BEIRUT, LEBANON (12:20 P.M.) – The late commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, Major-General Qassem Soleimani, was one of the most well-known military figures in the Syrian War; however, his role in the conflict is often misunderstood.
This was evident after Soleimani’s death on Friday, January 3rd, when news agencies and alleged Iran ‘experts’ described the late general as the ‘mastermind’ of the Syrian government’s operations during the war.
There is no doubt that Soleimani played a major role in the war, especially when the Syrian government’s operations relied on fighters from Shi’i Muslim paramilitary factions like Liwaa Fatemiyoun, Kata’eb Hezbollah, Kata’eb Al-Imam ‘Ali, and Lebanese and Syrian Hezbollah.
Soleimani would often mobilize these Shi’i factions before offensives (e.g. Aleppo, Dara’a, east Homs) and later visit the battlefield before disappearing between Syria and Iraq. When Soleimani would show up to these battlefronts, he was considered the leader of the coming offensives, despite not always being the case.
In fact, according to a Syrian Arab Army officer that served along Syria-Lebanon border between 2011-2015, Soleimani was never seen anywhere in the area, but he was believed to have played a role in the Al-Qusayr/Tal Kalakh and Qalamoun offensives. The same would be said later when he showed up in southern Aleppo (late 2015) and northern Dara’a (2014), two operations that had a large presence of Shi’i paramilitary forces.
Soleimani was no doubt beloved among many of these paramilitaries, which is why it was so many of these fighters would bombard the Quds Force commander for images prior to the operations. This adoration would prove incredibly important when it came to unifying these different paramilitaries under one command.
With Soleimani, the Iranian military advisers in Syria could use these unified paramilitaries to carry out their military objectives.
The Quds Force commander is often considered the man behind the military operations in Aleppo and the East Ghouta; however, this was not entirely true. For example, the Syrian Arab Army’s Aleppo operation in 2016, which concentrated on the eastern part of the city, was not led by Soleimani, let alone the Iranian Armed Forces.
While elements of Hezbollah and Iraqi paramilitaries played a part in the east Aleppo offensive, they were not the primary forces.
The primary units were the Tiger Forces, Desert Hawks Brigade (now defunct), Republican Guard, and several battalions from the Syrian Arab Army, National Defense Forces, and Syrian Hezbollah. These Syrian forces were taking commands from their own leaders, who were in battle rooms with the Russian military.
The fact is, when the Syrian Arab Army was taking part in any offensive after September 2015, it was planned by and coordinated with the Russian Armed Forces.
Soleimani’s success in uniting and organizing forces in Syria could later be seen in their battlefield operations, which had mixed results.
While Hezbollah’s Al-Qusayr and Qalamoun offensives were successful, it seemed when Soleimani did not rely solely on the Lebanese group for operations, they would have different outcomes.
For instance, the first time that Liwaa Fatemiyoun led an operation in Syria, it took place in the Dara’a Governorate.
Prior to the offensive, Qassem Soleimani was pictured with the forces in northern Daraa; they would launch attack shortly after the Iranian commander showed up. However, the northern Dara’a offensive in 2014 was not a success and it ended with mixed results and heavy casualties.
The Quds Force commander would then work with Hezbollah in western Damascus, where the Lebanese group managed to encircle the strategic mountaintop town of Al-Zabadani near the Lebanese border.
The Zabadani operation would face international backlash, as Hezbollah and the Syrian Arab Army’s 4th Armored Division were criticized for besieging Al-Zabadani and Madaya. The Iranian and Turkish governments later agreed to a ceasefire in this area, along with the predominately Shi’i towns of Kafraya and Al-Fou’aa in the Idlib Governorate.
For the next few years (2015-2017), Soleimani and the Iranian military concentrated on lifting the sieges on the Shi’i towns of Al-Zahra’a and Nubl in northern Aleppo and Kafraya and Al-Fou’aa in Idlib.
The northern Aleppo offensive was up first, as Syrian Army units and Shi’i paramilitary forces quickly advanced north of the provincial capital to lift the three-year-long siege on Al-Zahra’a and Nubl. In this rare instance, both the Russian and Iranian military commands worked together to plan the operation.
Following the success in the north, Soleimani turned his attention to Kafraya and Al-Fou’aa, which were under attack by groups like Jund Al-Aqsa (now defunct), Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham (now Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham), and the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
The southern Aleppo offensive had mixed results, as the Shi’i paramilitaries were able to capture some ground east of the Aleppo-Idlib Highway. However, the absence of the Russian Air Force would prove to be a major factor when Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham launched a large-scale counter-offensive to retake the key town of Tal Al-‘Eis.
Once the southern Aleppo offensive stopped, the Iranian advisers in Syria turned their attention to helping secure the Iraq border. The Iranian and Russian advisers in Syria would once again work together during the eastern Syria campaign (2016-2018), with the Syrian Army leading the way from Palmyra to the border city of Albukamal.
During this time, the Iranian forces in Syria would begin moving their bases to the T-4 Military Airport west of Palmyra and eventually to Albukamal.
During the last few years of the Syrian War, Soleimani was seen very little, as most of the Shi’i paramilitary forces moved their operations to the Iraqi border and the Syrian Army and Russian military concentrated on the Idlib, Dara’a, and Damascus governorates.
Despite the absence of field operations, the Iranian Armed Forces and their allied militias would find themselves under monthly attacks by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), who continued to strike them all way up to Soleimani’s execution earlier this month.