The absence of Al-Quds Force's Commander in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Qassem Soleimani, engenders some sort of confusion to Iran’s influence in Syria, and that is due to his organic relationship with the developments that have taken place in this country, since Bashar al-Assad came to power in 2000.
Soleimani’s Role in Syrian Politics Deflections
Qassem Soleimani showed interest in the Syrian arena from the beginning of taking over his duties as commander of Al-Quds Force. He, therefore, invested the death of President Hafez al-Assad to establish a different type of relationship between Iran and Syria. The sources indicate that Soleimani "with a military force under his command, took the responsibility of ensuring smooth transition of power to Bashar al-Assad." Thus, Soleimani established a new dynamism in the two countries’ relations, through which Iran moved from the party receiving assistance from Syria, by breaking its political isolation, particularly in the Arab region, to the party providing security assistance through supporting the (Syrian) regime and assisting it in security and military terms.
This relationship developed with the U.S occupation of Iraq, where Soleimani played the role of overseeing coordination of the Syrian-Iranian intelligence and military efforts to confront the consequences of the American presence in Iraq. Meanwhile, Soleimani facilitated the presence of al-Qaeda through logistical assistance from Damascus, which opened its borders to the militant groups to cross into Iraq.
Later on, this relationship became more evident in encountering forces of independence in Lebanon during 2004 and 2005 and through an assassination campaign launched by the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah trio against their political opponents. In the meantime, Soleimani has strengthened his relationship with the leaders of the Lebanese Hezbollah, including Imad Maghniyeh, Mustafa Badreddine, and the leader of the party, Hassan Nasrallah. This stage has witnessed Iranian penetration in all components of the Syrian state at the military, security and economic levels. Besides, the phenomenon of Shiism increased and became public in many Syrian regions.
Several sources said that Iran's interference in Syria, after the revolution, was the result of Soleimani's insistence on saving Bashar al-Assad from falling down and he triumphed in this over a current within the Iranian regime that was considering replacing Assad. Soleimani had an influential role in the course of Syrian events through many policies and stations:
• During the first months of the Syrian revolution, Soleimani helped "organize the regime's brutal response to the opposition attacks inside Damascus and the threats to overthrow the regime".
• He helped shape the Syrian regime’s military strategies, as the policies of blockade, starvation, and distortion of the revolution were attributed to him.
• Soleimani is considered the architect of the defense lines around Damascus. He has established a defense system consisting of three hoops, which made it impossible for the opposition to storm into Damascus and topple the regime. This has contributed a great deal to Assad's retention of the legitimacy of his rule by keeping control over the capital.
• With the development of events and according to American intelligence reports Soleimani became a resident of Damascus and started to run the battle himself. According to U.S officials, Soleimani was running the battle for Assad's survival from inside Damascus and was surrounded by multinational commanders who were running the war. Amongst them were leaders of the Assad regime's army, the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, and representatives of Shiite militias in Iraq.
• Soleimani utilized his regional relations network in two events that have had a prominent impact on the tracks of the Syrian scene:
- He recalled most of the assets he had already built since he took control of Al-Quds Force, whether from Hezbollah fighters, or Shiite militias from all of the region, as well as all the money and materials that could be used. This has basically contributed to converting the Syrian people's revolution into sectarian conflict in favor of expanding Iran’s influence.
- He used his influence on Iraq to allow the use of the Iraqi airspace to transfer what Assad needs of soldiers and equipment from Iran to Syria via Iraq during the 8 years of war.
Traits difficult to replicate in any substitute to Soleimani
All along his management of the Syrian file Soleimani was characterized by possessing traits that are difficult to be found in any person who replaces him. Some of these advantages were established as a result of objective conditions, others were created by experiments and experiences of situations that he lived for more than four decades as a fighter on various fronts. More than half of this period he was commander of the Al-Quds Force:
• Efficiency in managing details: Soleimani has fought many small battles, in Iraq and with Hezbollah, in addition to battles of deep breadth, such as the Syrian war, and he was directly overseeing the finest operational and logistical details.
• Building a wide network of personal relationships with most of the actors on the ground and besides his relations with various Syrian military and security formations, Soleimani established the greatest part of the auxiliary militias in Syria.
• His ability to inspire faction fighters in the field, and to utilize the religious factor by deliberately appearing as a simple and austere character.
• His knowledge of Arabic helped him win local leaders and build a supportive network for Assad.
• His position in the structure of the Iranian regime, as the second man, helped him secure the resources needed to manage the battles in Syria, without being obliged to go through the bureaucratic channels in Iran. This is a privilege that will not be obtained by any leader succeeding him and he will not reach Qassem Soleimani’s influential status.
Possible Field Repercussions
Given the unrest in Lebanon and Iraq and the strikes Iran is receiving in Syria, the killing of Soleimani adds complication to the host of complexities facing Iran's influence in the region. According to the available data on how Soleimani managed Iranian influence in Syria, it is predestined that the joints of this influence will be dilapidated in the next stage as a result of confusion in its management, for several reasons:
-The killing of Soleimani will affect the way of conducting the work of Iranian forces and militias, as a result of the direct link he has built with these groups.
