Syria Weekly: Syrians remember Soleimani with fear and loathing
As news emerged on Friday of the death of Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, parts of Syria that have been subjected to starvation sieges and bombardment by Iran's militias burst into spontaneous celebration.
Sweets and pastries were distributed by Syrian activists in Idlib province on Friday with one message on a tray of baklawa reading: "Congratulations Free Syrians on the killing of the criminal Qasem Soleimani."
The dire and impoverished conditions faced by many of Idlib's most destitute - with no housing, food shortages and constant regime bombardment - can be traced back to the brutal campaign and rampages of Soleimani's militias in battle-scarred East Aleppo and other opposition enclaves.
Soleimani, rather than Syrian commanders, directed the fightback by regime forces - mostly Afghan, Iraqi and Pakistani militia fighters - that have helped Bashar Al-Assad recoup land lost to the rebels since the start of the 2011 uprising.
Even when Russia and the regime struck deals with the opposition in Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta and Daraa to allow civilians and fighters safe passage to Idlib in exchange for surrender, Soleimani sometimes wanted to go a step further.
"Qasem Soleimani wanted to slaughter everyone inside [East Aleppo] and was against any agreement that would let us survive," journalist Lina Shami tweeted.
"Iranians cut the road on the first convoy and took 800 people hostages to prevent the process of evicting us."
Soleimani's overseas component of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) carved out a mini-statelet in eastern Syria following the collapse of the Islamic State group they effectively control today.
The death of Soleimani will be a cause of discreet celebration for some in Deir az-Zour where his hated militias still rule with an iron fist, said Omar Abu Layla, Director of the Deirezzor24 monitoring site.
"Soleimani played a prominent role in the advance of Assad's forces, especially in eastern Syria in 2017. His presence in Deir az-Zour was encouraging for the Iranian militias that were fighting Daesh [IS]," said Abu Layla.
"We are talking about a moral victory for the Iranians [because] they knew Assad was useless in leading battles [against IS]."
Iran has built a strong military presence in the strategically placed province of Deir az-Zour. Not only have IRGC bases and fighters been in the crosshairs of the Israeli air force over the past year, but more recently a target of the US.
"The whole region is under international monitoring, so Iran will not be so stupid as to send troops from Iraq to Syria in the open. It has secret methods to keep its troops as safe as possible," he said.
Abu Layla added that the IRGC is continuing to strengthen transport links and trade between Iraq and Syria, which has allegedly provided an invaluable source of income for Tehran's elite military wing during US sanctions.
Charismatic, experienced and an organisational whiz, Soleimani's death will be hugely dispiriting for the IRGC officers and foreign fighters camped out in the Syrian Desert region.
"The strike is a serious blow for all the militias in Deir az-Zour, particularly those fighting under the banner of Iran. They will have to rethink the power of the US now... they looked at Soleimani as [someone] who could not be touched," Abu Layla added.
Tehran's effective control of around 150km of the Syria-Iraq border, and surrounding desert, has provided the IRGC with access to resource-rich parts of eastern Syria, control over lucrative trade opportunities, and direct access to Iran via Iraq.
Tallha Abulrazaq, a Security and Counter-Terrorism expert at the University of Exeter's Stategy and Security Institute, told The New Arab that the strike on Soleimani tells Iran that the US is re-affirming its presence in the region.
"Iran has been investing in low-intensity conflicts for years, by supporting militias in Iraq and Syria. As deadly as [the assault] on Idlib might be, it still falls short of the devastation caused by conventional conflict," he said, referring to the recent Russian bombing and regime shelling on the opposition province, which has killed hundreds of civilians over the past six months.
"In the short term, the killing of Soleimani will have a limited impact on Iran's operations. Although Soleimani has been skimmed off the top, another general has been appointed in his place… so Iran's current operations in Syria have already been planned and will proceed on that basis," Abulrazaq said.
In the long-term the killing of "the mastermind" Soleimani - who is largely responsible for the recent expansion of Iranian influence in Syria and Iraq - will be seriously affected, he said.
"Modern Iran is an imperialist power, there's no two ways about it. The way it controls and dominates policy and politics, as well as economic, military and security spheres in Iraq," he said.
"The US chose to strike now because of the US embassy in Baghdad crisis this week," he said, referring to the attack by Iraqi militia supporters on the diplomatic compound this week.
"I think Iran got comfortable with provoking the US and expected little to no response."
Last week, rocket attacks by Iran-linked miltias on a US military base in Iraq resulted in the death of an American contractor.
It triggered limited retaliatory strikes by the US on militia targets in Iraq and eastern Syria, which Abulrazaq described as "peripheral targets".
Iraqi militia supporters and fighters responded by attacking the US embassy in Baghdad, with some suspecting this action was a direct order from Soleimani himself.
"Iran likely expected a slight escalation in the situation by the US, but I think the embassy crisis triggered memories in the Pentagon of the 1979 Tehran embassy siege, and Trump feared a Benghazi moment," he added.
"Trump wanted to send a strong message to Iran that the US will not be crossed," the analyst said.
In Damascus, there has been an outpouring of anger and grief among some Assad supporters, with memes and social media messages lionising the mastermind of the Syrian regime's campaign against the rebels.
When Tehran sent Soleimani to Syria, they knew he would be key to Bashar Al-Assad's survival.
With Soleimani and the thousands of militia fighters under his command winning back opposition territories for Assad, it has bestowed Tehran with huge influence in Damascus and helped the IRGC carve out economic and political interests in Syria.
"Soleimani has been a very divisive figure in Syria. His personal role and patronage of Shia militias in the country stirred a huge sectarian footprint on the course of the war. We have seen hundreds of Syrians celebrate his death," said Dareen Khalifa, senior Syria analyst at the International Crisis Group.
The IRGC's business empire in Syria - particularly in the logistics and telecoms sectors - highlights how indebted the Assad regime is to Tehran - as well as Moscow.
With the help of rival factions in the regime, Iran is pitted in a low-level competition with Russia over political and economic interests and resources, analysts say.
"Strategically speaking I can only see Soleimani's death empowering Assad and the Russians at least in the immediate future," said Khalifa.
"The militias that he has personally harvested in Syria are not going anywhere any time soon. Yet, we could expect a reshuffle in the chain of command, which would work in favour of battalions currently under direct, or indirect, Russian supervision."
Although nobody can predict how Iran will respond to Soleimani's demise, Idlib residents fear they could become targets in a revenge campaign by Iran.
Crushing the last of Soleimani's foes in Syria would be a natural course for Iran to pursue, which would result in thousands more civilian deaths. But for now, many in Idlib are relieved that one of the makers of their suffering is no more.
Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab.
Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin