Iran admits it shot down Ukrainian jet; Trump wants NATO-ME; Syrians felt on top of the world

January 11, 2020

Aziz Asmar, a Syrian painter in Binnish, in Idlib province, stands by his mural marking the death of Iranian overlord Qassem Soleimani. This is one of dozens of such murals appearing all over Syria and Iraq. Sweets were also handed out in camps for Syrian refugees in Jordan and elsewhere to celebrate Soleimani’s death.

 

IRAN FORCED TO ADMIT IT SHOT DOWN PASSENGER JET

[Note by Tom Gross]

After days of emphatic denials despite irrefutable western satellite evidence, in the last hour Iranian officials have done an about turn and suddenly admitted Iran shot down a Ukraine International Airlines passenger jet, killing all 176 people onboard. Iran claims it was an accident and has apologized.

 

Also this morning: Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the Arab world’s longest serving ruler, has died at the age of 79. He had been in power since 1970 when he ousted his father in a bloodless coup. He had no children and will be succeeded by his cousin.

The sultan played an important diplomatic role behind the scenes, involving Israel, Iran and others.

Unlike other senior Gulf figures who have privately met Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he did so publically. Photos here.

 

“SIX U.S. ADMINISTRATIONS WERE COMPLICIT IN TURNING IRAN INTO A REGIONAL POWER”

I attach three articles below:

The first in particular is worth reading.

As Lee Smith writes:

“In making Iran accountable, Trump has knocked Iran down to its natural size – and likely made Americans safer from Iranian aggression than they have in fact been at any point in the last 40 years, during which Iranian proxies have repeatedly killed large numbers of Americans.

“Six U.S. administrations were complicit in turning Iran into a regional power. Washington wouldn’t hold the clerical regime accountable for the violent proxies that it funded, armed, trained, and directed.

“In that context, the Obama administration’s decision to flood Iranian war chests with cash and recognize its right to build a nuclear bomb was the logical culmination of the rot eating away at the Beltway for four decades. It was perhaps to be expected that an outsider who often doesn’t know when to keep quiet, and can’t stay off Twitter, would be the one to sing out like the boy in the fairy tale. It’s true, the emperor has no clothes.”

 

CALLING IN PUTIN TO HELP

In the third article below, Haaretz points out that to back up his ongoing campaign of ethnic cleansing and murder on the ground in Syria, in 2015, Soleimani personally traveled to Moscow to convince President Vladimir Putin to directly intervene in the war and help Iranian controlled forces from the air.

 

ARTICLES

IRAN AND AMERICA ARE SUDDENLY BOTH NAKED

Iran and America Are Suddenly Both Naked
By taking decisive action against Soleimani, Trump showed that Iran’s power is an illusion generated by D.C.’s willingness to look the other way
By Lee Smith
Tablet
January 8, 2020

It’s no coincidence that in the wake of the targeted killing of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most important military proxy has begun taking credit for terror attacks committed nearly four decades ago. For example, Hezbollah-affiliated media and activists are laying public claim to the organization’s responsibility for bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in October 1983, which killed 241 Marines. So why now?

The answer is, to scare Americans now that Donald Trump has thrown the regime in Tehran off balance by changing the 40-year-old rules of the game. The United States always knew that Hezbollah was responsible for the Marine barracks attack and that the Lebanese militia was armed, trained, funded and directed by Iran. President Reagan’s decision not to respond directly to the attack was part of a tacit agreement that America and the Islamic Republic entered into during the 1979 U.S. Embassy takeover in Tehran. It mirrored similar arrangements with the Soviet Union in which neither superpower held the other directly accountable for the actions of proxies in order to reduce the likelihood of a nuclear cataclysm.

Yet, unlike the Soviet Union, the Islamic Republic was hardly a globe-spanning nuclear superpower. It was merely a hostile local power that threatened the American regional security order through terror attacks. Washington’s response was to look away, under the theory that it was beneficial to the larger order to pretend, in public, that rules still existed. In turn, Iran was happy to play make-believe and accumulate prestige and leverage.

The terms of this weird deal held fast for the next four decades, through the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the First and Second Gulf Wars, Bush’s occupation of Iraq, Obama’s Iran deal, and other local and global milestones. Washington wouldn’t hold the clerical regime accountable for the violent proxies that it funded, armed, trained, and directed. In exchange, Iran and its partners would refrain from embarrassing the Americans by boasting about the murders they committed. The founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, famously said that America couldn’t do a damn thing. It is more accurate to say our elected officials wouldn’t do a damn thing.

Donald Trump put an end to that arrangement by commingling the dust of Soleimani together with that of one of his chief Arab lieutenants, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, head of one of Iran’s Iraqi terror proxies. Now that Trump is holding Iran accountable for the actions its proxies take in its name, the leverage gained by helping America play make-believe is gone. Iran and its allies now feel liberated to bathe publicly in the blood of Americans and warn that more violence is coming their way.

The problem for Iran is that it isn’t actually all that powerful. For all the concern over retaliation, Trump’s trashing of the old rulebook has stripped Iran of the most important instrument in its arsenal – ”plausible deniability.”

