A Syrian general known for his fight against ISIS — and accused in the death of veteran American war correspondent Marie Colvin, who died in shelling in 2012 — is reported to have died Wednesday on the battlefield in Syria’s northeastern province of Deir Ezzor.
Brig. Gen. Issam Zahreddine, 56, one of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s best-known field commanders, died after the vehicle he was traveling in hit a land mine close to a front line where he was fighting ISIS, according to media outlets closely aligned with the Syrian regime.
Zahreddine, a heavyset man with a trademark thick, gray beard, led a unit of Syria’s elite Republican Guard. He was vaunted as a hero by the government’s supporters — and as a war criminal by detractors, for his role in the country’s six-year civil war.
Only last month, the Syrian regime had made him a national hero after his men broke a three-year siege by ISIS on Deir Ezzor city. Images of Zahreddine in military fatigues surrounded by his adoring soldiers were broadcast across the country. Assad is said to have congratulated him personally on the victory.
Zahreddine gained a reputation for swift retribution in the war. In 2011, he commanded the Republican Guard’s 104th Brigade — a unit previously led by Assad himself — in Douma, the southern Syrian city where the first peaceful protests against the Syrian regime had stirred.
A Human Rights Watch report on those responsible for “crimes against humanity” in Syria that year cited an eyewitness who said that Zahreddine “always carried an electric baton to attack the protestors” and had “ordered most of the beatings” in Douma.
A year later, Zahreddine helped lead a devastating offensive against the residential district of Baba Amr in the city of Homs. Faced with an insurgency, the regime surrounded this area, blocked supply routes and shelled it relentlessly, flattening entire buildings. Many civilians were trapped, and dozens were killed in the attacks.
Among those who died was Colvin, then working for Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper. A longtime war correspondent who had reported from conflicts around the world and had lost an eye while on assignment in Sri Lanka, Colvin had managed to smuggle herself into Baba Amr, secretly crossing the Syrian border from Lebanon.
As one of the few foreign journalists inside the area, she bore witness to what was happening and appeared in broadcasts via satellite for several major news outlets. Speaking from a media center set up by Syrian opposition activists in Baba Amr, she spoke to BBC News, Britain’s Channel 4 and CNN.
She told the BBC that Assad’s forces were “shelling with impunity, with merciless disregard for civilians.”
And she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that it was “a complete and utter lie that they’re only going after terrorists. … The Syrian Army is simply shelling a city of cold, starving civilians.”
Colvin and Remi Ochlik, a French photographer, died shortly after that interview, when an artillery barrage destroyed the media center she had been broadcasting from.
Last year, members of Colvin’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit in a district court in Washington, D.C., saying they have evidence that Colvin was intentionally murdered by the Syrian government in an “assassination.”
The family claims in the lawsuit that Zahreddine had executed a plan to kill foreign journalists in the media center after an informant tipped off the leadership to their whereabouts. The lawsuit says Zahreddine was acting on the orders of a “Central Crisis Management Cell” whose members included Assad.
The lawsuit accuses the Syrian military of using a targeting method known as “bracketing,” in which it fired artillery shells closer and closer to the media center before finally hitting it.
The Syrian government denies that the attack on the journalists was deliberate.
Earlier this year, Zahreddine was added to a European Union sanctions list for his role in “violent repression against the civilian population, including during the siege of Baba Amr in February 2012.”
Upon news of his death, tribute videos posted by Assad regime supporters on YouTube garnered thousands of views. Supporters on Twitter posted pictures allegedly of Zahreddine’s coffin arriving in Damascus. And they shared a graphic image of the general smiling in front of mutilated corpses dangling on a string, their limbs ripped off and lying scattered on the ground. Many declared him a “hero.”
Some adorned his picture with hearts and roses, along with wishes that he may now rest in peace. Others, though, posted his image with messages expressing relief that a man they considered a war criminal has met his end.