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Iran’s post-Soleimani strategy in Syria

Contrary to international concerns surrounding the possible consequences of the killing of Qassem Soleimani, many Syrians celebrate the death of the commander of Iran’s Quds Forces.

14 January 2020

AMMAN — Contrary to widespread, international concerns surrounding the possible consequences of the killing of Qassem Soleimani by an American airstrike in Baghdad, many Syrians celebrate the death of the commander of Iran’s Quds Forces. 

Since 2015, the Iranian general had led a bloody campaign throughout Syria. He traveled to supervise a range of activities carried out by his militias – from suppressing peaceful protesters to carrying out military operations against Syrian opposition factions – that eventually led to the displacement of thousands of Syrian civilians from their homes.

Soleimani’s military role in Syria began through the Quds Force, a unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) responsible for extraterritorial operations, prompting the European Union to impose sanctions on him as early as June 2011.

In his capacity as head of the Quds Force, Soleimani presided over the establishment of several sectarian militias that support Syrian government forces. He was considered the “spiritual father” of these militias, which he controlled through Iranian figures close to him. 

Who was Soleimani?

Soleimani led the Quds Force for 20 years, during which he received the Order of Zolfaghar, Iran’s highest military honor. He also attained the rank of Lieutenant General, which “no one in the 40-year history of the Revolutionary Guard had been granted,” Muhammad Muhsen Abu al-Noor, the director of the Arab Forum for Analyzing Iranian Policies (AFAIP) in Cairo, told Syria Direct

Soleimani exceeded the limits of his position in the Quds Force, becoming more like a “Foreign Minister responsible for exporting the Iranian Revolution,” noted Hani Suleiman, the director of Cairo-based Arab Center for Research and Studies.

“Without exaggeration, Soleimani is equal to [Hassan] Rouhani or even the Supreme Leader [Ali Khameini], in his symbolic and security value. The Iranian general led the important task of forming and arming dozens of Shia militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen,” Suleiman told Syria Direct.

These militias bore sectarian names, bringing about demographic changes in areas in which they were active. They also promoted Iranian interests, especially after opening recruitment centers in Iraq and Syria. “Because of this, Soleimani became an influential and powerful operator on the ground, more so than anyone else; he had [great] political and security influence. He put forth his political vision and imposed it on several strategic [capitals] in the region,” according to Suleiman.

Soleimani, however, committed “a fatal strategic mistake by being present with influential Iraqi and Lebanese militia leaders in the same place. This presented the US with invaluable opportunity to kill them all in a single strike,” according to Abu al-Noor.

Syria after Soleimani’s death

Not fooled by the relative calm following the immediate reactions of Washington and Tehran, Syrians are still awaiting the repercussions of Soleimani’s death. He was a “charismatic figure with a presence in the Syrian arena, able to communicate with the head of the Syrian regime and its leadership, while also carrying a long track record of action in the field,” Nabil al-Otoum, an expert in Iranian affairs, told Syria Direct.

“The killing of Soleimani will greatly impact the operational abilities of the Iranian militias present in Syria,” al-Otoum said. “It will weaken the ability of Hezbollah, especially since Soleimani had such a firm grip on Syria, [and also weaken] his efforts in the past year to establish what is known as an Iranian corridor that stretches from Iraq to Lebanon through Syria.”

Concerning Syrian government forces, Soleimani, according to al-Otoum, was directly supervising an elite group of Syrian officers to cultivate loyalty to Iran. He worked in Syria in two main ways. First, by incorporating the militias into the national army, changing its sectarian composition in favor of the Shia community. Second, by focusing on establishing independent militias as a parallel entity to the military – along the lines of the IRGC – under Iran’s direct supervision, with a symbolic presence of Syrian officers taking orders from Iran.

Although Soleimani’s death may “restore the relative sectarian balance in the army, which Soleimani aimed to destroy, this will not necessarily lead to a decline in Iran’s influence on Syrian soil,” al-Otoum added. 

