Republican Guard, which prior to the Syrian civil war had been deployed to protect the capital of Damascus from foreign enemies, local insurgencies and potential attempts at regime change from with the ruling structures of the al-Assad government. 
At the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, General Khaddour led the Republican Guard’s 106th Brigade in the restive eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, particularly the districts of Douma and Harasta, which were early sites of organization for the Syrian opposition, and which later became a major center of gravity for the armed opposition in the capital region.  As pressure from battlefield losses, defections, conscription dodging and internal disputes from within the SAA and the ruling structures of the al-Assad government have mounted, General Khaddour has consistently been an active field commander in battle spaces throughout Syria over the course of the civil war (YouTube, March 20, 2014). He is particularly noteworthy for his adoption and execution of the SAA’s paramilitary strategy to confront these challenges, raising local militias consisting of people from of all sectarian and ethnic backgrounds through the National Defense Force (NDF) umbrella, and also integrating the predominantly Shi’a foreign fighter organizations organized by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) into his local campaigns (al-Jazeera, June 30; al-Araby al-Jadeed, February 10; Orient News [Dubai], January 20).
In November 2012, General Khaddour was promoted to be the head of the SAA’s Aleppo Security Committee, where he oversaw the al-Assad government’s military efforts against the growing armed opposition inside of the city and its surrounding areas (YouTube, February 6, 2013; al-Hadath News [Aleppo], December 3, 2012). Following this posting, General Khaddour was reassigned back to the Damascus area, where he was eventually placed in command of successful SAA operations in the vicinity of Yabroud, a key opposition-controlled town northwest of Damascus in the Syrian-Lebanese border region of Qalamoun. At the time, the area was an important staging point for the armed opposition’s lines of reinforcement and resupply between Syrian opposition-sympathetic communities in northern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley and the Damascus and Homs battle spaces (France 24, March 17, 2014; al-Arabiya, March 16, 2014; YouTube, March 7, 2014). As a result of his successes in Yabroud, which were facilitated by coordinated operations between Hezbollah and the SAA and its paramilitaries, General Khaddour was placed in command of the SAA’s Eastern District by the end of the summer of 2014, following the expansion of the Islamic State in eastern Syria and an ineffective SAA attempt to retake control over the city of Raqqa and expand its presence in Deir al-Zor Governorate (Shaam Times [Damascus], November 21, 2014; Vito Press [Damascus], August 18, 2014; France 24, March 17, 2014; al-Arabiya, March 16, 2014).
In addition to his longevity and fierce determination to support the al-Assad government in multiple battle spaces over the course of the Syrian civil war—which has made him a famous figure among the Syrian loyalist communities—Khaddour is also a very controversial commander who has been sanctioned by the European Union for human rights abuses that were documented by Human Rights Watch, particularly for his role in command of the 106th Brigade during the early period of the Syrian Uprising in 2011 (DP News [Damascus], January 24, 2012; Human Rights Watch, December 15, 2011). When he was the commander of the 106th Brigade, General Khaddour was accused of condoning the arrest, torture and execution of peaceful opposition activists, and while he was the commander of the SAA’s Aleppo Security Committee, he was caught on tape promoting harsh Shi’a sectarian rhetoric during a recruiting drive in the large, Shi’a-majority towns of Nubul and Zahra northwest of Aleppo city (al-Hayat, June 13, 2013; al-Arabiya, June 4, 2013; YouTube, June 3, 2013). As part of his most recent recruitment drive to mobilize local loyalist militias for operations against the Islamic State, he is accused of sanctioning extreme pressure tactics on local communities in Deir al-Zor that live under the SAA’s authority, including directly threatening the families of youth who refuse conscription (al-Jazeera, August 9; All4Syria [Deir al-Zor], August 4; al-Jazeera, May 5).
General Khaddour has also been harshly criticized by some al-Assad government loyalists, who accuse him of corruption, extortion and military incompetence, particularly in the Aleppo battle space, where under his command SAA forces and their adjutant paramilitaries lost control over large sections of the city and surrounding countryside (al-Quds al-Arabi, June 24; Fenks [Damascus], July 15, 2013; Zanobia [Damascus], July 14, 2013; Aksalser [Aleppo], July 6, 2013). In his current role as the overall commander of the SAA’s Eastern District, General Khaddour is accused of running a criminal enterprise that sells basic necessities and consumer products that are flown from Damascus to Deir al-Zor airport, which are then distributed to the city’s besieged population by complicit businesspeople (al-Quds al-Arabi, June 24). As the overall commander of the SAA’s Eastern District who is primarily based in the city of al-Hasakah, General Khaddour is also reported to have tense relations with the Kurdish-led autonomous government in the province, particularly with the Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (YPG—People’s Protection Units), which views his aggressive leadership on behalf of the SAA as a long-term threat (al-Jazeera, July 19; All4Syria [Hasakah], March 25; Xeber 24 [Hasakah], February 7).
General Khaddour is one of the most noteworthy, and likely one of the most powerful, loyalist commanders. In spite of the accusations of corruption and incompetence that have been levied against him by his own side, especially earlier in the conflict, he has reinvented himself to become one of the core practitioners of the SAA’s counter-insurgency strategy. General Khaddour, like most of his cohort of senior loyalist field commanders, is entrusted with the politically sensitive mission of attempting to reconstitute the socio-political structures of the ante bellum Syrian Arab Republic.
1. Interview with a Syrian defector from the al-Assad government who worked several years in Damascus and has knowledge of General Khaddour. Interview conducted by Viber on November 17, 2015.
