In 2011, Soleimani was promoted to the rank of Major General. It was no accident that this came at the height of the Arab Spring, which the Iranian regime saw as an existential battle to preserve its regional power. The strategy conceived by Tehran to confront the threat of democratic revolution had Syria at its very center.
Following the outbreak of Syria’s uprising in the spring of 2011, Iran swiftly determined to stand by Bashar al-Assad and secure his dictatorship at all costs. The signs of Iranian intervention grew clearer as Assad’s regime neared collapse in 2012, and were openly visible by the first half of 2013, when Hezbollah fought in numerous critical battles in the Qalamoun mountain range and southwest Homs Province.
Not by coincidence, 2013 witnessed a number of major transformations in the Assad regime’s strategy for crushing the revolution. Military operations were expanded, and choking sieges were used to literally starve the residents of areas where military breakthroughs proved difficult—not merely as punishments, as in 2011 and 2012, but rather as part of a deliberate strategy to permanently alter the areas’ features. These “starve or surrender” sieges, as they were called in Arabic (al-joo’ aw al-rukoo’), were accompanied by incessant bombardment from both ground and air. The winter of 2013-14 saw deaths by malnutrition in the Damascus suburbs of Ghouta and Yarmouk, and famine pervaded the besieged districts in general. These developments were intimately linked to the growing Iranian influence across the country.
At the same time, as Iran’s man in Syria, Soleimani was also responsible for re-structuring the forces fighting on Assad’s behalf. Under Soleimani’s direction, new sectarian militias were created and trained in parallel with the regime’s army, which was deemed unfit for the task. Alongside Hezbollah, these militias would become Iran’s principal ground forces in the fight against Assad’s opponents.
In parallel with the creation of these so-called “National Defense” militias—as well as others with explicitly sectarian identities, such as the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigades—Soleimani also procured Iraqi militias to fight in Syria. Over time, mercenaries from states as far away as Afghanistan and Pakistan were brought over to join the fray, some of them children as young as 14. [Continue reading…]