- Soleimani has built the militia forces in Syria, "34" militias and it is difficult to find someone other than him to manage them. Over the past years, Soleimani played the role of coordinator and general supervisor of the relationship between these militias and the Iranian and Syrian leaderships.
- Soleimani formed the militias in Syria loosely, much like the structure of gangs, in which financial, economic, military, or security matters are often largely centered in the leader’s personality.
- Soleimani managed the Syrian file in a non-institutional way predominated by a personal nature, and he wanted to keep the secrets of this management for himself. Bashar Al-Assad's visit revealed the tenor of this administration when Soleimani insisted to attend all of Assad's meetings with Khamenei and Rouhani.
- With Soleimani’s death, the roadmap he built to manage network is lost, because by virtue of the competition between the security services and his keenness to keep the secret of this management, he did not establish a leadership generation from within Al-Quds Force to succeed him. Rather, the map of his relations indicates that he was bringing closer to him non-Iranian elements, Iraqi, Lebanese and Afghan and Pakistani. His secrets were distributed amongst them, according to the operational needs and the requirements for running the affairs. The only Iranian he trusted, and was considered his "black box" was Hussein Pour Jaafari, from his city, Qaraman, who was killed with him in Baghdad.
Based on these points, the areas of vulnerability that Soleimani’s absence will leave on the Syrian scene can be shown as follows:
• The underpinning bases that Soleimani has built in Syria, especially the project of building Albukamal base and preparing the region as a project parallel to Iran's road to the Mediterranean. Soleimani gave special attention to this region due to its strategic location as a bridge between Iraq and Syria. And this is considered Soleimani’s own project in all its details.
• The project to control Aleppo, where Iran has its largest military base in Syria, “Mount Azan”: Soleimani formed one of his largest militias in Syria, “The Al-Baqir Brigade” and the “Kafriya and Al-Foua” militias that take control of a large part of eastern Aleppo, and are creating demographic changes in the city to link it to the nearby areas of Nebel and al-Zahra. The Iranian presence in Aleppo faces opposition from local forces, “militias that follow the security services and the so-called Al Beri militias,” in addition to a Russian crackdown on these militias. Soleimani was able to protect this presence through his own connections and influence. It is likely that his absence will largely affect future developments in Aleppo.
• The Shiism project in the south of the country, in Quneitra and Daraa, and building a pro-Iranian force in this region: Soleimani was overseeing the finest details of how things proceed in this region. It is true that Hezbollah is apparently the party in charge of recruiting, training and attracting elements. However, all of this was taking place under the supervision and follow-up of Soleimani, who has cultivated special relations with the actors in the region, and he himself constitutes a guarantee for those to join and support the Iranian project.
• Coordination between the militias and relations of cooperation between them together with controlling their disputes: The relationship between many components of these militia forces implies tensions and has witnessed recurrent conflicts. This is demonstrated by the conflicts between the “National Defense” militia and “Hezbollah” in al-Qalamoun and Albukamal. The sources and causes of conflicts amongst these components vary; such as the dispute over areas of influence, spoils, and control of smuggling and trade routes, especially in the border areas between Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. The presence of Qassem Soleimani has had a great impact on controlling and managing these conflicts, because of his symbolic status and security and military clout.
• Managing Iranian assets in Syria: Al-Quds Force has many assets in Syria, and a concrete presence in most of the components of military action there, especially in military airports in Homs countryside, central Syria, Hama Military Airport, and Nairab Airport in Aleppo. In these areas Al-Quds Force shares the management of these sites with Russia under the supervision of Qassem Soleimani personally. Al-Quds Force is deployed in significant military sectors in Al-Kiswah region of Damascus rural areas, from which most of the Iranian militia operations are managed in southern Syria. Russia shares with Al-Quds force the administration of this region which falls under the control of the First Division to which Russia attaches special importance and has already restructured it. Russia seems to be dissatisfied with the presence of Al-Quds Force in this region because this gives an excuse to Israel to target it and this happened more than once. Almost all of Iran's activities in this region falls within the domain of the work of the First and Ninth divisions in the area of Alsanamein, where the "Triangle of Death" and " Fatima Hills " are located, and are witnessing a large scale Iranian presence. It is anticipated that the absence of Soleimani, who has had special relations with the Russian top leaders, will affect the Iranian presence in this region. In addition, Al-Quds Force has a prominent presence in the central military operations rooms of the capital, Damascus, such as the General Staff, the Air Force Commander, and separate areas in Old Damascus (near the shrines), and near the shrine of Sayyidah Zainab in southern Damascus. In most of these areas, there is a conflict between Russia and the Iranian force. In these areas, Al-Quds Force is also practicing activities that go beyond Syria to regional security, especially Israel’s security. Israel has unveiled a factory to develop drones in Aqraba area nearby " Sayyidah Zainab". Qassem Soleimani was overseeing details of these activities.