Iran’s ability to respond to the U.S. was already limited by the fact that its conventional military forces are old and rusting away. Yes, IRGC speedboats can harass, and target, the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf. But it can’t move large land forces into Iraq, never mind drop them into Florida or Alaska.

A good measure of Iran’s military weakness is that Qassem Soleimani was commander not of its regular army but rather the Quds Force, the expeditionary unit of Iran’s parallel military structure, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). The Quds Force is relatively small, with estimates ranging from 3,000 to 15,000 fighters–i.e., a force the size of Hezbollah. For protracted campaigns like the Syria war, the Quds Force relies on what Israeli analyst Shimon Shapira calls the Shiite International – paid militias drawn from Middle East and Central Asian countries with Shiite populations, like Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

The threat that Iran poses to a superpower America is “asymmetric” – kidnappings, embassy attacks, hijackings, bombings, etc., typically conducted by Iranian proxies. The military experts and political scientists who coined the term usually fail to note that the ability to wage “asymmetric” warfare is wholly dependent on an adversary’s willed blindness. If Iran’s targets decide to unsubscribe to the fiction that the Islamic Republic is not directly responsible for the actions of its proxies, Iran is rendered virtually powerless–with terror attacks being met with direct military hits on Iranian bases, airfields, ports, power plants, dams, and other infrastructure.

It is only because Americans and other Western powers have declined to call out Iran and have instead appeased it, that an obscurantist regime whose major exports are energy, pistachios – and terror, of course – appears like a formidable adversary.

In making Iran accountable, Trump has knocked Iran down to its natural size – and likely made Americans safer from Iranian aggression than they have in fact been at any point in the last 40 years, during which Iranian proxies have repeatedly killed large numbers of Americans. Killing Soleimani is a much more important operation than those targeting ISIS leader al-Baghdadi and even bin Laden, since it will likely shape the future actions of a state, not the leadership rotation of terror groups.

Iranian-backed terror isn’t a stubborn, unchanging fact of the international landscape, except to the degree that we made it so. The policy of appeasement that began in 1979, with the embassy takeover, culminated in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) when the Obama administration flooded Soleimani’s war chests with hundreds of billions of dollars and legitimized Iran’s “right” to a large-scale nuclear weapons program. In line with the decadeslong U.S. policy of augmenting the Iranian threat in order to avoid taking action against it, Obama said the only alternative to giving Iran the bomb was war.

Donald Trump was vilified when he exited the Iran deal in May. But in the eyes of the foreign policy establishment, he committed an even graver sin by exposing the 40-year-old lie that U.S. policymakers, right and left, had cultivated to rationalize their collective unwillingness to protect Americans from Iranian terror.

* * *

So why did U.S. officials treat Iran differently than any other country, even at the expense of thousands of American lives? There is the U.S. investment in maintaining the appearance of a rules-based order led by America, of course. On a deeper, less strategic level, there was the guilt and self-pity of America’s ruling elites, and the habits of magical thinking that resulted.

Power makes people vain. When it is handed down to them, it often makes them resentful, too. In 1979, when Iranian students took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, the Western intelligentsia saw it as the righteous revenge of the wretched of the earth – and confirmation of their own political exertions spent on college campuses from Berkeley to Paris the previous decade. The Iranian revolution was evidence to our ruling class of how much their fathers had gotten wrong – and thus proof of their own virtue.

It required no national security acumen or regional expertise to see that the “students” were a ruse. Khomeini was clearly in charge – he was, after all, the supreme leader. No one seized the U.S. Embassy, kidnapped 52 Americans in the center of Tehran, and held them for over a year, without his approval.

The hostage crisis showed the regime in Tehran that so long as it didn’t pierce the veil and take direct, unmistakable, on-the-record responsibility for its actions, Washington would stick with the cover story. And even though the hostage crisis crippled Jimmy Carter, it was his successor, Ronald Reagan, who not only failed to retaliate after the hostages were freed, but then also granted the Iranians impunity when under cover of Hezbollah, they bombed the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon in April 1983. Six months later, they bombed the Marine barracks. In December of that year, the Iranians employed Lebanese and Iraqi proxies to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait. Muhandis, killed last week with Soleimani, is believed to have planned the attack.

To free the Iranian proxies apprehended by Kuwaiti authorities, Hezbollah embarked on an almost decadelong campaign of assassinations and kidnappings, taking dozens of Americans hostage in Beirut, including the president of the American University in Beirut, David Dodge, who was transferred for a time to Tehran’s infamous Evin prison. Hezbollah then assassinated Dodge’s AUB colleague Malcolm Kerr.

U.S. officials even had scholarly support to rationalize their failure to hold Iran accountable. During the 1990s, Middle East experts promoted a thesis holding that the clerical regime in fact had little to do with Hezbollah. According to the “Lebanonization” thesis, Hezbollah was a homegrown resistance movement that came into being as a local response to Israel’s 1982 occupation of Lebanon. In fact, as Tablet colleague Tony Badran has written, Hezbollah was seeded in Lebanon in the mid-’70s by “Iranian revolutionary factions opposed to the shah.” U.S. policymakers preferred the fiction that Hezbollah was a homegrown product because it supported both their emotional needs and their policy goals: The West had earned the righteous anger of the natives, and there was nothing to be done except atone by way of offering human sacrifices.

