January 8, 2020
The assassination of Iranian commander Ghasem Soleimani took place on Iraqi soil, and was carried out by forces from the United States, so automatically, three countries were directly affected by the event. But there is a fourth country whose fate is also tied closely to the killing of Soleimani: Syria.
Soleimani’s funeral processions in Iraq and Iran have attracted large crowds. In Idlib, the last Syrian province still controlled by the Syrian opposition, the occasion was marked by people giving out sweets on the streets. The reason for this is perhaps best captured by what an Idlib resident told the UK-based website Middle East Eye: “We ate cats during the siege and residents gave up their cars in exchange for a couple kilograms of rice,” a man called Burhan told the site. He had fled to Idlib from the besieged town of Zabadani, part of the Rif Damascus governorate that includes the provincial areas surrounding the capital.
For years to come, Soleimani’s name will be remembered by Syrians because of the cities he had a role in brutalizing.
“Of course I am against the war with Iran,” Loubna Mrie, a Syrian writer and activist who fled the war and now lives in California told IranWire during a phone interview. “But we have to understand why is it that Syrians are giving away sweets on the streets. They view Soleimani as a war criminal.”
The people of Aleppo, which used to be the most populous city in Syria prior to the war, have perhaps the worst memories of Soleimani. “They associate him with the fall of eastern Aleppo,” Mrie said.
Soleimani and his forces reserved their most ruthless attacks for the residents of the erstwhile opposition-run eastern Aleppo. Those Aleppines, who now live in Idlib, now face some of the worst conditions imaginable: Lack of housing and adequate food; threats of air attacks from the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or from Russia; and the constant feeling of remorse for their ancient, beautiful town, which was destroyed in the civil war.
Even when Russian President Vladimir Putin and Assad came to an agreement with the opposition for safe passage to Idlib in exchange for their surrender, Soleimani wasn’t happy. As Syrian journalist Lina Shamy pointed out on Twitter, Soleimani didn’t want a path out for Aleppines who had dared to oppose Assad’s rule of terror.
It is no surprise that many in Idlib, including Aleppines, celebrated the general’s demise, crying out with enthusiasm: “Soleimani, gone!” Aleppo itself may have now fallen to Assad, but very few people turned up to the official mourning service held in the city’s mosque.
Another Syrian city whose people might not have fond feelings for Soleimani is Deir al-Zour, which is still brutally run by the militias he trained.
“I felt temporary relief,” Omar Andron, a Syrian student now living in New York, told IranWire. “As I remembered those in Homs, Darra, Aleppo and Idlib. I remembered that we collectively lost a homeland. This man was the engineer of the Syrian war. He was a supervisor to our dictator. It was he who nurtured Assad and turned the people’s uprising into a sectarian war.”
“Like my fellow Syrians, as soon as I heard the news I jumped to celebrate,” he added. “In the same way that I get happy when a Syrian bomber crashes. It is personal for all of us.”
Mrie, who is currently writing a book about Syria, said: “Syrians are desperate for any kind of justice and death of a war criminal like Soleimani is a kind of justice for them.” But for her, it is very clear that Trump’s assassination of Soleimani had nothing to do with getting justice for Syrians. “Trump is desperate to show off before the 2020 elections,” Mrie said. “This is not about the Syrians or hunting the bad guys down. It’s all about Trump and how desperate he is to get re-elected.”
Soleimani’s death is sure to affect the Iranian presence in Syria. In security circles around the world, there is now a lively debate as to how replaceable Soleimani is. Some insist “nothing will change for Iran,” arguing it can replace him thanks to the same security establishment that gave birth to Soleimani. Others point to what made him unique and thus indispensable. While very few expected Soleimani to be killed so soon, the Quds Force he commanded did have plans for his successor in place. The new commander, Ismail Qaani, had been Soleimani’s second-in-command for 12 years and had been regarded as Soleimani’s successor for most of those years. But when it comes to the Syrian file, three things makes replacing Soleimani difficult.
First, Qaani is a dour bureaucratic figure who has nothing of Soleimani’s fabled charisma. Second, many of the relationships Soleimani cultivated in Syria were on a personal level. It was said that even President Assad was in awe of Soleimani. Third, Qaani, who hails from the northeastern province of Khorasan, has long been in charge of the Quds Forces’ relations with countries to the east of Iran (Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent) and lacks expertise about the Arab world. It is said that he doesn’t even have a good command of the Arabic language and lacks an understanding of Israel, its political complexities and its relationship with Russia. Soleimani is, thus, not easy to replace.
At least in the short term, Soleimani’s demise will shift the balance of power inside the pro-Assad camp in Syria. Without the push of the slain commander, forces closer to Moscow (including sections of the Syrian Arab Army) will find they have the upper hand for a while. In other words, Iran has just received a blow in its competition with Russia over the future of Syria. The most bitter aspect of the Syrian story is how the country’s fate is still being determined by the competition of foreign countries and their generals.