• On the ground, too, Soleimani’s absence comes in light of an Israeli methodology in targeting Iranian militias and the U.S stepping forward on the line, which will confuse Iran’s influence in Syria, and obstruct its positioning in more than one place, especially in eastern Syria, where reports confirm that some Iranian militias have withdrawn from some locations and redeployed themselves in some orchards in the region. More than one source confirmed that Soleimani, who was returning from Damascus the night he was killed in Baghdad, asked the Syrian leadership to deploy its forces in Albukamal, perhaps with the aim of covering up his militias, which have become a permanent target for the Americans, and for his realization that the forces of Assad’s regime will be accompanied by Russian forces, which would lead to getting this area out of the U.S targeting circle.
• Turkish-Iranian security coordination: Qasim Soleimani and Hakan Vidal, head of the Turkish Intelligence enjoyed coordination and cooperation relations, whether in the direct files between the Iran and Turkey, or on the Syrian arena. They are described as the architects of intelligence solutions in Syria, especially in terms of transporting "jihadists" from different areas and grouping them in Idlib. Soleimani and Vidal also have had a significant role in coordinating and planning the Astana talks in 2017. Therefore, the killing of Soleimani is bound to would baffle the relationship of cooperation and coordination between the two parties, especially as this relationship was linked to Soleimani’s personality as an influential field commander who has the upper hand on the Shiite militias fighting in Syria.
Political Repercussions of Soleimani’s Killing
Since Bashar Al-Assad came to power, Soleimani has had an impact on shaping the Syrian policy trends and its regional and international outputs. He supervised the way of architecting Syrian security services, especially in the aftermath of American occupation of Iraq. With his absence , his heavy shadow is also absent from the Syrian decision-maker, and experts estimate that this situation would have two immediate results:
- The killing of Soleimani may liberate Bashar al-Assad more than before. Suleimani, who has been following up the Syrian file for a long time, was putting pressure on the Syrian decision, and his departure could complicate Iran's ability to influence Assad in the current circumstances.
- The killing of Soleimani may form an incentive for Assad to end the state of playing on the ropes between Russia and Iran, and to choose Russia once for all after the death of Iran's powerful man, who, as much as he was restricting Assad's options, he was, at the same time, providing protection against the possibility of Russia’s thinking of replacing Assad.
Although Russia does not favor Iran's absolute withdrawal from Syria, because it does not want to bear the burdens of war on its soldiers, and it believes that the battles in Idlib Aleppo rural areas will not be easy given the big numbers of fighters and the ferocity of the extremist organizations there, yet Soleimani’s death would remove the heavy burdens from its shoulders, as Russia can take control the Iranian presence in Syria through the Iranian army and get rid of the chaos caused by the numerous Iranian militias, and this would limit Iran’s influence to certain channels and expand the margin of Russian influence on the Syrian scene to a bigger degree.
In practice, Soleimani’s absence will contribute to weakening the Iranian position toward Russia in Syria, the first thing that Russia will demand is to find a solution to the issue of the numerous militias in Syria, and to know who will replace Soleimani to manage this intricate network.
President Vladimir Putin's surprise visit to Syria indicates Russia's desire to take proactive steps regarding any possible Iranian arrangements in Syria and an attempt by Russia to increase its influence in the Syrian track against the backdrop of Soleimani's absence.
The first scenario: Large retraction in Iran’s influence; Tehran will be forced to pull out the largest part of its militia and dismantle some of them, and maintain specific forces through coordination with and protection by the Russians, as there a number of factors that come together to advance this scenario, such as the severe economic conditions that Iran is going through as a result of US sanctions, and the targeting of its militias by Israel and the United States, only to complete these difficulties with the death of Soleimani, who was running the Iranian influence network in a way that is difficult for anyone else to manage with the same competence and cost. This is the most likely scenario, although its features will be a little bit delayed because Iran does not want to appear as the defeated party, and because it will search for a formula with Russia to make arrangements regarding the protection of what it considers its rights in the Syrian economy.
The second scenario: Clashing with Russia, as a result of Soleimani successor’s perplexity in managing the Iranian militia network in Syria, and his failure to comprehend the package of understandings Soleimani had accomplished with the Russian field officers; most of these understandings were imposed by the field circumstances on the ground. The Russian newspaper "Svabodnaya Braasa" noted Moscow's concern about the ability of Soleimani's successor to run the militia network in Syria. The possibility of this scenario comes from the great disparity between the new leader and Soleimani who has had the ability to integrate politics with war and master political negotiations, especially with the Russian side, and was able to avoid clashing with them more than once.
The third scenario: an outbreak of great chaos in the behavior of Iranian militias in Syria, as a result of contrasting decisions taken by several sources from within Al- Quds Force. It is probable that Iran’s Supreme Guide, Ali Khamenei, will be forced to form something similar to a joint leadership for Al-Quds Force and the militias, given that Soleimani’s alternative, “Ismail Qāni”, may not be able to accomplish this task, or the possibility of the emergence of new power centers after Soleimani's absence trying to impose their viewpoints. This would affect not only militias’ performance , but also Iran’s policy in Syria and the region.
EPC | 17 Feb 2020
Mohamed Fayez Farahat | 13 Feb 2020