Unlike supporters of the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, millions of Syrian citizens sympathising with the country’s opposition rejoiced at the news of the assassination of Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Al-Quds Force, who was killed in Iraq after returning from Damascus along with Deputy Commander of the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces and several Iranian officers.
Many Syrians cannot not be glad that he is dead because he was Iran’s point man in Syria, giving orders to fighters in the regime-supporting Zainabiyoun and Fatemiyoun brigades, as well as to Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah militias in Syria.
He even gave orders to the regime’s regular army, as if he were a Syrian officer. He played a key role in Iran’s military expansion in Syria over the past eight years, taking control of several Syrian cities, attempting to suppress the Syrian uprising and preventing the Syrian regime from collapsing.
Suleimani harmed the Syrian people and their desire for freedom and for the removal of a despotic regime. He worked to implement Iranian interests in Syria, fought the forces of the revolution and was the second-most influential figure on the battlefield after Al-Assad himself.
The Syrian opposition raised questions after the assassination of Suleimani, mostly asking why Washington had not targeted him before, especially since he had played a key role in promoting Iranian interests in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.
He enabled Iran to take control of several Arab capitals, including Damascus, even though the US president could have eliminated senior Iranian figures in Syria years ago if he had wanted. During the years of silence by the US and Iran’s penetration of Syria after the start of the 2011 Revolution, Iran invaded and occupied almost the whole of Syria.
With the help of Russia, it was able to dismantle the opposition’s military forces and take control of vital political and military matters. It deepened sectarianism and created sectarian militias, committing massacres of Sunni Muslims on the pretext of fighting terrorism before the Russian intervention in 2015.
Aqqab Yehia, a Syrian opposition politician, told Al-Ahram Weekly that “the complicated relationship between the US and Iran, and the suspicious relationship between Iran and Israel, created hostile conditions in theory. But their relations in fact showed something else: almost a collusion with Iran to continue its containment policies in Syria and to instigate strife and civil war.”
“This served the dangerous strategy of penetrating Syrian and Arab society from within and instigating sectarian fractures, all the while serving Zionism and US strategy. That may be why the US remained silent about Suleimani’s actions in Syria and only made a move when he began to attack US interests in Iraq,” Yehia said.
US President Donald Trump cited several reasons for Suleimani’s assassination, most notably the intelligence that Suleimani was going to order terrorist attacks targeting Americans in Iraq and elsewhere and that he had held meetings in Baghdad to plan attacks against the US.
Trump insisted that protecting Americans was his primary goal and that he would do whatever it takes to protect American lives and interests.
It is believed that Iran will respond to the assassination, and Iranian officials and Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere have threatened as much, at least in order to save face.
However, Iran is known for its pragmatism, and this may be the deciding factor in avoiding an open war that Iran would not be able to survive.
Saeed Moqbel, a member of the Syrian opposition, said that “it is likely that if Iran wants to take revenge, it will resort to its affiliates, namely Lebanon’s Hizbullah and Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces, so that it does not appear to be directly responsible for attacks against the US.”
“At the same time, Iran is good at mixing issues and knows it cannot confront the US outright. It may proclaim the conflict with the US as an excuse to suppress popular uprisings in Iraq and Lebanon, as well as expanding its forces in Syria after Russia attempted to clip its wings.”
Suleimani’s assassination has created a new climate that could have implications on several fronts. Iran is in dire need of an international escalation as a way out of its own domestic crisis and the Iraqi and Lebanese crises in particular.
Syrian commentator Mishaal Al-Adawi told the Weekly that “it is clear that the US does not want to escalate the situation and that it has taken every precaution in the region in case Iran decides to respond. By attacking the US Embassy in Baghdad, Iran wanted to send a small message, but was surprised by the US reaction. It is now in a predicament between a real response that would be catastrophic or a timid response that would not convince the domestic front.”
“The Iranian regime appears to be weak and shaky. If Iran decides to respond, it will most likely be on the Iraqi or Afghan front. In Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, Iran will respond with more interference and meddling.”
Many Syrians rejoiced at Suleimani’s death because they have suffered from his actions for the last eight years and believe that his death will be a serious blow for Iran that will impact its presence in Syria.
However, only hours after Suleimani’s assassination, Iran’s supreme guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei announced the appointment of Ismail Qaani as commander of the Al-Quds Force. Suleimani’s successor is more impulsive, according to those who know him, and he was a key commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard during the Iraq-Iran War in the 1980s.
He was also the main financial officer of the Al-Quds Force responsible for funding Iran’s overseas sectarian activities and the main source of arms for Iranian militias in the region, including Hizbullah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine, the Houthis in Yemen, the Popular Mobilisation Forces in Iraq and the Fatimiyoun in Syria.
Qaani is closely connected to Khamenei and is known as “Suleimani’s radical shadow,” according to the Iranian media. He has had a strong presence in “dirty” Iranian operations in the Arab countries and is a staunch supporter of imposing Iranian control over the region and interfering in the domestic affairs of neighbouring countries through force.
Qaani has said that the war in Syria is an “existential and fateful” one for Iran. He has extensive experience on several battlefronts and is known as a key proponent of grassroots formations and the sectarian militias that have destroyed Syria with their crimes. He is categorised as a terrorist by Washington and was added to the US terrorism list some years ago.
The Syrians are thus on a collision course with a new Iranian military leader who is even harsher than his predecessor. They have bid one problem farewell, and they are now preparing for something worse. Iran has many sectarian bigots, but the solution is not the death of one military commander but the halting of Iranian terrorism.
Iran must be forced to change its expansionist occupation of Syria. This will require international efforts and not just on the part of the US.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.