“Israeli airstrikes against Iranian militias and government forces in Syria have affected Iran’s military strength, but instead of withdrawing from Syria as a result, Iran expanded its presence there,” al-Otoum noted. “Today, its forces are present throughout virtually the entire country,” something which constitutes one of the most important cards in Iran’s hand.

Likewise, the killing of Soleimani leaves his successor, Ismail Qani, with a challenging task, according to Hani Suleiman, since it is difficult “to compensate for someone like Soleimani.” He expects that “there will be an inevitable comparison between the two figures, which will place a burden on the new leader.” Consequently, “the future ability of the militias to perform the same roles, with the same strength, has been called into question, [especially] as they will now have to seriously consider the American response, especially after the killing of Soleimani in this dramatic manner.” 

However, Suleiman does not expect Iran or Iranian-backed militias to retreat from their objectives. Rather, “there will be thinking and a reordering of priorities and movements on the ground.” This view was echoed by Ahmed Hamada, a Syrian military and strategic analyst, who noted that “the [Shia] militias work in accordance with their interests and ideology.” 

Iran seeks revenge in Syria

Responding to the killing of Soleimani, the IRGC carried out missile strikes on two Iraqi military bases hosting U.S. troops on January 7, in an operation called “the martyr Soleimani.” According to Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, the strike was an act of self-defense, under Article 51 of the UN Charter, as it targeted the base responsible for the American strike. He also stated that his country “does not seek escalation or war.” 

The missile strike was preceded by a threat from US President Donald Trump, in which he vowed to bomb 52 sites in Iran if it retaliates against US forces and interests in the region in response to the killing of Soleimani. However, Trump’s statement after the Iranian strikes fell short of his prior threats, as he merely announced new sanctions against the Iranian regime. 

In general, the Iranian response was expected, according to sources that spoke with Syria Direct. A lack of response could provoke dissent within the IRGC itself, and could lead to “losing control of the its field officers [middle-ranked leadership], and make it difficult to attract new, young members to the IRGC, [including] the Quds Force and Basij [paramilitary forces],” according to Abu al-Noor. Such an event could “ jeopardize the [Iranian] regime by placing those forces in danger,” he added. 

Iran’s response is not just about Soleimani, however, but also about the future of its proxies and influence in the region. According to al-Otoum, Iran controls “more than 67 militias in Iraq and 34 in Syria.” Because “Iraq represents the spearhead of Iran’s project,” it will use every card it has “to stop anyone who targets it and will prevent any country from reducing or curtailing its influence [there].” 

At the same time, Iran is trying to “improve its negotiating position, as it realizes that it must sit down with Washington to do so,” al-Otoum said. 

While the official Iranian response ended with a strike against the two bases in Iraq, as announced by Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khameini said “such military actions are not enough.” Khameini has previously asserted that US forces must “leave the region,” which opens the door to the possibility of an Iranian response through its proxies, including those in Syria and Lebanon. 

In this context, the Syrian analyst Ahmed Hamada ruled out another Iranian direct hit, as it would be too costly to them. Rather, he expected another Iranian retaliation “through the militias it supports in the southern region of Syria and the Golan Heights, and perhaps in al-Tanf, as well as in northeastern Syria.”

Al-Otoum also argued that any large-scale military action led by Iran in Syria would be carried out by Hezbollah. “Hezbollah, unlike any other Iranian-backed militias, has the ability to carry out devastating, high-impact operations,” he said.  

Nonetheless, this scenario remains impossible at the moment, according to al-Otoum. Using Hezbollah to target US forces or American allies in Syria “would mean dragging Israel into a direct confrontation [with Hezbollah], and thus destroying Hezbollah. Iran needs Hezbollah at the moment.” Instead, Iranian operations might target American interests “in Iraq, or [ships] in the Arab Gulf or by employing the Houthis.” 

To reduce the influence of Iran’s regional proxies, Washington has been “decapitating” the groups’ leadership, by “[killing] these militias’ leaders,” Suleiman said. “Washington is well aware that these militias depend heavily on their leaders.”

The report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Calvin Wilder, Will Christou and Rohan Advani.

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