The U.S. drone strike that killed Qassem Soleimani on Friday inflamed both his vehicle and much debate concerning the legality and benefits of the attack. There has been one voice missing from the discussion, though: Those directly affected by the Iranian commander’s work – civilians in countries where he assiduously worked to expand Tehran’s influence.
Conversations with Syrians who survived shelling, siege, starvation and displacement at the hands of pro-Iranian militias guided by the Quds Force leader show that while U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to assassinate Soleimani was not made with them in mind, it surely earned their resounding support.
“It’s true they killed him for the Americans and not for the crimes he carried out against us or the Iraqi people. Still, may God give Trump health. He rid us of a piece of garbage, a criminal and a bloody murderer,” says Zaher, a Syrian journalist who survived the siege of Aleppo. (Zaher asked that his full name not be used for this article.)
Extreme levels of violence
Syria is arguably the country most affected by Iran’s regional ambitions. Iranian intervention in the country began in 2011 following the outbreak of peaceful protests there, and gradually increased as the country slipped into civil war. As Syrian regime forces suffered from a severe manpower shortage, the Quds Force – the foreign ops arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards – stepped up to fill the void by dispatching tens of thousands of foreign fighters to Syria from Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Those forces, more ideologically committed and disciplined than the Syrian Army and Syrian pro-regime militias, took key roles in besieging, bombing and crushing rebellious communities across Syria.
In 2015, Soleimani personally traveled to Moscow to convince President Vladimir Putin to directly intervene in the war. Starting in September 2015, this intervention by the Russian air force, coupled with additional reinforcement by foreign Shi’ite militias, decisively shifted the tide in favor of the Assad regime and his allies. The willingness of the regime (and its allies) to exercise extreme levels of violence met with international indifference, and lackluster support for the divided opposition ensured the regime’s victory.
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The victims of these policies were millions of civilians residing in rebel-held areas, many of them besieged by pro-Iranian militias. One after another, Syrian regime forces and pro-Iranian foreign militias cut off supply routes to these neighborhoods and towns, bombing and starving populations into submission.
Those who refused to surrender to the regime were displaced to the rebel-held northwest. Following the reconquest of these former rebel-held towns, oftentimes the regime and pro-Iranian militias prevented locals from returning home. Pro-Iranian militias, led by the Lebanese Shi’ite Muslim organization Hezbollah, have prevented the return of most Sunni civilians to several former rebel-held towns along the Lebanese border, demographically altering the makeup of these areas. In other areas – such as Daraya, near Damascus, and the Deir Ezzor countryside in eastern Syria, where pro-Iranian militias operate – most civilians were blocked from returning, with widespread confiscation of property by the Syrian regime and pro-Iranian militias.
Madaya and Zabadani, two picturesque Syrian towns near the Lebanese border, were the scene of the best-known siege involving pro-Iranian militias. The siege gained international attention after images of starving children and babies emerged when Hezbollah tightened its grip on the towns. Hezbollah and Syrian regime forces cut the supply routes into town in 2015, preventing the entry of food and medical supplies. As a result, according to local activists, 85 civilians starved to death in Madaya alone or died due to lack of medical care. Another 235 died in Madaya due to airstrikes, shelling or by stepping on mines placed around the town to prevent locals from escaping or smuggling basic necessities in.
“Qassem Soleimani is truly the person responsible for the siege of my town, Madaya, and the death of tens of civilians there,” says Amjad al-Maleh, an independent media activist now living in forced displacement in Idlib. Upon learning of Soleimani’s death, he says he “remembered the dozens of civilians starved to death – children, women and the elderly.”
Hezbollah’s role in the siege was particularly decisive. Initially, the townspeople had been able to bribe corrupt Syrian servicemen to let food and medicine through. But when in late 2015 Hezbollah took over the checkpoints surrounding the town and its snipers were deployed to kill those trying to escape, bribing became nearly impossible and the civilians started dying, one by one.
Despite experiencing these horrors, Maleh says he did not want bloody revenge against the Quds Force leader. “I hoped to see him behind bars after a fair trial in an international court,” he tells Haaretz. “Such a trial would have allayed the pain of those who were displaced, suffered and lost loved ones because of Soleimani, Iran, Russian and all the forces that intervened in Syria.”
‘We danced and sang’
The Baqir Brigade, the Fatemiyoun Brigade (made up of Afghan refugees living in Iran, some of them minors, cajoled or coerced into fighting for Iran under the threat of deportation to war-torn Afghanistan), the Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigade (established by the Quds Force and Syrian regime forces, and made up of Iraqi fighters), as well as Syrian Shi’ite militias supplied and trained by Iran, were among the pro-Iranian militias leading the ground assault in the 2016 battle for Aleppo – one of the bloodiest operations in the entire war.
Backed by the Russian air force, they advanced against the rebels and cut off Castelo Road, the last supply route into the eastern part of the city, which had slipped from regime control in mid-2012. At least 110,000 residents were trapped in the siege of the northwestern city.
