Qassem Soleimani reportedly spotted in Syria’s Hama province

A photo surfaced on Friday claiming to show Major General Qassem Soleimani, chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) extraterritorial branch aka the Qods Force, in the northern countryside of Syria’s central province of Hama. Meanwhile, a senior Guard commander and two Iranians have been announced killed in Syria.

The Assad regime and its allies are attempting to counter a major insurgent offensive that was launched last month in northern Hama. Pro-regime forces have managed to reverse some opposition gains, according to reports.

Arab media citing local sources reported that Soleimani met with the chief of the Assad-loyalist Tiger Forces, which dispatched to Hama last week to counter the rebel offensive. The picture was allegedly taken after Soleimani met with a Syrian general.

Backed by Russian airpower, pro-regime forces – including the IRGC, Harakat al Nujaba (an Iranian-controlled Iraqi militia) – the Tiger Forces, the National Defense Forces and other pro-Assad militias have deployed to bolster the northern Hama front against the opposition assault. Unverified reports on social media claim the IRGC-controlled Afghan Fatemiyoun Division and additional Iranians have transferred to Hama from south Aleppo.

The insurgents include a number of jihadist, Islamist and Free Syrian Army-branded groups. Al Qaeda’s joint venture, Hay’at Tahrir al Sham, is playing a significant role.

The IRGC has announced fatalities as the Hama battles have raged. Earlier this week, at least two members of the IRGC Basij paramilitary – a volunteer force which operates under the authority of the Ground Forces branch – were announced killed in Hama battles. On Friday, Iranian media and officials confirmed three more Guard members, including a brigadier general second class, were killed in Syria. Their remains arrived in Iran on that same day, indicating they were killed prior to the announcement. Officials and media initially did not confirm whether they were killed in Hama. The three were attached to the IRGC 19th Fajr Operations Division (Fars province), according to Iranian media, indicating that members of the unit have deployed as part of the Ground Forces’ present rotation. The IRGC expeditionary forces have previously rotated different units stationed across Iran. Iranian media described the two non-commanders as “basijis.” If that is true, then they could have been “special” members who held dual membership in the IRGC and the Basij and were attached to a Ground Forces unit. The Iranian fatalities highlight the regular IRGC forces’ continued involvement in the Syrian war.

Reporting directly to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Soleimani has executed Iranian strategy in Syria since the popular uprisings in 2011, and has significant influence in shaping the pro-regime military campaign. After six years, Soleimani, with heavy Russian assistance, has prevented the fall of Bashar al Assad, ensuring Iran’s supply route to Lebanese Hezbollah. He has recruited or coerced thousands of Iranians, Syrians, Lebanese, Iraqis, Afghans and Pakistanis to fight in Syria, forming an international Shiite expeditionary force.

The insurgent offensives in Hama and Damascus this past month indicate that despite significant victories, such as the recapture of Aleppo, regime holdings remain vulnerable. Fighting along nearly every directional front continues to strain pro-regime forces. Insurgents still control pockets of territory across those areas, including a firm hold on most of Idlib province.

The pro-regime alliance has scampered to address its vulnerabilities. Since Aleppo, pro-regime forces have been focused on responding to rebel offensives, making gains and clearing small pockets of rebel-held territory in western Syria. They have launched a counteroffensive in the south, retook Palmyra from the Islamic State, accelerated offensive in the eastern suburbs of Damascus and replicated evacuation deals in the al Waer district of Homs last month that bused out rebels in exchange for territory. The arrangements have allowed the regime to further minimize the number of active fronts and condense opposition positions, creating leverage for political negotiations and consolidating resources.

The impeding end of the Mosul campaign could free several thousand additional Iraqi militiamen that may volunteer to redeploy to Syria. This could already be the case with Harakat al Nujaba’s recent formation of the Golan Liberation Brigade. Several militiamen and officials of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces have floated deployment to the Iraqi border with Syria, and potentially into eastern Syria, though this remains to be seen.

Soleimani and the senior leadership in Tehran are committed to continuing their military campaign in Syria. They consider it an existential war that directly threatens regime survival. As the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces appear poised to siege and retake the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa in eastern Syria, Tehran hopes further military gains would help secure its core interests in future political negotiations over the country’s fate.

Amir Toumaj is a Research Analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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8 Comments

  • Stephen Shea says:

    Thanks for such a detailed report, very well written.

  • Mark Adkins says:

    I find it curious how many high-ranking Iranian officers are killed in Syria. Brigadier-generals in particular seem to get it bad. This item from the National Council of Resistance of Iran, dated October 2015, lists six Iranian generals (five brigadier) killed in Syria up to that time:

    http://www.ncr-iran.org/en/news/terrorism-fundamentalism/19337-iran-list-of-irgc-commanders-killed-in-syria

    Since then, media reports indicate perhaps half a dozen more full or brigadier Iranian generals killed in Syria, though quite frankly it’s hard to keep track, the way their senior commanders seem to be dropping like flies.

