Idlib today bears the brunt of the Assad regime's Soleimani-inspired scorched earth strategy which will blight Syria for a long time to come.
It’s darkly ironic that at the time when the US government assassinated Major-General Qasem Soleimani, the leader of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, it emerged that at least 300,000 Syrians had been cleansed from Idlib.
The cleansing comes as part of a renewed spate of terror bombings by the Assad regime, backed by Russia and Iran, targeting civilian infrastructure.
In Syrian terms, it’s the usual fare: hospitals, schools and houses have been bombed, forcing hundreds of thousands of Syrians to brave Idlib’s brutal winter and move northwards towards any semblance of safety in a province that is possibly the most dangerous place on earth.
Notably, Maarat al Numan, a city that came to be synonymous with colourful resistance to both Assad and Al Qaeda, has been almost entirely cleansed of civilians. It is now little more than a ghost town. This will be music to the ears of Assad and, had he still been alive, it would’ve also been music to the ears of Qasem Soleimani.
In the early days of Syria’s revolution, when Assad was losing control of the country to peaceful, hugely popular protests emerging across the entire country, it was Soleimani who got the call.
As the leader of the Quds Force, which is Iran’s very own imperialistic expeditionary force, it was Soleimani’s job to not merely police but expand and bolster Iran’s regional ‘sphere of influence’.
Not that there wasn’t fear within the Iranian regime – Iran used Syria as the chief supply route to its proxy force Hezbollah. A so-called ‘Sunni state’ (meaning Syrian self-determination) emerging in Syria would be a major blow to Iran’s regional ambitions and its growing stranglehold on Lebanese politics.
But Soleimani saw a twin opportunity to save Assad from popular revolution and deepen Iran’s grip over Syria.
The Soleimanisation of Syria
After Assad ordered the Syrian Army to shoot unarmed protesters, there was a wave of defections that would form the nucleus of the Free Syrian Army. This forced Assad to demobilise approximately two-thirds of the mostly Sunni army, leaving him with a few ultra-loyal divisions and disorganised, largely provincial Shabiha militias.
But in stepped Soleimani. He brought the Shabiha together and re-organised Assad’s armed forces into the National Defence Forces, modelled on Iran’s Basij militia and trained for combat on Iranian soil.
Along with this, he mobilised Hezbollah and Iraqi proxies to invade and bolster Assad’s forces, while he brought in thousands of IRGC and Army troops in combination with estimated tens of thousands of Shia mercenaries primarily from Afghanistan, and some from Pakistan.
This was Soleimani’s colonial vision for Syria, including even moving Shia populations into areas of the country from which Sunnis had been cleansed. It was the most destructive element of Soleimani’s contribution to Assad’s war effort – the use of the mass cleansing of civilian populations.
Soleimani understood that the revolution was widespread across Syria and was popularly ingrained among especially Sunni Syrians. The reasoning was brutally simple: the only way to gain back control for Assad was to destroy it – to target civilian areas with the air force, to drive out and systematically cleanse these populations.
This would allow Assad to rule over a streamlined rump, with a depleted and more ideologically subservient population.
The calculation was that if you sever the arteries that connect the armed rebellion to its civil heart, you will end up choking both to death. This is why in Syria, perhaps more than any other modern conflict, you’ll encounter the persistent and consistent targeting of schools, hospitals and emergency services – anything that could normalise life without Assad would have to be destroyed.
When, in 2015, the Baathist-Iranian war effort was almost overturned as Syrian rebels, with new anti-tank weaponry, liberated Idlib and advanced through Hama and Homs, it was one of Soleimani’s lackeys who went to Moscow to plead for Russian intervention. With this, the strategy devised between Soleimani and Assad could be taken up with ruthless aplomb by the Putin regime.
The result was hundreds of thousands of dead civilians, thousands more maimed and millions cleansed as internal or external refugees. This strategy paved the way for the use of poison gas, starvation sieges and the mass murder of entrenched civilian populations. It paved the way for, in a word, genocide.
This is old school imperialism, with Iran creating numerous military bases and concentrating its forces in resource-rich areas of Syria, as well as ensuring Iranian firms get lucrative contracts in rebuilding the parts of the country they helped destroy.
Who could forget the pictures of Soleimani striding around the recently fallen and utterly devastated Free Aleppo like some kind of imperial overlord? As those pictures were taken, the buses had arrived to cleanse the population that had so bravely resisted numerous Baathist-Iranian-Russian attempts to conquer the city. Their destination? Idlib.
The legacy thrives
And this is one of the points about the death of Qasem Soleimani. Though he might be dead, his disastrous legacy in Syria continues. In the age of the Arab spring, Soleimani should not be mourned by anyone with a conscience, but his death, in these circumstances, will not aid the cause of a free Syria, Iraq or Iran.
There has already been a particularly brutal example of the form that the ‘retaliation’ for the death of Soleimani will take – and it isn’t Americans paying the price. In Syria’s Deir Ezzor province, the pro-Iran militias who occupy it exacted revenge for the killing of their figurehead by massacring 21 Sunni civilians, including three children.
Given these militias are comprised of sectarian serial killers who learned their craft during Iraq’s ‘civil war’, you might expect more of this sectarian backlash.
It was, after all, Soleimani who successfully sold the lie to many of these militiamen (and to much of the world) that the Syrian people themselves were all potential agents of ‘Wahhabism’ or US-led ‘Western regime change’.
Of course, you won’t hear a word about this from Donald Trump.
The US president did not kill the major-general due to any of his or Iran’s crimes in Syria, or any of his regional crimes. Trump’s action seems to have been born of the reckless, unpredictable, self-centred belligerence that defines most of his foreign policy.
Soleimani’s death will be mourned by apologists and celebrated by victims. But, at best, the horrors of the region will continue unabated, while, at worst, his assassination will lead to wider death and destruction.
Sam Hamad is a Scottish-Egyptian writer based in Edinburgh.
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