First: Iraq and Syria are not within the spatial jurisdiction of Qaani
None of the historical references show that Qaani’s spatial jurisdiction was Iraq and Syria, according to the agenda and tasks that have been divided between him and Soleimani since the latter assumed command of the Quds Force between 1997 and 1998. This means that Ismail Qaani does not have practical experience or a network of relations that would enable him to deal with the large number of militias sponsored by Tehran in Iraq and Syria, and competing with each other to obtain more political, financial and military support from Tehran.
In fact, references and studies on Qaani’s activities indicate that his main duties centered on the eastern parts of Iran (Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia.) It is possible that Qaani took over the responsibility of organizing the limited operations of the outer wing in Africa and South America, but it is certain that Iraq and Syria were not within the spatial jurisdiction of Qaani in the agenda of the division of work and tasks.
Second: Qaani does not belong to Khamenei’s hardline circle
Qaani was not part of Khamenei’s close circle. This does not give him great authority within the government agencies and institutions of the Iranian regime, to run the financial and military affairs of the militias that require huge funding in light of the financial hardship that Iran is going through. This is the opposite of his predecessor, Qasem Soleimani, who enjoyed unlimited powers inside Iran.
Third: Qaani was a bureaucratic figure who did not participate in the non-classical militia wars
Contrary to what the Iranian media describe as a man of steel, not much different from Soleimani, and with sufficient experience in dealing with various battle fronts, Qaani remains a military commander less energetic and less discerning than Soleimani. Also, historical references do not indicate his involvement in unconventional wars led by Soleimani in Syria and Iraq, which indicates that the division of the agenda and tasks between him and Soleimani was limited to granting him bureaucratic and organizational affairs.
All this means that most of the Quds Force militia will have to deal with a figure they did not know and did not see accompanied by their leader Soleimani, who was proficient in harnessing the competition between multinational militias to fight in favor of Tehran.
Who is the actual commander of the Quds Force today?
In fact, none of the indicators that followed the assassination of Qasem Soleimani showed, that Qaani was the actual leader of the Iranian Quds Force, but rather he could be described as the formal commander or the leader of chance, who was supported by the rapid developments.
Despite this, the Quds Force’s strategy became increasingly evident less than a month after the killing of Qasem Soleimani and the appointment of Qaani as his successor, when Brigadier General Muhammad Hussein Zadeh Hijazi, who was in charge of the so-called (Lebanese Quds Force), was appointed as the deputy of Qaani on January 2020.
The Iranian message behind Hijazi’s appointment was clear: It may be impossible to find a replacement for Soleimani, but the Quds Force, which was led by Soleimani, is still alive and working hard to advance the regional strategy he was fighting for.
In fact, after the killing of Qasem Soleimani, Iran was forced to rebuild the management and leadership mechanisms of its puppet militias, which Qasem Soleimani previously had managed through his personality and his old network of relationships to manage and control.
Therefore, after the killing of Qasem Soleimani, Iran sought to change its strategy of control and dominance of “warriors without borders” as it was called by the Ali Khamenei Iranian leader. So that the new strategy can be built on the principle that, since no one leader can fill the void of Qasem Soleimani, Tehran’s network of regional proxies will be managed by a network of high-ranking commanders who have a strong military history of working with the Quds Force in the region.
Naturally, Iranian militia leaders in the region, especially Hassan Nasrallah and Hezbollah leaders who are on the US and European sanctions lists, will have a key role in implementing this strategy.
With a brief look at Hijazi’s history, we find that his record is full of more than Qaani’s record. The first joined the Revolutionary Guard since its establishment in 1979, and after that he was included in the responsibilities within this military and security establishment.
After that, Hegazy was chosen to lead the Lebanese Quds Force to oversee all Quds Force activities, including the support for the Bashar al-Assad regime, as a starting point and primary anchor in this strategy, and to also support Hezbollah in Lebanon.
In fact, Hegazy was one of the main members who undertook the project to supply Tehran’s regional agents with precision missiles.
