At a meeting in Moscow in July, a top Iranian general unfurled a map of Syria to explain to his Russian hosts how a series of defeats for President Bashar al-Assad could be turned into victory — with Russia’s help.
Major General Qassem Soleimani’s visit to Moscow was the first step in planning for a Russian military intervention that has reshaped the Syrian war and forged a new Iranian-Russian alliance in support of Assad.
As Russia’s warplanes bombed rebels and its ships fired missiles into rebel territory in Syria from the Caspian Sea, over a thousand kilometres away, the arrival of Iranian special forces for ground operations underscored several months of planning between Assad’s two most important allies, driven by panic at rapid insurgent gains.
Soleimani is the commander of the Quds Force, the elite extra-territorial special forces arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, and reports directly to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Senior regional sources say he has already been overseeing ground operations against insurgents in Syria and is now at the heart of planning for the new Russian and Iranian-backed offensive. That expands his regional role as the battlefield commander who has also steered the fight in neighbouring Iraq by Iranian-backed Shi’ite militia against the Islamic State.
His Moscow meeting outlined the deteriorating situation in Syria, where rebel advances towards the coast were posing a danger to the heartland of Assad’s Alawite sect, where Russia maintains its only Mediterranean naval base in Tartous.
“Soleimani put the map of Syria on the table. The Russians were very alarmed, and felt matters were in steep decline and that there were real dangers to the regime. The Iranians assured them there is still the possibility to reclaim the initiative,” a senior regional official said. “At that time, Soleimani played a role in assuring them that we haven’t lost all the cards.”
Putin told him, ‘Okay… send Qassem Soleimani’
Three senior officials in the region say Soleimani’s July trip was preceded by high-level Russian-Iranian contacts that produced political agreement on the need to pump in new support for Assad as his losses accelerated. Their accounts suggest planning for the intervention began to germinate several months earlier. It also means Tehran and Moscow had been discussing ways to prop up Assad by force even as Western officials were describing what they believed was new flexibility in Moscow’s stance on his future.
Before the latest moves, Iran had aided Assad militarily by mobilising Shi’ite militias to fight alongside the Syrian army, and dispatching Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps officers as advisors. A number of them have been killed.
Russia, an ally of Damascus since the Cold War, had supplied weapons to the Syrian army and shielded Damascus diplomatically from Western attempts to sanction Assad at the United Nations. Their support did not prevent rebels — some of them backed by Assad’s regional foes — from reducing Assad’s control of Syria to around one fifth of its territory in a four-year-long war estimated to have killed 250,000 people.
The decision for a joint Iranian-Russian military effort in Syria was taken at a meeting between Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Khamenei a few months ago, said a senior official of a country in the region, involved in security matters. “Soleimani, assigned by Khamenei to run the Iranian side of the operation, travelled to Moscow to discuss details. And he also travelled to Syria several times since then,” the official said.
The Russian government says its Syria deployment came as the result of a formal request from Assad, who himself laid out the problems facing the Syrian military in stark terms in July, saying it faced a manpower problem. Khamenei also sent a senior envoy to Moscow to meet President Vladimir Putin, another senior regional official said. “Putin told him ‘Okay we will intervene. Send Qassem Soleimani’. He went to explain the map of the theatre.”
The plan unfolds: airstrikes, missiles, ground offensive
Last week, Russian warplanes, deployed at an airfield in Latakia, began mounting air strikes against rebels in Syria. Moscow says it is targeting Islamic State, but many of the air strikes have hit other insurgents, including groups backed by Assad’s foreign enemies, notably in the northwest where rebels seized strategically important towns including Jisr al-Shughour earlier this year. Then, Russian warships in the Caspian Sea fired cruise missiles that flew nearly 1,500 km over Iran and Iraq and struck Raqqa and Aleppo provinces in the north and Idlib province in the northwest. The Islamic State has strongholds in Raqqa and Aleppo, while the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front has a strong presence in Idlib.
At the same time, in the biggest deployment of Iranian forces yet, hundreds of troops, who started arriving since late September, took part in a major ground offensive in the west and northwest. Also, around 3,000 fighters from the Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah mobilised for the battle, along with Syrian army troops, said one of the sources.
The military intervention in Syria is set out in an agreement between Moscow and Tehran that says Russian air strikes will support ground operations by Iranian, Syrian and Lebanese Hezbollah forces, said sources in the region.
The agreement also included the provision of more sophisticated Russian weapons to the Syrian army, and the establishment of joint operations rooms that would bring those allies together, along with the government of Iraq, which is allied both to Iran and the US. One of the operations rooms is in Damascus and another is in Baghdad. “Soleimani is almost resident in Damascus, or let’s say he goes there a lot and you can find him between meetings with President Assad and visits to the theatre of operations,” said a senior regional official.
Two fronts, two divergent Strategies
The pattern of Russian and American airstrikes in Syria leaves little question about the divergent goals of the two countries. Both countries have said they want to defeat terrorist groups like the Islamic State, but in Syria, Russia’s definition of terrorist encompasses some groups that are allies of the United States.
Russia has mostly attacked rebels fighting the government, not IS. Targets include some American-backed rebel groups and groups which the United States considers terrorist organisations.
Meanwhile, the US has focused on IS and on supporting Kurdish forces. But Americans have also hit some targets that could benefit the Syrian government, like in Palmyra and Deir al-Zour.
The US and other nations that have been supporting rebel groups fighting President Assad called on Russia to focus on Islamic State. But detailed data on who controls which areas of the country showed that most of the targets hit by Russia are in Syria’s northwest, where other rebel groups, not the Islamic State, are in control.
The Iranian general and his cult following
Qassem Soleimani is a Major General in the Iranian Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution (IRGC) and since 1998 commander of its Quds Force — a division primarily responsible for extraterritorial military and clandestine operations.
* Largely unknown before 2013, he acquired a higher profile recently during the war on Islamic State (IS).
* In 2001, he provided intelligence to the US to support its invasion in Afghanistan.
* In Syria, he is credited with delivering the strategy that helped President Bashar al-Assad turn the tide against rebel forces and IS.
* His persona has a cult-following in Iran. He is the subject of many documentaries, news reports and even music videos. In one music video, soldiers spray-paint his face on a wall as music plays in the background.
* Conservative Iranian leaders called for him to run for president in 2017.
* In an interview with BBC Persian, ex-US ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, described the central role played by Soleimani in talks about tackling sectarian violence in the country.
* The Quds force, which he commands, is the special forces unit of the Revolutionary Guard Corps responsible for operations outside Iran’s borders.
* He is currently believed to be stationed in Damascus, coordinating the Russian-Iranian-Syrian push against rebel forces.
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