Major General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps – Qods Force, has been seen addressing Iranian military officers and members of Lebanese Hezbollah in western Syria. In the past, the leader of Iran’s expeditionary special operations forces has been spotted on key battlefields in Iraq and Syria prior to the launch of major operations against jihadist groups such as the Islamic State.
Recent images of Soleimani (above) appeared on social media sites such as Twitter. His presence in the western province of Latakia in Syria was confirmed by Reuters. According to the news service, Soleimani was “addressing Iranian officers and Hezbollah fighters with a microphone, wearing dark clothes as he spoke to the men in camouflage.”
In the photographs, Soleimani is flanked by by a handful of men wearing military fatigues. The faces of the individuals standing next to him are digitally altered to prevent their identity from being disclosed. A crowd of armed fighters who appear to be wearing US Marine Corps desert camouflage uniforms listens to his speech.
Latakia is a western coastal province that has long been a stronghold for the Assad family. Jihadists from the Jaysh al Fateh alliance, which is led by Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, and its close ally, Ahrar al Sham, have launched attacks in the province in an effort to break Assad’s power base. Just two days ago, Abu Muhammad al Julani, Al Nusrah’s emir, threatened to indiscriminately shell villages in the province to avenge regime attacks, including airstrikes and barrel bombs dropped from helicopters, on Sunni villages, towns, and cities controlled by jihadist groups and allied rebel forces.
Iran is reported to have deployed significant forces, estimated at thousands of troops, to support the Assad regime’s offensive to retake areas controlled by Jaysh al Fateh in Hama and Aleppo. But Omran al Zoubi, Syria’s Information Minister, has denied a large Iranian presence in Syria.
“Only some Iranian military advisers, whose mission is to provide consultations and nothing more, are present in Syria,” Zoubi said, according to Iran’s Tasnim News Agency.
Soleimani is instrumental in organizing Syrian and Iraqi militias, as well as Hezbollah, to battle Sunni jihadists and allied rebels in Syria. He has played a similar role in Iraq, where he has organized, trained, and equipped Shiite militias along the lines of Lebanese Hezbollah to fight the Islamic State. The leaders of some of these militias are listed by the US as Specially Designated Global Terrorists, and remain hostile to the US. Soleimani is occasionally photographed with these militia leaders.
Hezbollah has also committed a large force to back the government’s offensive in Hama and Idlib in western Syria. Thousands of the group’s fighters are said to be involved in the operation. In the past week, a senior Hezbollah leader known as Hassan al Haj was killed during the offensive. A senior Lebanese government official told Reuters that Haj was “the most important [Hezbollah] figure killed in battles in Syria since the start of the war.”
Russia has also committed an expeditionary military force to back the Assad regime’s offensive. After building up its forces in Syria, the Russian military launched airstrikes on Sept. 30 and have primarily targeted Jaysh al Fateh and allied rebel groups in the northwest. Russia entered the fight under the guise of attacking the Islamic State, but few of its airstrikes have hit the jihadist group. In addition to warplanes and attack helicopters, the Russian military has deployed “marines, paratroopers, and special forces” to Syria, and even executed a sea-launched cruise missile strike from the Caspian Sea.
Russia very likely coordinated its entry into the Syrian civil war with Iran and Soleimani. In July, Soleimani is reported to have visited Russia and met with met President Vladimir Putin and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, despite a United Nations travel ban.