Thus, Iran’s decision to appoint Hijazi as deputy commander of Quds Force is a clear example of Iran’s efforts to fill the void left by killing Soleimani, and a tireless pursuit to continue the precision missile projects, which was and remains a priority for the Quds Force, especially in Syria and Lebanon.
A decline in Iranian strategic power:
It is true that an end to the Quds Force and Iran’s power in the region cannot be expected in the near future. However, the future of the Quds Force after Qasem Soleimani is very similar to marching in a desolate desert without any guidebook evidence.
These analyzes are not without evidence, as the period following the killing of Qasem Soleimani was characterized by several features, the most important of which is Iran’s retreat in its ability to attract the militias and reunite its leaders without Soleimani’s presence.
Features of the decline of Iran’s strategic power on the Iraqi front:
First: The failure to form an Iraqi government loyal to Iran
Four months after the resignation of Adel Abdul Mahdi the Iraqi Prime Minister at the end of 2019, Iran has not been able to unite the Shiite groups close to it in order to reach an agreement on a new prime minister. Three of these four months were during the reign of Ismail Qaani, who failed his first mission after the formation of the Al-Kazemi government. Iran accepted this government due to popular protests rejecting its interference in Iraqi affairs.
There is no doubt that many Iraqi Shiite leaders have many differences between them, and the presence of different Shiite groups reflects these differences, but Qasem Soleimani was able to force the leaders of the various Iraqi Shiite groups to work together, and he tried to use the competition between different Shiite groups and the need for Iranian support as a tool to force them to cooperate within the framework of Tehran’s goals.
A look at three months of disagreements among various Shiite groups over the new prime minister shows that Ismail Qaani has been unable to exert effective pressure on the various Shiite groups.
At this point, the decline in Iran’s political and security power in Iraq has not stopped after the developments that followed the formation of the Al-Kazemi government. Perhaps the most important indicators that pointed the decline of Iranian power in Iraq are the successive news that the new Quds Force commander was forced to take a visa to enter Iraq during his second visit, and the decline in Iranian support for Iraqi militias to less than half.
Qaani’s inability to impose himself as an effective alternative to Soleimani, and his failure to bring more support to the militias, some of which were complaining about Tehran’s bias in favor of some militias at the expense of others, will increase the dispersal of these militias and their conflicts at all levels. This may prompt some of them to search for an alternative to the Iranian supporter. They also may find their way in the army institutions of the new Iraqi government.
Second: The inability to control Muqtada al-Sadr
Despite his long track record of dealing and alliance with Iran, Muqtada al-Sadr is not considered one of the militia leaders or politicians obedient to Iran, such as Nuri al-Maliki or Hadi al-Amiri. These two are considered one of the most important political players affiliated with Tehran in Iraq
Although al-Sadr is considered an unreliable ally of Iran, Qasem Soleimani had tried one way or another to bring him to the Iranian side in the past. But once again, Muqtada al-Sadr stood on the opposite side of the politicians close to Iran, therefore, increased the discord and constituted an obstacle to appointing a prime minister close to Iran in Iraq.
In fact, Qaani has not yet been able to solve the dilemma of al-Sadr’s divergence from Iran. His failure to return Sadr to the Iranian embrace may, even tactically speaking, lead to more serious problems of Qaani and the Quds Force in Iraq.
Third: the dissolution of the PMF militia
Currently, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which was established in 2014 with a fatwa from Ali al-Sistani the Shiite cleric to fight ISIS, suffers from several structural problems that threaten to break the contract of these militias.
At first, it seemed that the main problem that the Quds Force had become suffering from after the loss of its exceptional commander, Qasem Soleimani, has reflected in the same direction on the Iraqi PMF. This militia as well could not find a leader of the same size and experience after his actual leader was killed Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, accompanied by Qasem Soleimani.
Actually, The assassination of Qasem Soleimani has dealt a serious blow to the Quds Force; moreover, the killing of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis also weakened the power of the Quds Force and its administration over the PMF factions. The status of the PMF after it split between the (loyalist mobilization) loyal to Iran, and the (Mobilization Forces) affiliated with the Shiite authority represented in Ali al-Sistani, may give us an approximate picture of the future of the Quds Force after Qasem Soleimani.
