Lowered Expectations

06.05.15 9:15 AM ET

The Myth of Iran’s Military Mastermind

Qasem Suleimani is seen as a superhuman strategist and battlefield commander. But lately, he’s been losing more than winning.

He’s been called the “single most powerful operative in the Middle East today” and nicknamed “Supermani,” but is Qasem Suleimani, the suddenly omnipresent commander of Iran's expeditionary Quds Force, suddenly coming down to earth?

After Suleimani reportedly visited Damascus last weekend to discuss military strategy, the Iranian press agency IRNA quoted him saying, “In the coming days the world will be surprised by what we are preparing, in cooperation with Syrian military leaders.” On Wednesday, a Syrian security source told AFP, “around 7,000 Iranian and Iraqi fighters have arrived in Syria over the past few weeks.” Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the source said the incoming fighters were mostly Iraqi, “and their first priority is the defense of the capital… [t]he goal is to reach 10,000 men to support the Syrian army and pro-government militias, firstly in Damascus, and then to retake Jisr al-Shughur [a city in Idlib province recently fallen to an Islamist-driven rebel faction] because it is key to the Mediterranean coast and the Hama region.”

The propaganda is meant to capitalize on Suleimani’s heroic stature among Shia as the only man who can save a losing struggle, but the bravado, analysts say, betrays a more defensive reality. Namely, Iran’s master spy has been losing ground lately.

Since the start of Syria’s civil war in 2011, when President Bashar al-Assad’s forces attacked opposition groups, Iran has served as the Assad government’s primary backer and last line of on-the-ground defense. In addition to extending billions of dollars of aid, Tehran has also dispatched the Quds Force to guide or even direct military efforts in Syria. Suleimani has personally overseen the creation of Assad’s National Defense Force, a Basiji-like super-militia designed to shore up the regime against an increasingly powerful, Sunni-led insurgency. He has imported militias loyal to Iran from Iraq and Lebanon, and fighters from as far away as Afghanistan, to keep a Baathist ally alive.

At the same time, Suleimani has acted as the actual general and architect of Iraq’s ground war against ISIS, using a similar approach, embedding Iranian “advisers” into the structures of the Iraqi Security Forces and Hashd al-Shaabi, the umbrella organization for a host of Shia militias. He has coordinated offensives against ISIS from a rumored command center well within Baghdad’s Green Zone, often with the help of American-led airpower.

And for a while, he was riding high: retaking towns and villages, such as Amerli and Jurf al-Sakher, from the terror group. Lately, however, with Assad losing ground to ISIS in Syria, and Baghdad suffering losses in Iraq, the limits of Suleimani’s counterinsurgency doctrine are beginning to show.

“Leaving the exact numbers aside, this comes in the context of a major Iranian messaging campaign,” Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, told The Daily Beast.

“It’s not just Suleimani that had this attributed to him,” Badran said. “[Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani said that ‘We will be with the regime until the very end,’ and this all followed [the leader of Lebanese Hezbollah] Hassan Nasrallah’s recent speech where he said that ‘We’re going to mobilize all the Shia and help defend Syria.’ So clearly this is a concerted messaging campaign from the Iranians on this issue.”

The subtext of the Iranian message, according to Badran, “only underscores the problem. You’re advertising the fact that Assad doesn’t have manpower.”

The shortfall stems from the fact that Syria’s ruling class was drawn primarily from Assad’s minority community of Alawites, a sect of Shia Islam that makes up less than 15 percent of the population, while the majority Sunnis have increasingly abandoned the regime, if not turned against it.

“Suleimani’s statement is aimed at reassuring the Syrian government and its forces that Iran will not abandon Assad,” said Iranian-American political scientist Majid Rafizadeh. That reassurance is necessary, Rafizadeh argued, because the regime’s mounting losses pose a major threat to Iranian interests, not least of which is ensuring the safe passage of weaponry and guaranteeing a strategic corridor from Persia to the Levant.

“The Syrian government has had losses in the last few weeks, and Iran fears that the rebel groups can launch attacks on Latakia from the Turkish border and Idlib,” Rafizadeh said. “Latakia is a crucial strategic port for Iran.”

Given the Assad’s regime’s losses, and the strengthened position of Islamist groups in Syria like ISIS and the Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate, there are limits to the reassurance that Iran can provide, even to a key ally like Syria. “Beyond the messaging campaign, that actual objective is a lot more limited than the rhetoric would suggest,” Badran said. “The bottom line is these guys are there not to help the regime reverse losses so much as to help the regime retrench, contract, and consolidate in western Syria, stretching from Damascus all the way to the coastal mountains.”

It’s quite a reversal of fortune for the man who has constructed, and in some cases earned, a mighty reputation. In 2013, Dexter Filkins profiled Suleimani for The New Yorker, depicting him as a cunning and brilliant strategist. At the time, former CIA officer John Maguire told Filkins, “[Suleimani] is the single most powerful operative in the Middle East today, and no one’s heard of him.” That was then.

Since ISIS took Mosul in June 2014, however, photos of Suleimani posing on battlefields across the region have become a commonplace on social media. There are even rumors that he’s grooming himself for a potential political role once these multi-front wars are wrapping up. Suleimani is both the public symbol of Iran’s power and influence and, as a wartime general, its executor. But emerging from obscurity has proved both blessing and curse. Now he is associated with Iran’s setbacks as much as with its advances.

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Before the fall of Ramadi, Suleimani’s signature campaign in Iraq’s war against ISIS was the effort to retake the city of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown. That battle, planned by Iranian commanders and led by militias loyal to Tehran, has been touted as a success by both Iraqi and Iranian outlets. It was actually something more like a debacle.

With an estimated 30,000 Iraqi forces, the vast majority of them militiamen either controlled or beholden to the Quds Force, which Suleimani heads, the battle to retake Tikrit nevertheless stalled against a far smaller ISIS force—an estimated 400 to 750 jihadis who stood their ground for close to three weeks. To break the stalemate, Baghdad finally called in U.S. air support, which arrived on the condition that the militias withdraw from the battle and let the ISF and Iraqi police move in once ISIS was routed. The militias never left, however, while the air support came anyway.

Tikrit was retaken, but all the glory went not to the U.S. Air Force but to the militias. “Our planes go back to their bases, but their guys stay on the ground with flags and banners,” said Michael Eisenstadt, who studies Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It was our airpower, but it’s their guys that claim credit.”

“Suleimani has a political-military approach to these problems,” Eisenstadt added. The Iranian’s plan may have stalled on the battlefield in Tikrit, but he nonetheless spun it into a moral boost for his proxies, namely the Badr Brigade and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the two main Shia militias, which are now said to be spearheading the slow-moving offensive to retake Ramadi from ISIS.

In Syria, however, there have been no obvious political gains to make up for such tactical losses. While Iranian political influence has expanded in Iraq under Suleimani’s influence, his latest scheme for waging a counterinsurgency campaign in Syria reflects a desire to prevent the Assad regime from sustaining further losses, if not disintegrating outright.