SHAYKH KHALID HABLOS’ ARREST SHOWS FURTHER TENSIONS IN LEBANON
Nicholas A. Heras
In the aftermath of the Islamic State-directed suicide bombings in the southern Beirut suburb of Burj al-Barajneh, which killed 43 people and wounded over 200 more, Lebanese security forces have intensified raids against suspected Lebanese and international members of militant Salafist organizations (al-Araby al-Jadeed, November 22; Lebanon 24 [Beirut], November 20; al-Jazeera, November 13). Among the targets of these raids are reportedly members of a jihadist militia network which was established by Shaykh Khalid Mustafa Muhammad (a.k.a. Khalid Hablos), in the country’s second largest city of Tripoli, in northern Lebanon (al-Araby al-Jadeed, November 22; Lebanon 24 [Beirut], November 20). Hablos was the preacher at the Haroun al-Rashid Mosque in the town of Bhanin, a northern, coastal suburb of Tripoli, and was also a prayer leader in al-Taqwa Mosque, a site for militant Salafist organizations in the Tripoli district of Bab al-Tabbaneh, a district that has seen clashes between the Sunni-majority community of Bab al-Tabbaneh and the Alawite community in the neighboring Jabal Mohsen district of the city (YouTube, April 10; al-Jazeera, August 24, 2013; Reuters, August 23, 2013). He is an important figure in northern Lebanon’s militant Salafist movement, and his network, in particular, demonstrates the ongoing efforts of northern Lebanese militant Salafist organizations to achieve greater cohesiveness and operational effectiveness.
Hablos was captured by the Information Branch of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces in April 2015, on charges of collaborating with Jabhat al-Nusra’s Lebanese branch, the Lebanese branch of the Islamic State and fighters from militant Islamist Syrian armed opposition groups residing in Lebanon. He is charged with working with these groups to plan attacks against the Lebanese military in the northern areas of the country, and for seeking to violently establish an emirate in northern Lebanon with its capital in Tripoli (al-Liwa [Tripoli], October 14; al-Jazeera, April 11; al-Araby al-Jadeed, November 28, 2014; El-Nashra [Tripoli], October 28, 2014; al-Alam [Tehran], October 26, 2014). The Lebanese security forces also link Hablos with the October 24 fighting in Tripoli and its suburbs that reportedly killed 42 people and wounded over 150. He is also linked with the militant Salafist preacher Shaykh Ahmad al-Assir, who was captured by Lebanese security forces in August 2015 (al-Nahar [Beirut], August 12; al-Safir [Beirut], July 30; al-Akhbar [Beirut], October 28; al-Sharq al-Awsat, October 28, 2014; al-Nahar [Beirut], October 26, 2014; for more on Shaykh Ahmad al-Assir, see Terrorism Monitor, October 30; Terrorism Monitor, July 24, 2013; Terrorism Monitor, May 17, 2013).
Hablos, 41, is a native of the village of al-Habalsa, in the rural Akkar plain region of northern Lebanon that borders Syria’s Homs Governorate. He was reportedly an orphan with an impoverished upbringing who won entrance into the prestigious al-Imam al-Bukhari Institute in the Akkar (al-Mustaqbal [Beirut], October 22; al-Safir [Beirut], July 30; Daily Star [Beirut], November 22, 2014). Al-Imam al-Bukhari Institute is a noted center for Islamic learning and jurisprudence in northern Lebanon, particularly for Lebanese Salafists.  In spite of his training at al-Imam al-Bukhari, which is not known for promoting militant Salafism, Hablos would become one of the more noteworthy militant Salafist leaders in northern Lebanon, and a rising leader in the northern Lebanese militant Salafist movement’s attempts to liaise with, and support, the militant Islamist Syrian armed opposition (al-Nahar [Beirut], August 12; al-Safir [Beirut], July 30; YouTube, April 10).
Over the course of two decades, Hablos became an increasingly important and activist Salafist preacher. His popularity increased after the Syrian civil war intensified, as he became a fierce advocate for the Syrian armed opposition, which is predominantly Sunni, and which used its relative popularity among Sunni communities in northern Lebanon to use the region as a site for reinforcement and resupply into the battle spaces in western Syria, particularly the Qalamoun region along the Lebanese-Syrian border and in Homs Governorate (YouTube, April 10; YouTube, July 18, 2014; YouTube, February 17, 2014). In addition to his sermons in support of the Syrian armed opposition, Hablos was also popular because he was a consistent advocate for the rights of Tripoli’s Sunni youth. Those young people, he asserted, had been armed and mobilized by the powerful anti-Assad, anti-Hezbollah, Sunni-majority Future Movement led by Saad Hariri, only to be abandoned by that movement out of political expediency as the Syrian armed opposition movement became more closely linked with Islamic radicalism, and to be profiled and harassed by Lebanese internal security forces (Daily Star [Beirut], July 18, 2014).
In spite of his arrest, Lebanese security forces are concerned that Shaykh Khalid Hablos, with an enhanced profile due to his imprisonment, will continue to be an inspirational figure for a number of militant Salafist Lebanese and Syrian fighters in northern Lebanon who are continuing to work toward the reconciliation of Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in the country in order to target the Lebanese military.  Hablos’ reported willingness to actively coordinate with a range of militant Salafist organizations, including the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, which are sometimes in violent competition with each other, suggests the northern Lebanese militant Salafist movement is a broader ideological coalition that seeks to counterbalance, and overthrow, what it perceives to be the dominance of Shi’a Hezbollah over the Lebanese state, military forces and society.
1. See Robert G. Rabil, Salafism in Lebanon: From Apoliticism to Transnational Jihadism, (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2014), pgs. 94-95.
2. Skype interview conducted by the author with a Lebanese army source with extensive operational experience throughout Lebanon, who requested anonymity due to being on active duty. Interview conducted on November 19, 2015.