In short, the increase in defections in the ranks of PMF means an increase in differences and viewpoints which Qaani was unable to resolve or at least bring closer together. Thus, the decline of Iranian power in Iraq in general.
Features of the decline of Iranian strategic power on the Syrian front
First: The increase in assassinations among the leaders of the Quds Force in Syria
The period following the killing of Qasem Soleimani has witnessed a remarkable increase in the frequency of the mysterious assassinations that struck a number of important leaders of the Quds Force in Syria.
Although The series of security breaches and assassinations, that targeted senior leaders of the Quds Force after the killing of Qasem Soleimani, reflects the weakness of the security and intelligence services of the Quds Force in protecting its most important cadres in the highest security areas, such as the Sayyida Zainab area and near the palace of Bashar al-Assad, it has affected negatively in a way on the structure and effectiveness of the Quds Force in Syria. That is to say, a further weakening of the communication network between groups affiliated with Iran, and a decline in Iran’s power in Syria.
Second: The year 2020 is a safe year for Israel
With the development of the Israeli strategy to confront Iran in Syria, the operations of the Quds Force militia launched from Syria against Israel have decreased, and the Israeli air strikes, in the period following the killing of Qasem Soleimani (in 2020), have significantly decreased with it. This clearly paints another picture of the decline of the Quds Force’s power in Syria.
This is due to the increase in Israeli intelligence awareness of Iran’s attack plans, which increased the accuracy and effectiveness of these attacks, despite the decrease in their number in the period following the killing of Soleimani.
In fact, this matter cannot be separated from the extent of the security breach that the Quds Force suffers from in Syria. All these reasons led to the decline of the Quds Force’s influence in Syria, and its compulsion to take precautionary measures and measures, including the repositioning of its militias in various areas of the Syrian territories, with the aim of reducing the severity of the Israeli strikes along the Syrian map.
Third: The failure to manage the Russian / Iranian conflict in Syria
After Russia and Iran were able to protect their ally al-Assad from the inevitable fall of the opposition factions, the two sides reached their closest goal of keeping Bashar al-Assad in power. but, as major military operations in Syria receded, differences began to emerge, with conditions of war preventing their emergence and requiring both sides to cooperate to the fullest extent possible.
Although these differences began to appear at the end of the period during which Qasem Soleimani was commander, Qaani was unable to manage the new phase of developments in Syria, in which the features of the more distant goals of both the Russian and Iranian began to appear.
It is true that the both sides want a weak personality like Bashar al-Assad, to impose their conditions and demands on him, but the main difference in the more distant goals of each of the allies: is that Russia sees Bashar al-Assad as a phased tool for achieving its geostrategic and economic goals that can be abandoned once these goals are achieved, while Iran It sees Bashar al-Assad as an essential tool for the realization of its project in Syria, and sees his fall as a fatal blow to its project.
- Reaching a dead end under the al-Assad regime
After the success in keeping al-Assad in power, Russia sought to convert this military success into a political achievement, but its efforts did not reach a conclusion, especially after its failure to resurrect the al-Assad regime on the Arab and international levels, and to implement the Caesar law.
Nevertheless, Iran does not seem to care about these harsh conditions as long as its loyal ally al-Assad is in power. But the media attacks directed by sources close to the Kremlin against Bashar al- al-Assad show Moscow’s dissatisfaction with his performance, and sparked speculation about the overthrow of al-Assad, which could constitute a fatal blow to the Iranian project in Syria.
Now that most of these Russian goals have been achieved in Syria, Moscow can stop supporting him, especially since al-Assad always insists that the Iranians and Hezbollah are his main allies and supports their continued presence in Syria, which will pose a threat to Russian interests in the future.
