One of the Syrian army's most prominent leaders was killed Wednesday when his vehicle struck a landmine believed to have been planted by the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), which is attempting to defend its final stronghold in Syria.
Major General Issam Zahreddine was the gray-bearded commander of the 104th Airborne Brigade of the elite Syrian Republican Guard. After Syrian troops lost ground to rebels and jihadis attempting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the brigade became trapped in a three-year ISIS siege on Deir Ezzor's military airport in 2014. The siege was ultimately broken early last month amid an ongoing Russia-backed offensive led by Zahreddine and other Syrian military commanders.
Zahreddine, 56, has been credited with playing a key—sometimes controversial—role in Assad's six-year effort to regain control of the country. His death, which comes after a series of military successes, has been widely mourned by supporters of the Syrian government.
Zahreddine was born to a Druze family in the village of Tarba, in the southwest Syrian province of Sweida. He reportedly served as a militiaman for Syria's ruling Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party and later rose up the ranks of the airborne units until joining the Syrian Republican Guard, where he was later promoted to major general.
The military leader was singled out in a 2011 Human Rights Watch report for ordering the beatings of opposition protesters in the city of Douma, but the document did not indict him or his unit on any "specific allegations of human rights abuses." As demonstrations transformed into armed insurrection, Zahreddine was frequently seen on the frontlines of major battles, including at Damascus and Aleppo in 2013.
Later that year, he was transferred to Deir Ezzor, where a close ally, Brigadier General Ali Khuzam of the Syrian Republic Guards' 105th Brigade, had been killed in November 2012. The operation to retake Deir Ezzor and relieve the 104th Airborne Brigade was announced earlier this year and named "Operation Khuzam," or "Lavender," in honor of the slain colonel. Last year, Zahreddine was pictured posing among the bodies of ISIS militants in Deir Ezzor.
Seen as one of Assad's most trusted generals, he has been portrayed as a war hero by the Syrian government's supporters and a brutal military leader by its detractors. The European Union added Zahreddine to a list of sanctioned individuals in July, accusing him of "violent repression" against civilians in the early days of the conflict.
When the siege on Deir Ezzor was broken early last month, Assad himself reportedly congratulated Zahreddine and other commanders for their effort. Zahreddine told state-run television shortly after the victory that he praised Syrians who stood with the military throughout the conflict, and warned that those who left Syria should not return because "even if the state forgives you, we will never forgive or forget."
He apologized and clarified his remarks in an interview the following day, saying he was referring specifically to those who joined ISIS and committed atrocities against Syrian soldiers, adding that "fellow citizens who have gone abroad are most welcome to return," according to Middle East Eye.
Zahreddine died after his vehicle struck a landmine in the Sakker Island area just east of Deir Ezzor city, according to Al Manar, an outlet with ties to the Lebanese Shiite Muslim Hezbollah movement that fights alongside the Syrian military, and The Telegraph. It is not yet known who will fill Zahreddine's post, but he is survived by his son, Yarob, who is also reportedly fighting with the 104th Airborne Brigade.
The alliance of Syria, Russia and Iran currently battling ISIS in the oil-rich province of Deir Ezzor has lost a number of high-ranking military leaders over the years, but has recently retaken most of Deir Ezzor city and a number of strategic towns in its vicinity. As ISIS's self-styled caliphate collapses, however, it continues to stage fierce resistance against both pro-government forces and U.S.-backed, mostly Kurdish fighters advancing against it.
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