    Very little word on how they were killed, for the most part. In the west, generals seldom take a direct role in combat; and since the insurgents have no air Force and few heavy weapons, and generals tend to avoid insecure forward areas without plenty of surrounding security measures, that leaves three likely possibilities: snipers, suicide attacks, and remote-triggered IEDs with observers (with or without intel) waiting for high value targets before triggering (presumably along roads that Iranian convoys travel).

    It’s difficult to believe that high ranking officers in theater would have such poor operational security as to permit many successful VBIED attacks; and successful infiltration on foot of Iranian command areas (with close personal access to high officers) by insurgents in Iranian uniform (but without identification, passwords, etc.) seems improbable.

    Since the insurgents have a habit of video recording actions, I’m wondering if there is a record of such events, and if not, what the absence suggests.

    Note that a number of these commanders were veterans of the Iran-Iraq War, so their survival of that only to meet death in Syria suggests something other than recklessness.

    Insights?

    • blogsofjihad says:

      It seems like everyone in the Syrian Army is a Brig General and I assume the Iranian militias and Army regulars are in a similar structure.

    • cock pol says:

      @ Mark Adkins, it is indeed strange that so many high ranking Iranian officers were killed.

    • Thomas says:

      @ Mark Adkins Your question has a two-fold answer.

      Firstly, Iranian war doctrine celebrates martyrdom and the commanders of the Iranian army are taught to lead by example in the battle. Therefore, they are less risk averse and more likely to ignore their own security in order to rally their men into attacking enemy positions fearlessly. This plays well into their use of human wave tactics which were popular with the soviet and Japanese armies to overcome enemy positions. You have to understand that Iranian army is much less technologically advanced than its Russian and American counter parts when it comes to fighting against an irregular army. This includes body amor and tactical training for door-to-door fighting. Whatever technology it has is geared towards itself doing asymmetric warfare and A2/D2 agaisnt a much more sophisticated enemy. In other words, for 30 years they have been training to be the ones that do the guerrilla warfare not the regular army that has to fight against it. Therefore, when dealing with rebels their options are limited and they are at the mercy of Russia for clearing targets with air superiority. However, they are slowly learning how to conduct large air-land battle coordination from Russia. They have also changed their way looking at war and that has been reflected in their recent battles.

      https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/irans-evolving-way-of-war-how-the-irgc-fights-in-syria

      Secondly, Iran is deploying only senior officers and a select few elite Iranian units into battle. IF they were deploying whole divisions, common sense as you put it, would dictate that more rank and file soldiers would be dying than officers. However through out the previous years Iran has rarely deployed its rank and file soldiers in Syria. When it has (As the death records show), it coincides with large pro-regime offensives and they have immediately been flown back to Iran after the operation succeeds. Most of the IRGC commanders are placed into the volunteer corpses of Hezbollah, Pakistani , Afghani and Iraqi shia militias and lead the operational command. In a sense they are creating their own version of a foreign legion. This is an invaluable lesson for Iran. Their new doctrine of “mosaic defence ” depends on large numbers of semiprofessional formations that can be controlled by few well-trained and dependable Iranian officers. These formations can act as a larger army as they do in Syria; and if the enemy is superior and targets communications and command headquarters (as US would) they can act independently to preform sustained guerrilla warfare. In doing so they plan to create versions of Hezbollah in every country that they touch, which can go on the offensive if the main land Iran is attacked. As demonstrated by the Hezbollah – Israel war of 2006, their tactics are extremely effective against a regular, sophisticated army. The following article analyzes the number officers of IRGC and the non-iranian shia volunteers and it gives a picture of how Iran is fighting this war.

      https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/irans-evolving-way-of-war-how-the-irgc-fights-in-syria

  • Mark Adkins says:

    A follow-up to my earlier comment:

    Exactly how many Iranian generals (brigadier or otherwise) would be present in Syria to supervise the comparatively small Iranian forces there? Were they killed serially, as replacements were sent?

    According to the Daily Caller, again citing National Council of Resistance of Iran figures, as of November 2016, there were as many as 10,000 IRGC forces and as many as 6,000 Iranian regular army forces:

    http://amp.dailycaller.com/2016/11/28/what-is-irans-syria-policy-after-donald-trump/

    If the article is to be believed, there were as of that time additionally perhaps 45,000 militia fighters from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, as well as perhaps 10,000 Hezbollah fighters, all acting as anti-insurgent forces. Would these all be coordinated under Iranian command?

    In either event, how many Iranian commanders at the level of general (full or brigadier) would be likely at any one time?

  • Frank says:

    Great questions Mark! I remember reading here – maybe a while back – about the desire/reputation of these senior officers to be as close to the front as possible. Usually you see them with no body armor, surrounded by armed personnel – thus a standout target. I would imagine snipers or Tows getting to them.

  • den says:

    Just that they are being killed is a question. But for my personal opinion, it shows extreme stress in their operations management. Oddly though, and this could be a stretch, a high percentage of these” generals” are from the
    Raq-ran confrontation. Could there be a reason stemming from this? ….obviously something is” funny” .

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