JERUSALEM, Israel - Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani left behind a legacy of Iranian-backed militias that span Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere. And the Iranian leaders are keen to preserve this fighting force as part of their long-term goal of dominating the Middle East, says Middle East expert Jonathan Spyer, a fellow of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.
Soleimani, the late head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, was assassinated last week by the U.S. following the latest round of violence that started with an Iranian-backed militia’s rocket attack on a US facility in Iraq that killed an American contractor.
Soleimani was considered second in power only to the leader of Iran. He and his forces were responsible for killing hundreds of Americans as well as others in attacks over the years.
Spyer believes the project Soleimani headed was important enough for Tehran to endure a “loss of face” in his death.
“Between the Iraq-Iran border and the Mediterranean Sea, the Iranians have today access to around 200,000 armed militiamen and that has largely to do with the last two decades of activity by one Gen. Qassem Soleimani and those around him. That’s his legacy and a profoundly potent legacy it is,” Spyer said.
One of the most well-known of those proxy organizations is the Lebanese-based terrorist group of Hezbollah but there are many others. Amal also operates in Lebanon.
In Iraq, the umbrella group, the Popular Mobilization Unit, includes dozens of militias, most of which are Shia Muslim groups.
In Syria, the militias include a number of different “structures” that are part of the Syrian security forces and resemble the Iraqi PMU but were created by Soleimani and others, Spyer said.
“These IRGC-supported militias that the Iranians have raised up inside Syria…they operate inside Syria without seeking the permission of the nominal ruler of Syria, namely Bashar Assad,” said Spyer.
There are other groups, too, that are backed by Iran – the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and the Houthis in Yemen. Iran also has relations with al-Shabab in Somalia and the Taliban in Afghanistan, he said.
But the most crucial forces for Israel right now are those who are in the contiguous area from the Iran-Iraq border to the Mediterranean Sea, he said.
According to Spyer, Iran knows that an all-out war against the US would spell disaster and that’s why they seem to be willing to end this round of hostilities with the “face-saving” strike on the two US bases on Wednesday.
Spyer believes that preserving the militias intact now under the command of Gen. Esmail Qaani as part of what he calls the “Iranian project” is the aim of the Iranian leadership.
The Iranian project, he added is “regional domination, the destruction of Israel and expulsion of the United States” from the region.