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.