Iran's Long Arm: What Is the Elite Quds Force That Attacked Israel From Syria

The Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force is charged with arming proxies across the Middle East and even the world – and is behind a number of past attempts to hit Israel

Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich
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In this photo released by the semi-official Iranian Mehr News Agency, Iranian revolutionary Guards personnel, foreground, watch the launch of a Zelzal missile during military maneuvers outside the city of Qom, Iran, Tuesday, June 28, 2011.
In this photo released by the semi-official Iranian Mehr News Agency, Iranian revolutionary Guards personnel, foreground, watch the launch of a Zelzal missile during military maneuvers outside the citCredit: AP
Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich

The Quds Force, a special forces unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, was behind the rocket attack against Israel on Wednesday night. The Quds Force, commanded by Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, is responsible for all of Iran’s military activities – secret and public – outside of Iran’s borders.

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The Quds Force is also in charge of relations with Islamic and non-state military and terrorist organizations recruited by Iran. These groups serve as Iran’s arm in countries where it is trying to export its Islamic revolution or as proxies in the conflicts in those countries. The Iranians support these militias mostly through providing weapons, funds and protection for the groups.

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In 1998, Soleimani replaced Ahmad Vahidi, who was appointed in 1988, as commander of the Quds Force and who later served as Iran’s defense minister. Soleimani is considered to be a protégé of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Soleimani’s power is so great that even though he is blacklisted by most Western nations, he still is able to meet with world leaders. It was reported that he has met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his foreign minister.

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Soleimani is the most senior Iranian officer active outside of the country and is responsible for setting up militias and cooperation with the likes of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, militias in Iraq, and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. In Gaza, among others, Soleimani was also been behind the Karine A, a ship filled with weapons meant for Hamas that was seized by the Israeli Navy ion 2002.

Before his Syria role, Soleimani established Shi’ite militias in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sudan, as well as Egypt and even in some African nations and countries in Latin America.

Today he and his Quds Force are in charge of three different fronts in Syria. The unit is responsible for the front from Aleppo to the north, the second is the Aleppo to Damascus area and the third is from Damascus southward. The militias on the ground in those regions are under the command of the Quds Force headquarters in each region.

Commander of Iran's Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, at a mosque in the residence of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran, Iran, March 27, 2015.Credit: אי־פי

Among others, they are tasked with building a Shiite land bridge from Iran to Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea through Syria. One of the militias established in Syria to support the regime is the National Defense Forces, backed by Hezbollah and the Quds force. This militia is made up of tens of thousands of soldiers, mostly Syrian citizens from Assad’s own Alawite community and Shi’ites from rural communities in Syria. Other Iranian-backed militias with tens of thousands of Shi’ite fighters operating in Syria come from Iraq and Afghanistan.

A number of attempts to attack Israel and Jews around the world have been attributed to Soleimani in the past. Some succeeded, such as the terrorist attack in Burgas in Bulgaria, in which a suicide bomber killed six and injured 32 and Israel accused Soleimani. In other cases the terror attacks did not succeed.

In 2011, two men were indicted in the United States as part of an alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States. It was thought at the time that Soleimani had contacted a drug trafficking cartel to have them carry out the attack without leaving any Iranian footprints behind. This plot was foiled while still in the planning stage.

A damaged bus is transported out of Burgas airport, Bulgaria, Thursday, July 19, 2012 a day after a deadly suicide attack on a bus full of Israeli vacationers. Credit: AP

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He was also linked to other attempted terror attacks which never materialized, the last of which is the attempt to hit Israeli targets last night on Israel's northern border. The failed attempt and the Israeli response represents a severe blow to the infrastructure he and the elite force set up in recent years in the north.

Despite the unusually harsh attack by the Israeli Air Force on Wednesday night in Syria, that seriously affected Iran’s capabilities, Israeli defense officials doubt that the Revolutionary Guards and Soleimani will give up on their desire to establish themselves militarily in Syria.

Iran's Revolutionary Guard troops march, during a military parade commemorating the start of the Iraq-Iran war 32 years ago, in front of the mausoleum of the late leader Ayatollah KhomeiniCredit: AP

So far, the Revolutionary Guards have invested $17 billion in Syria. They have lost many soldiers and received harsh criticism at home from those saying there is no need to sacrifice Iranian soldiers for Assad. After they have paid such a price, it is hard to believe that the IDF’s attack will cause them to abandon their great plan to build a second Hezbollah along Israel’s border with Syria on the Golan and change Iran's overarching strategy.

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