Everyone likes a good ghost story every now and again and as it turns out, at the other end of the rabbit hole that is Syria’s bloody civil war, you come face to face with a shadowy Iranian general the mere mention of whom is enough to send chills down the spines of intelligence operatives the world over.
Earlier in September, conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt had an awkward exchange with Donald Trump on air:
Hewitt: Are you familiar with Gen. Soleimani?
Trump: Yes, but go ahead, give me a little, go ahead, tell me.
Hewitt: He runs the Quds Forces.
Trump: Yes, okay, right.
Hewitt: Do you expect his behavior..
Trump: The Kurds.. have been horribly mistreated by us.
Hewitt: No, not the Kurds, the Quds Forces, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds Forces.
Trump: Yes, yes.
Hewitt: The bad guys.
Here’s how The New Yorker describes Hewitt’s “bad guys”: “The force is the sharp instrument of Iranian foreign policy, roughly analogous to a combined C.I.A. and Special Forces.”
Their commander is Gen. Qassem Soleimani and if you believe the legend, he is a spy among spies - a general among generals - a kind of ghost story that intelligence agents might tell their kids around a campfire.
Weeks ago, we began to suggest that it was Soleimani who orchestrated the Russian-Iranian incursion in Syria. That now looks to have been the case as we explained in "Mid-East Coup: As Russia Pounds Militant Targets, Iran Readies Ground Invasions." But before we delve further into the General's role in Syria, we'll first give you a taste of the backround story behind a man who many Iranians look upon with near religious reverence.
There are competing accounts regarding Soleimaini’s birthplace. Consider the following from the American Enterprise Institute:
“According to the US Department of State, Suleimani was born in the city of Qom on March 11, 1957. Persian-language sources contest this claim, identifying the village of Rabord in Kerman Province in south-eastern Iran as Suleimani’s place of birth–which has significant implications for understanding Suleimani. Qom’s population is centered around religion, including theologians and seminary students from all over the world, along with pilgrims and those who make their living from the pilgrimage industry. In contrast, the mountain village of Rabord in remote Kerman–closer to the Afghan border–has a tribal structure, which would have prepared Suleimani for operating in tribal societies such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Keep that last bolded passage in mind.
When Soleimani was a child, he and a relative left home to earn money for their fathers who they feared would be arrested in connection with money their families owed to the Shah. Soleimani worked menial jobs until 1979 when, after the Shah was overthrown by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, he joined the newly-created Revolutionary Guard. When Saddam invaded Iran, Soleimani was sent to the frontlines as a water boy (literally) and ended up staying there until the end of the war. Here are a few excerpts from The New Yorker’s account:
Suleimani earned a reputation for bravery and élan, especially as a result of reconnaissance missions he undertook behind Iraqi lines. He returned from several missions bearing a goat, which his soldiers slaughtered and grilled. “Even the Iraqis, our enemy, admired him for this,” a former Revolutionary Guard officer who defected to the United States told me. On Iraqi radio, Suleimani became known as “the goat thief.” In recognition of his effectiveness, Alfoneh said, he was put in charge of a brigade from Kerman, with men from the gyms where he lifted weights.
The Iranian Army was badly overmatched, and its commanders resorted to crude and costly tactics. In “human wave” assaults, they sent thousands of young men directly into the Iraqi lines, often to clear minefields, and soldiers died at a precipitous rate. Suleimani seemed distressed by the loss of life. Before sending his men into battle, he would embrace each one and bid him goodbye; in speeches, he praised martyred soldiers and begged their forgiveness for not being martyred himself. When Suleimani’s superiors announced plans to attack the Faw Peninsula, he dismissed them as wasteful and foolhardy. The former Revolutionary Guard officer recalled seeing Suleimani in 1985, after a battle in which his brigade had suffered many dead and wounded. He was sitting alone in a corner of a tent. “He was very silent, thinking about the people he’d lost,” the officer said.
Iran, bitter at the West's role in helping Saddam during the war (yes, that's right, the US has been using the same flawed Mid-East foreign policy for decades wherein the only thing that matters is expediency, leading directly a disastrous brand of geopolitical myopia) but having come away with a lesson in the futility of open warfare, set out (again in The New Yorker's words) to "build the capacity to wage asymmetrical warfare—attacking stronger powers indirectly, outside of Iran." The Quds Force was born.
You can read more details of Soleimani's exploits in the articles cited and linked above including how he battled the Taliban on the Afghan border, but for brevity's sake, suffice to say he became the Quds commander in 1998. From then on, he capitalized on various opportunities to build the alliances that Tehran needed in order to ensure that the regional balance of power didn't tip too far in the direction of Riyadh and the Sunnis. In one famous case, he allegedly tried to orchestrate the assassination of the Saudi ambassador in a Washington DC restaurant. From Wikileaks:
Designated today pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13224 for acting for or on behalf of the IRGC-QF were: Manssor Arbabsiar, a naturalized U.S. citizen holding both Iranian and U.S. passports who acted on behalf of the IRGC-QF to pursue the failed plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador; IRGC-QF commander Qasem Soleimani.
