Iraq's "Rambo", a Sunni religious scholar, and an Alawi "tiger": these three men have become living legends. The local heroes in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria are undoubtedly considered war criminals in the West. The line between hero and criminal has become blurred in the stalemated conflict.
'Iraq's Rambo' hunts ISIS
"Abu Azrael", 40, the "angel of death" who eliminates ISIS fighters, is Ayoub Falah Hassan al-Rabai, a Baghdadi taxi driver who is married with five children.
He joined the Popular Mobilization Forces, a Shi'ite organization that supports the Iraqi government in its fight against ISIS, about a year ago.
Abu Azrael became an icon thanks to his bravery in several battles against ISIS – and thanks to his imposing appearance. He is large and muscular – his appearance suggests steroid use – and is known as "the Iraqi Rambo". He has a bald head and black beard, wears a military uniform, and is covered in tattoos of axes, knives and guns.
In interviews, he frequently mentions the holy figures in Shi'ite Islam, Imam Ali and his son Husayn. He mocks ISIS and Qatar, which he claims supports the Sunni terror organization. According to Azrael, he is fighting in the name of all Iraqis and invited everyone, including Sunnis, to join the struggle.
The Iraqi Rambo's actions exhibit his attitude towards ISIS – an eye for an eye. He came up with a slogan heralding the demise of ISIS, which translates to "Where will you run? You have nothing left but to be ground up like flour!"
When he strolls in Baghdad, kids ask to take selfies with him, as well as videos in which he repeats his slogan. Bumper stickers featuring the slogan are distributed throughout the Iraqi capital, Azrael is printed on children's' shirts, and there are even a video game and a smart phone app in which Azrael must turn ISIS into flour.
Although he is quick to smile, Azrael's black humor can crosses the boundaries of good taste. A Facebook fan page that received 300,000 likes recently posted a video in which Azrael hangs an ISIS fighter after burning him and says he intends to make shawarma out of him.
At 44, the cold, cruel, intelligent and sophisticated Zahran Alloush is the complete opposite of Azrael in terms of personality and ideology.
Religiously, he is on the other end of the spectrum from Azrael. He adheres to Salafi Islam, a radical stream of Sunni Islam. According to Salafists, Shi'ites and Alawites are apostates.
Alloush was arrested for distributing Salafi propaganda in Syria, but was released at the beginning of the popular uprising in 2011 – a major mistake for the government. The Syrian regime still hoped to put down the "Arab Spring" without resorting to all-out violence at that point. Alloush exhibited impressive abilities as a military commander, and it was he who came up with a formula for victory over the Syrian military: uniting many Islamic factions under his leadership.
Alloush pays close attention to education and propaganda among his fighters. He is an expert at attaining compromises and signing agreements – even with much more radical factions. He even succeeded in forging a tactical alliance between Jabhat al-Nusra and the remnants of the secular Free Syrian Army.
Alloush now controls most of Damascus's eastern suburbs and a fighter force of a few tens of thousands. He is active on two fronts, against the Syrian regime and against ISIS. In the past year he initiated the executions of ISIS prisoners in retaliation for killings of his organization's members. His executioners wore orange, while the condemned wore black, in a clear reversal of ISIS execution videos.
The arrival of Russian equipment and personnel in Syria since September has threatened to ruin the coalition of disparate groups Alloush has formed. Russian bombing led to an unusual step: the imprisonment of Alawi civilians in cages, shown in a YouTube clip that threatens that Russian airstrikes would kill the Alawis.
Suhail Al-Hassan is called Al-Namer – the Tiger. He is almost 50, serves as an officer in the Syrian army and is active in the air defense forces, in the Syrian commandos and in the paratroopers. He is considered the top man for the difficult tasks in the army, an outstanding soldier and an Alawite who is most loyal to the Assad regime.
Al-Hassan vowed never to return to his wife and his young son until he either wins or becomes a martyr. His successes have undoubtedly delayed the withdrawal of the Syrian army and the defense of the city centers still controlled by the regime – Aleppo, Damascus and Homs. He became a hero of the Alawites by helping to prevent Jabhat al-Nusra from occupying Latakia, the heart of the community. Last year, once he joined the fighting, the Tiger managed to push back al-Nusra fighters from the city of Hama.
Recently the Tiger's prestige dropped for various reasons. He was seen walking on a cane apparently due to an injury, and a camera recorded him seeking urgent reinforcements from Assad's forces, a sign of the Syrian army's serious distress. The conquest of the entire Idlib region by the rebel coalition proves that even Assad's tiger can no longer save the Syrian army, worn-out after four years of continuous warfare. Russia's direct intervention in Syria, arrived in the wake of this hardship. .
"Assad's Tiger" is in constant movement between different arenas. He is at the forefront of the battle against Alloush's Salafi rebels defending Damascus, and he is also fighting against al-Nusra and ISIS in the north. His opponents claim that his cruelty knows no bounds and that he came up with the idea of dropping barrel bombs from airplanes on civilians.
From al-Hassan's point of view, he is defending Syria from dark forces that do not represent Islam but a conspiracy of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States to overthrow the regime. For him there are no moderate or extremist Islamists but fanatics who want to transform Syria into an Islamic principality and the center of global terrorism. Thus, the jihadists are not eligible for consideration as human beings and therefore no mercy is to be shown towards them. .
At a time when ISIS threatens everyone in Syria and Iraq, and one cannot see the results of the American and Russian bombing on the horizon, perhaps only local heroes can save the day - if not in practice then at least morally.
Dr. Yaron Friedman, Ynet's commentator on the Arab world, is a graduate of the Sorbonne. He teaches Arabic and lectures about Islam at the Technion, at Beit Hagefen and at the Galilee Academic College. His book, "The Nusayri Alawis: An Introduction to the Religion, History and Identity of the Leading Minority in Syria," was published in 2010 by Brill-Leiden.