Qasem Soleimani: Iran’s man against ISIS

CEP Research Analyst


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In late October, ISIS fighters retreated from the Iraqi town of Jurf al-Sakher. According to Iraqi military sources, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) provided the Iraqi army with weapons and training in order to force ISIS’s retreat. The person reportedly guiding Iran’s intervention was Qasem Soleimani, a man praised by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as “a living martyr of the revolution.”

Soleimani heads the IRGC’s Quds Force, which carries out foreign operations on behalf of the Iranian government. Soleimani has been a major player in the region for years, even leading the insurgency against U.S. forces in Iraq. Because of his influence over Iraqi insurgents, Soleimani emerged as a powerbroker in Iraq. In March 2008, he reportedly helped negotiate an end to fighting between U.S.-backed Iraqi leaders and followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr. That same year, he sent a message to then-commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus: “General Petraeus, you should know that I, Qasem Soleimani, control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and Afghanistan.”

In Syria too, Soleimani has played the part of puppet master. In January 2012, Soleimani met with President Bashar al-Assad in Syria and pledged additional military aid against rebel forces. The following month, four Iranian jets carried munitions to Syria. In August 2012, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reportedly ordered the Quds Force to step up attacks against Western targets in retaliation for the U.S.-backing of moderate Syrian rebels. In mid-May through early June 2013, Soleimani coordinated a two-week offensive by Syrian forces, aided by Hezbollah, to retake the rebel-controlled city of Qusair, leaving more than 500 rebels dead and 1,000 wounded. Soleimani “is now running Syria. Bashar is just his mayor,” said one commander in the Free Syrian Army.

Iran’s top general is also personally overseeing the fight against ISIS, and in marked contrast to past behavior, has willingly posed for pictures with troops following successful battles. In June, Iran sent IRGC units to Iraq to fight ISIS while providing tons of military supplies and equipment to Iraqi forces and directing surveillance drones over Iraq. Soleimani reportedly went to Baghdad to oversee the operations. According to several reports, he played an advisory role in recent victories against ISIS in Samarra (June) and Amirli (August).  All this despite living under a U.N. travel ban that was imposed in 2007.

Clearly, Iran and the United States share an enemy in ISIS. As the old adage goes, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” However, given Soleimani’s history of antagonism toward the West, in this instance, the enemy of our enemy is still our enemy.