Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani rallies Iranian officers, Hezbollah in Syria


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.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Bill Baar says:

    Any thoughts on the suggestion Russia and Iran have entered a quagmire? I’m betting the Chechnya model works but would appreciate others thoughts.

  • mike merlo says:

    @ Bill Baar

    Its only a “quagmire” if one lets it be so. If one has the will & resolve to act & execute on ones capabilities & the foresight & wherewithal to move past setbacks & temporary stalemates then there will be no “quagmire.” The Russian, Iranian, Syrian & Hezbollah nexus has consistently demonstrated “will & resolve” since hostilities commenced. The tepidness & lack of any coherent strategy & commitment consistently demonstrated by the US & its Coalition Of Cockadoodledoo’s has further emboldened Russia & Iran to take their Military presence to the next level. It’ll be interesting to ‘see’ if any other Nations opt in with the Russians. This is an excellent opportunity for some of the ex-Warsaw Pact Nations & other Nations to use as a ‘vehicle’ to curry favor with the Russian’s & leverage their own interests vis-a-vis the EU, NATO, the US & any other Nation or Organization looking to do the same.

    As ‘things’ presently ‘stand’ the only 2 Nations I ‘see’ as potentially disrupting the new status quo is Turkey & Saudi Arabia. Either or both of the aforementioned Nations could easily shift from staying the course with Covert Support for the Forces that oppose Assad, Iran & the Iraqi Central Government & essentially just start behaving like Pakistan, saying one thing & doing another.

    If I was Putin I would lie to Erdogan & make an under-the-table off the books secret deal with Turkey & convince them of the benefits of setting up a safe zone in Syria on the Turkish border then attack it. I haven’t read the NATO Charter lately buts its my understanding that such a confrontation would not qualify for NATO support because it did not happen on a NATO’s Member Sovereign Territory.

  • m3fd2002 says:

    The Russians typical MO is siding with the larger “tribe” so to speak. If you look at their interventions and proxy interventions (Vietnam, Angola, Ogaden, Eritrea, Arab/Israeli conflict, etc.) only the ones that had support from the majority of the populations were successful. In Afghanistan they sided with a minority government and the majority Pashtun’s gave them significant problems. I think in Syria, they are backing the wrong horse, regardless of the ideologies involved. The only thing keeping Assad in power was the disparate Sunni factions who were operating independently. It’s my feeling that the Russian/Iranian/Hezbollah overt intervention will tend to galvanize the Sunni’s. Probably radicalize any remaining “moderates”. The surrounding countries will most likely support these insurgents indefinitely. I also believe that most Alawite/Christian/Druze folks wouldn’t mind if Assad and his inner circle would disappear. I wouldn’t put it past the Russians to engineer a coup d’etat, then sue for a political settlement that guarantees their access to the Eastern Mediterranean Ports/Airfields.

  • Dennis says:

    Iran,Russia,Syria and Hezbollah operate with no restrictions or guidelines from politicians, the press or the u.n. or anyone else for that matter. This will surely be a bloodbath in western Syria. As far as going for Isis? Who knows, maybe later when they consolidate their forces they’ll move through the south and up along the Iraqi border where they’ll do their” dance”

  • Barry says:

    Hi Bill- Too early to tell, but I am leaning towards the big Q. You have a group of armies with literally hundreds of thousands of fighters representing FSA, Qaeda, local tough guys, and IS, each with the determination of four years of death and destruction behind them. They are not going to role over so easily. Ask the muj about fighting fire with fire in Afghan.
    So my main arguments towards Q:
    -Not enough boots on the ground to occupy and hold territory unless Iran sends in tens of thousands of new soldiers. And even then, they have not fought in a generation. Not sure if they will be motivated. And SAA and HA can only keep going for so long. They are being bled dry. You cannot rule the country using mercs, whether motivated by money or ideology.
    -Rebels and IS are deeply entrenched in areas that were never friendly to Assad. They will not happily return to secularism after 4 years of sharia. So I cannot see SAA making big gains territorially.
    -Russians will not pull out quickly bc Putin has a lot on the line. he will either order his men to be overly cautious to avoid casualties (thus, fewer battlefield gains) or overly aggressive, in hopes of quick victory (too many casualties; bad morale back home). Whereas an army with accountability to the public back home makes decisions one way, Russians will do whatever Putin decides and he is willing to bleed in order to win.
    Just ask the residents of (bombed to oblivion; scene of “escape from NY” style warfare for years; and now rebuilt monstrosity republic capital) Grozny.

  • mike merlo says:

    @ m3fd2002

    good stuff. However when contrasting these different scenarios like Afghanistan & Vietnam & taking into account the border Nations affording the 2 aforementioned Nations extenuating circumstances that X-Factor emerges. In respect to Afghanistan it was Pakistan & for Vietnam it was Communist China. It should also be noted in respect to activity in The Horn of Africa conditions evolved & existed that allowed for the Soviet ‘Blue Water’ Navy to project & establish presence in the region that otherwise would not have been possible. As things presently stand in the Syrian Iraqi Theater Russia has unquestionable access/'(control?)’/security in a swath of land stretching from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Iranian Afghan border.

    The Russian’s won’t have to go so far as to engineer a coup. They’ve been on record multiple times as amiable to a Political Solution that entails Assad sharing power then stepping aside or simply stepping down altogether. The Iranians are obviously near if not equal partners with the Russian’s in this Machiavellian undertaking & it would appear that Assad, at least on the surface, is receptive to any kind of an arrangement that allows for him to maintain at least the facade of having a say in Government Affairs.