He also coordinated heavily with the US in the wake of 9/11 before Bush's "axis of evil" comment soured the relationship at which point the General purportedly began sponsoring attacks on US troops. He formed stronger relations with Hezbollah and developed powerful Shiite militias in Iraq on the way to becoming what one former Iraqi official described as "the most powerful man in the country, without question.” He is even feared by the Peshmerga, who aren't exactly known for cowardice. Sound far fetched? Consider the following short clip:
Don't forget that Russia and Syria just recently sealed an intelligence sharing deal which is almost invariably the precursor to Russian bombing raids in support of Iraq's Shiite militias as they battle ISIS.
And as for who's arming the Shiite Houthis in Yemen against the Saudis: you guessed it, Soleimani.
As for Syria, he has quite simply been running the show for years. As one American official told The New Yorker two years ago, "he’s running the war [in Syria] himself." Here's an excerpt from a 2009 secret diplomatic cable (again, via Wikileaks):
The public showcasing of these three visits contrasted with the secrecy with which Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander/al-Quds Force Ghassem Soleimani conducted his. Reportedly accompanying Jalili, Soleimani returned to Damascus after a long absence, perhaps a reflection of lingering tensions between Iran and Syria that erupted after the February 2008 assassination of Hizballah military strategist Imad Mugniyah in the Syrian capital. Al Hayat Bureau Chief Ibrahim Hamidi (strictly protect) spoke very reluctantly about Soleimani's presence in Damascus, saying only that "he was here," and "when he visits, it's usually significant."
The problem, in Soleimani's own words, is that "the Syrian Army is useless!" And so in light of that rather blunt assessment, the General appears to have gotten fed up with SAA incompetence leading directly to the following:
Back in June, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, Qasem Soleimaini, visited a town north of Latakia on the frontlines of Syria’s protracted civil war. Following that visit, he promised that Tehran and Damascus were set to unveil a new strategy that would “surprise the world.”
Just a little over a month later, Soleimani - in violation of a UN travel ban - visited Russia and held meetings with The Kremlin. The Pentagon now says those meetings were “very important” in accelerating the timetable for Russia’s involvement in Syria. The General allegedly made another visit to Moscow in September.
Here is Reuters with more color on what exactly took place when Soleimani flew to Moscow:
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 Russian warplanes bomb rebels from above, the arrival of Iranian special forces for ground operations underscores several months of planning between Assad's two most important allies, driven by panic at rapid insurgent gains.
Senior regional sources say Soleimani 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 neighboring Iraq by Iranian-backed Shi'ite militia against Islamic State.
His Moscow meeting outlined the deteriorating situation in Syria, where rebel advances toward 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."
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.
The decision for a joint Iranian-Russian military effort in Syria was taken at a meeting between Russia's foreign minister 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, traveled to Moscow to discuss details. And he also traveled 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'.
And the rest, as they say, is history in Syria.
That, in brief, is the story of Iran's spymaster general who not only controls Iraqi politics and serves as the supreme commander for the country's various Shiite militias, but who is also the puppet master for the Houthis and Hezbollah. Now, he's orchestrated Russian air support for Iran's ally in Damascus.
Everything laid out above would obviously be intriguing enough on its own but consider one last excerpt, this one from BBC:
Switch on the television in Iran these days and it won't be long before you see General Qasem Soleimani.
The once reclusive head of the Revolutionary Guards' elite Quds Force has emerged from a lifetime in the shadows directing covert operations abroad, to achieve almost celebrity status in Iran.
The man who, until a couple of years ago most Iranians would not have recognised on the street, is now the subject of documentaries, news reports and even pop songs.
One music video widely shared in Iran was made by Shia militia fighters in Iraq. It shows soldiers spray-painting the general's portrait on a wall and parading in front of it while stirring music plays in the background.
Inside Iran a campaign has started among conservative bloggers for Gen Soleimani to go into politics. They have dubbed him Iran's most honest and least corrupt politician and are calling for him to put his uniform aside and stand for president in 2017.
Is Soleimani set to make a play for the Iranian presidency? And if so, what comes next? That is, what use is the Ayatollah in the face of the most revered general in the country who all at once embodies everything the Supreme Leader stands for while also possessing a steely resolve and measured (or maybe "calculated" is the better word) approach to diplomacy? Finally, what happens if the man who, in the West anyway, is generally considered to be the number one agent for state sponsored terror becomes president shortly after the nuclear deal?
Perhaps this is simply an example of a decorated war verteran around which a legend has grown that bears no resemblance to reality.
Or perhaps - just perhaps - there's something bigger going on and between all of the Moscow versus Washington, East Vs. West, Cold War 2.0 headlines everyone simply missed it. And if there is a bigger picture here, will we even get to see it play out, or will Soleimani simply recede back into the shadows to run the show from behind the curtain?
And on that note, we close with one quote, and one clip...
A senior US official in 2011: "He is indeed like Keyser Soze. He is everywhere, but nowhere."