Majd al-Deen al-Hassoun, who lived through the siege and nearly died during a chlorine gas attack in November 2016 – which he endured while recovering from a shrapnel wound to his stomach – tells Haaretz the pro-Iranian forces “would massacre anyone trying to use the Castelo Road, whether civilian or armed, trying to escape the airstrikes and destruction” as Russia bombed from the air and the regime deployed incendiary weapons, chemical weapons and cluster munition. “It’s impossible to describe their evilness – they played a crucial role in the fall of Aleppo,” in December 2016, Hassoun says. Some 34,000 residents of eastern Aleppo who refused to surrender to the regime were displaced to rebel-held northern Syria.
Following the fall of the city, Soleimani triumphantly visited eastern Aleppo. A photo of that visit, taken in the al-Shaar neighborhood, was widely shared on social media. When Hassoun first saw the photo while displaced in the northern Aleppo countryside, he says he “felt horrible. You see your neighborhood that was free … [and] see the Iranian occupier there … defiling it. I wished I had died that moment.”
Three years on, Hassoun says he rejoiced upon hearing the news of Soleimani’s demise. “I felt on top of the world,” he says, recounting how he rushed from his village to the nearest town so he could “participate in the wonderful celebrations. Owners of candy stores were distributing sweets for free. We danced and sang.”
Today, eastern Aleppo remains under the dominance of pro-Iranian militias, who man checkpoints around the city, recruit locals into their ranks, monopolize economic sectors such as transportation, and attempt to spread Shi’ite Islam among the Sunni population – largely unsuccessfully, according to local researchers. Shi’ite militias also control checkpoints connecting the area of Afrin (now under the control of Turkish-backed factions), collecting exorbitant “taxes” from traders and ordinary civilians wishing to travel to regime-held Aleppo.
Hassoun describes how a friend from eastern Aleppo, who fled to the regime-held western side earlier in the war, tried to return to her home in 2017. Shi’ite militiamen detained her, accusing her of supporting terrorism, and her family had to pay them an exorbitant bribe to secure her release. Conversations with Aleppo locals indicate that such occurrences are commonplace.
Too weak to run
“The world is a safer place now that Soleimani is dead,” says Mohammad, who asked that his full name be withheld because some of his relatives continue to reside under Syrian regime control. He lived through four years of siege in the southern Damascus town of Yalda – a siege maintained by Syrian regime forces and pro-Iranian militias, and ended in 2018 with the forcible displacement of the population to rebel-held northern Syria.
“We suffered greatly because of Soleimani. The militants answering to Soleimani are monsters. Mercy or humanity are absent in their vocabulary,” Mohammad says.
Several individuals who lived under sieges maintained by Shi’ite militias describe multiple instances of starving civilians attempting to flee. One such incident, on January 5, 2014, led to “the Ali al-Wahsh massacre” perpetrated by the Abu Fadl al-Abbas militia. Rumors spread among civilians that the Ali al-Wahsh crossing between besieged southern Damascus and regime-held areas would allow civilians to flee, causing thousands of starving locals to rush to the crossing. About 40 were immediately killed by gunfire, while a further 1,500 were arrested – 656 of them identified by name by local activists. Their whereabouts remain unknown.
The pro-Iranian militias “did not let us have even a sack of rice to cook or any kind of bread,” says Mohammad. He and the others lost weight and were forced to eat grass, leaves and spoiled food to survive. He became weak. “You cannot run or do anything that requires energy. Even when the rockets were falling on our heads and we should have run, we could not,” he recalls.
Mohammad volunteered as a medic in Yalda and describes having to treat patients while enduring a severe shortage of medicines and equipment, which the regime and pro-Iranian militias banned from the town. “Even if someone was lucky to survive the rockets, they could die due to lack of medicine, medical tools and specific [saline and other] solutions required for surgical procedures,” he says.
One key area where Iran continues to play an ongoing role is on the western bank of the Euphrates River. This area has become a central hub of Shi’ite militia activity, after these forces led the campaign against ISIS in the region. The area is linked to the sphere of operation of pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias on the Iraqi side of the border.
Pro-Iranian forces took over homes, established checkpoints and are working to recruit locals into their militias. They also opened a cultural center and husseyniyat (Shi’ite religious centers). In the area around Abu Kamal (the center of Iran’s presence in the region), civilians must receive permission from pro-Iranian forces to return to their homes after years of displacement. Certain villages and neighborhoods in Abu Kamal are entirely off-limits, turned into bases for the pro-Iranian militias.
Mohammad Hassan, a researcher and journalist from the town of al-Khreita – an area under the dominance of pro-Iranian militias – believes that killing Soleimani was an important step for undermining Iranian influence, “but it must be followed by additional steps to limit Iranian expansionism in the region.”
He tells Haaretz that Syria needs “a national solution that entails reaching an understanding on relations between sects on the basis of shared citizenship, democracy and freedom.” He believes this is the only way to counter Iran, as oppression and sectarian regimes will allow Iranian influence to grow.
Following Soleimani’s death, the rush of joy felt by Syrians who had lost their loved ones, homes and towns to militias created and supported by the Quds Force was expressed widely, both online and off-line. Syrians posted photos of themselves eating sweets, shared jokes and stayed awake the night following the assassination – based on incorrect rumors that additional strikes were incoming.
Displaced individuals, seeped in trauma, spent several days posting jokes and celebrating, trying to escape their painful reality. Soleimani may be gone, but his project in Syria lives on.
Elizabeth Tsurkov is a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute focusing on the Levant. Follow her on Twitter @Elizrael.