  • manus says:

    The Cubans have sent military personnel. Also, Erdogan deserves anything Russia can harpoon them with. Perhaps, the first time Erdogan’s air force tries to bomb the YPG as they advance on Jarabulus, the Russian air force can shoot them down (=in Syria).

  • Abu Kilaab says:

    Nusayri is a derogatory term for the Alawite sect, not for all Shiites or for the Twelver sect.

  • David Marshall says:

    The fighters seen with the desert digital pattern uniforms are more than likely Lebanese Hezbollah (LH) and the pattern isnt MARPAT. This uniform has been seen with LH since the fighting against al-Nusra Front in the Qalamun region. There are multiple pictures available open source that show LH fighters with this uniform.

  • Fred says:

    The Saudis, Qatar and Turkey still have plenty left in the tank, and considering their “sunk costs” they’re not going to just let the rebellion fail. Especially considering how poorly Assad was doing leading up to the intervention, which means that the Russians and Iranians are going to have to do a lot of the heavy lifting. I would lean towards quagmire.

  • TRM says:

    Assad has admitted that his basic problem is lack of manpower. Russian aircraft and a couple thousand more Hezbollah and IRGC won’t change that. The current offensive may regain some ground (probably at the cost of a lot of casualties–three senior Iranians have been killed in the last week, and I expect they had a lot of company) but won’t change the fundamental stalemate.

    To paraphrase Napolean, when your enemies are killing each other, it’s impolite to interrupt. Also unwise.

  • m3fd2002 says:

    @ Bill Baar
    With reports of Cuban forces in Syria I believe we will see something along the Angolan Model, which was successful. A bit ironic just as the US has a detente with Iran/Cuba, they seem to be escalating/reinitiating their external activities.

  • Charles Simpson says:

    I am not an expert on the Middle East but I did live there for almost five years. Although not an exert, I consider myself well-versed on the use and application of military force becauses that has been my line of work since 1960. No outsider will ever “win” in the Midle East because we refuse to learn to think as they do and to use that knowledge when dealing with them. No one has, and never will have, “allies” in the Middle East but they will ally with each other to rid themselves of outside influence if that influence becomes seen as interference in Middle East traditions. Arrogance will never be accepted by any country in the Middle East and the two most arrogant nations on the planet are now edging closer to a global conflict everyday on an endeavor that neither can see to fruition.

    If we, the USA, want to come out winner in the Middle East, we must leave the Middle East and our President must go before the United Nations and make a public apology for the disrespect we have shown toward them. Some people would call this a form of surrender but it is exactly the opposite because if you approach any Arab/Muslim leader with humility and respect, they will become an enemy of your enemy for life. If you try to force any Arab/Muslim Leader to accept your foreign attitude and traditions, he will become a friend of your enemy and he will fight you until one of you is dead. Share tea with them and they will die for you.

  • wahabi is dead says:

    its ironic. isis and annusra has killed, beheaded and murdered many christian people and priest using weapon supplied by western country.

    many church has been destroyed using bomb supplied by western country.

    and only Assad, SAA and hizbullah that defend and help christian in syria.

    dear western people,

    if you are the truth followers of Jesus, then you must unite and speak up against your government to stop support, arm and fund this rats of isia/annusra/syria rebels.

    if Assad fall and syria is seized by this rats of terrorist, i guarantee many christian will be killed and beheaded.

    no more church in syrian country.

    this is what you want?

  • jack brown says:

    Short of a full scale Iranian invasion, Sulaimani’s boys are unlikely to win it for Assad, obviously. Same goes for Hezbollah. I have often wondered how militarily significant their troops can really be in this context, given that we are only talking about a few thousand troops from Lebanon and Iran.

    Russian air power however seems much more likely to change the fundamentals of the game in Syria, and not just for the enormous morale boost it must be giving to government units. We should know pretty quickly though: if the government offensive stalls out soon then we’re obviously in for a long stalemate. But if they can push the jihadi units out of Aleppo and Homs, then there is potential for real progress.

    I wonder if events in Turkey (the massacres in Ankara and Suruc) will end up being equally significant. If the fractured Turkish consensus about what to do with Syria resets, and the military and the civilian authorities both decide they don’t want jihadistans to their south, then the continued Saudi support for the jihadis will suddenly become a lot less important.

  • Joseph Garcia says:

    Congratulations! indeed we need to change our perception,our exeptionalism brought us a global chaotic dysfunctional order!
    I salute you! I”l drink my tea!

  • Rock says:

    The Russians seem to be showing up just in time to make sure that the status quo is maintained. The obvious must be stated. If one side wins, the war is over in Syria. Just when Assad seemed on the verge of collapse, the Russians show up to make sure the war goes on. I have to wonder, if the industrial military complex is not at work here. And that is: keep the war going at all costs. Thus, the war machines of the great nations stay funded and useful as long as there wars to fight and prepare for. Once, the Russian have stabilized the war, one wonders if they will pull back until it looks like one side is about to win, in which case the Russians will intervene again or another power on the side of the rebels, if it appears they are on the verge of losing.

  • David Gerstman says:

    Reuters has removed the reference to Soleimani from the report that you cited. It still shows up when you do a search, so it was once there.


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