In 1996, Iran’s proxy in Saudi Arabia, Hezbollah al-Hijaz, bombed the Khobar Towers, killing 19 U.S. Air Force personnel. The Clinton administration’s hopes for rapprochement with Tehran under the leadership of so-called reformist President Mohammad Khatami required the U.S. to pretend Iran was not responsible.

Between 2003 and 2011, according to a State Department assessment, Iran and its Shiite allies were responsible for killing more than 600 U.S. servicemen in Iraq. The body count doesn’t include the U.S. servicemen killed by the Sunni fighters ushered from Damascus international airport to the Iraqi border by Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria, Iran’s chief Arab ally. Yet George W. Bush reportedly passed up opportunities to kill Soleimani, deciding against opening a third front against Iranian terrorists that might endanger his doomed “Freedom Agenda.”

There was even less of a chance Obama would kill Soleimani, though his administration reportedly had him in the crosshairs, too. Soleimani was the key to the JCPOA, Obama’s crowning foreign policy achievement. He admired Soleimani, a hard man who got things done. Rather than stop the Quds Force commander, Obama told Arab allies that “they need to take a page out of the playbook of the Quds Force.”

The former president’s conviction was simply the result of what American officials had been saying since 1979. Therefore, Obama counted on Soleimani’s ability to control the ground in Syria and help America stabilize the region. Yet only weeks after Obama diplomats and Iran agreed to the JCPOA in July 2015, Soleimani was in Moscow petitioning Vladimir Putin for assistance in Syria. In spite of the billions of dollars in sanctions relief that Obama had granted Iran, and the $1.7 billion in cash the U.S. shipped directly to the IRGC, the Quds Force and the Shiite international were on the verge of losing the war to rebels in pick-up trucks.

Six U.S. administrations were complicit in turning Iran into a regional power. In that context, the Obama administration’s decision to flood Iranian war chests with cash and recognize its right to build a nuclear bomb was the logical culmination of the rot eating away at the Beltway for four decades. It was perhaps to be expected that an outsider who often doesn’t know when to keep quiet, and can’t stay off Twitter, would be the one to sing out like the boy in the fairy tale. It’s true, the emperor has no clothes. The rules have changed but that doesn’t mean the Iranians won’t be looking for revenge.

 

TRUMP WANTS TO ADD MIDEAST COUNTRIES TO NATO AND CALL IT NATO-ME

Trump Wants to Add Mideast Countries to NATO and Call It NATO-ME
‘I think what the president is looking for is more of our allies working with us in Iraq,’ says U.S. Ambassador to NATO
By Reuters
January 10, 2020

U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday said he supported expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to include Middle Eastern nations, as the United States seeks to limit its troop footprint globally.

“I think that NATO should be expanded and we should include the Middle East, absolutely,” Trump told reporters at the White House.

Trump proposed increased NATO involvement in the Middle East on Wednesday, when he addressed the Iranian strikes against U.S. troops in Iraq, carried out in retaliation for a U.S. drone strike that killed a top Iranian military commander. The military leader, Qassem Soleimani, played a major role in the fight against Islamic State militants in the region.

Trump said Islamic State presented an international problem that other countries should help address. “We can come home, largely come home and use NATO,” Trump said. “We caught ISIS, we did Europe a big favor.”

Trump has been a critic of NATO, demanding that Europe pay more for its collective defense and make concessions to U.S. interests on trade.

Trump joked that the organization could be called NATO-ME, or NATO plus the Middle East. He said he floated the possible name to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in a call on Wednesday.

NATO was created in 1949 as a mutual defense bulwark against the Soviet Union to promote the security of the North Atlantic area. The group, based in Brussels, has grown to 29 member nations, from 12 initially.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke on Thursday with Stoltenberg to discuss the Iranian strikes and reiterated Trump’s call for NATO to become more involved in the Middle East, the State Department said.

A State Department statement said “the two agreed NATO could contribute more to regional security and the fight against international terrorism.”

It added that Pompeo and Stoltenberg condemned Iran’s “destabilizing violence” and remained “committed to countering international terrorism, including through NATO’s participation in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and training missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The White House said that in his call, Trump “emphasized the value of NATO increasing its role in preventing conflict and preserving peace in the Middle East.”

The U.S. Ambassador to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchison, said on Thursday the fight against Islamic State is important to both the United States and its NATO allies.

“I think what the president is looking for is more of our allies working with us in Iraq,” she told CNBC. “And that is something that our NATO Council will have to discuss and decide that we would do more.”

 

‘I FELT ON TOP OF THE WORLD’: THE SYRIANS CELEBRATING SOLEIMANI’S DEATH

‘I Felt on Top of the World’: The Syrians Celebrating Soleimani’s Death
After surviving shelling, siege and displacement at the hands of pro-Iranian militias, these Syrians felt only joy after hearing of the Iranian commander’s assassination
By Elizabeth Tsurkov
Haaretz
January 10, 2020

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.

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.

 

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