Dead or alive? Soleimani, Iran's battlefield general, still missing

Dead or alive? Soleimani, Iran's battlefield general, still missing
Blog: The debunking of two images of the mysterious Iranian general - ostensibly circulated to prove his good health - has heightened speculation that he is dead or seriously injured.
3 min read
28 Dec, 2015
Soleimani is a leading light in Iran's military campaigns in Syria and Iraq [Anadolu]
There has always been an aura of mystery around the commander of Iran's elite Quds Force, as carefully cultivated by the Iranian establishment.

But his recent disappearance from public view has heaped speculation that Qassem Soleimani is seriously injured, side-lined - or dead.

The general is in charge of Tehran's "overseas operations", and has been spotted on the battlefields of both Syria and Iraq in the past year - and attempts by Iran to prove the general remains alive and well have backfired and helped feed the rumour mill.

There have been no proven images or footage of Soleimani since it was announced he was injured in a Syrian rebel ambush in November. 

In mid-December, Iranian state news said that Soleimani had met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, but this was swiftly denied by Russia.

When Soleimani was a no-show at a recent Shia Muslim commemoration in Iraq - which Tehran insisted he would attend - it appeared that something was seriously afoot in the Quds Force.

Over the past few days, two photos have been shared by Soleimani's supporters.

The most recent is attributed to Soleimani's official Instagram account - although this cannot be verified - and was seized on by Iranian media two days ago.

It showed Soleimani dressed in casual clothes speaking with Iranian-backed Shia militia fighters.

The Instagram account said the snap was taken in Ramadi, during the Iraqi army's assault on the IS-held city, which ended with its capture on Sunday.

However, the effort to liberate Ramadi was largely undertaken by Iraqi anti-terror forces and Sunni tribesmen, with Shia militias largely absent from the offensive.

One social media user dated the photo to July, and noted that one of the figures had been killed in fighting earlier this year.

Another image which has been shared showed Soleimani in army fatigues allegedly in Aleppo, where the Iran-backed Syrian regime is battling rebels and Islamic State group militants alike.

The city has been a regular stomping ground for the Quds Force commander.

Speculation continued when supporters couldn't agree whether it was taken in south or north Aleppo, while many more people insisted the photo was old or of someone else entirely.

A lack of clarification from Tehran has not been reassuring for his many fans in Iran, Syria and Iraq.

More seriously, reports from Iranian opposition groups have emerged inferring that Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has secretly appointed a new head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's operations in Syria.

If it is true that the veteran general Mohammed Jafar Ahmed is now in charge of Iranian efforts in Syria it would effectively mean the end of Soleimani's role in the  campaign.

Soleimani has been a shadowy character, in part an an attempt by Iran to keep quiet its intervention in Syria.

Over the past year a series of photos showing the commander on the front lines in Iraq and Syria were shared widely on social media, coinciding with Tehran's admission of its military endeavours in both conflicts.

Many analysts have said that Syrian regime and Iraqi breakthroughs on the battlefield have been won by Tehran-backed militias and led by Iranian commanders.

There have also been reports of dozens of Iranian officers killed in Syria. Russia's military involvement in Syria has also side-lined Iran as Damascus' most important foreign backer.

If Soleimani is seriously injured or dead, it will not end Iran's influence in Syria. But it would have a serious impact on morale in the ranks of Iran's militias if the charismatic commander is never to return to the field. 

Follow Paul McLoughlin on Twitter: @pmcloughlin9