- The decline of Iranian military influence in favor of Russian hegemony
Although the power struggle between the Russian and Iranian allies began to show its features before the killing of Soleimani, the manifestations of this conflict became more evident during the year 2020. Russia took advantage of the economic collapse that Iran is experiencing, the focused Israeli strikes in Syria, and the state of turmoil as a result of the killing of Soleimani, to attract more local militias that were receiving Iranian support, and the formation of militias loyal to them in the heart of the southern and eastern regions to reduce Iranian influence.
It is true that Russia’s undertaking of large-scale military action against the Quds Force militia to expel it from Syria is unlikely, but Iranian officials know that the Russians are not happy with the expansion of Iranian influence in Syria. The greatest proof of this is the Israeli strikes that are coordinated with the Russians against the Quds Force militia in Syria, in the absence of air defense organizations that are completely managed by the Russians.
In light of these facts, the claim that the Iranians are hiding behind the Russian militias that have recently spread in Iranian areas of influence in Syria appears to be a big lie. The biggest evidence is that not a single member of the Russian militia was harmed during the numerous Israeli strikes in Syria.
Fourth: The inability to reconcile between the great military influence and the meager economic influence of Iran in Syria
The Syrian market was not a suitable option for economic cooperation with Iran, in light of its desperate need for a promising new market that would enable it to circumvent the strict US sanctions.
In fact, Iranian efforts to dominate the Syrian market are facing great disappointments, given that Turkish, Chinese and even Saudi goods have been in the first ranks of Syrian non-oil imports during the past ten years.
Amid this, loyal Iranian sites that closely monitor the volume of meager trade exchange between Syria and Iran mention Iran’s assistance to al-Assad, in what they called “security and stability control” in Syria.
The continuation of the current situation as it is today, and the state of no war and no peace that Syria is in, means imposing a loser-loser equation (a loser if he remains and a loser if he leaves) on the Iranian regime.
This double loss will not be limited to the military side, as Iran’s militias deployed on the Syrian map are exposed to concentrated Israeli air strikes, but rather extends to the economic side. This is due to the impossibility of reconciling between the great Iranian military influence and the meager economic influence in Syria, and thus the impossibility of compensating for a very small fraction of what they lost in Syria during the past ten years.
In addition, the Iranian sites loyal to the Iranian regime do not hide their extreme dissatisfaction with the possibility that Iran will lose its opportunity to participate in the Syrian reconstruction process.
What confirms this is that no economic agreement signed with Iran has been implemented in Syria so far.
Not to mention that many years have passed since the three countries (Iran – Iraq – Syria) agreed to create a railway line connecting Iran’s southern borders with the Mediterranean coasts. However, this issue did not go beyond the scope of Iranian and international media discussions, and it did not take any executive dimension on the ground until now.
Iran’s inability to extend this vital line all these years shows one aspect of the weakness of the Iranian influence, especially the economic one, in its strategic depth areas, despite the intense and widespread military presence in these areas.
At the present time, it does not seem that Iran will have any significant economic influence in Syria in the short or medium term, in contrast to its wide military dominance in this country.
Summary and conclusions
The above leads us to a set of conclusions that put a clear picture of the future of the Quds Force after Qasem Soleimani:
- The personality of Ismail Qaani, the new commander of the Quds Force, proved its utter failure to lead the new phase of developments on the Syrian and Iraqi arenas. which created many obstacles in front of him that prevented him from running the affairs of the Quds Force militia in the most important areas of the Iranian strategic depth.
- The lack of practical experience and the weak network of relations for Qaani on the Syrian and Iraqi arenas have made him lose the advantage of controlling the militias sponsored by Tehran in Iraq and Syria. which has increased the state of rift and disagreements that already exist between the leaders of these militias, which threatens to break their contract and the loss of their collection.
- Perhaps the most prominent failure of the Quds Force is its inability to retaliate in the manner befitting the killing of the second man in Iran after Khamenei. which means a radical change in the regional game, and the transformation of the conflict into a direct confrontation, in which the Quds Force lost an advantage actively respond and retaliate, using the zero-reaction policy.
- If the Quds Force had reached its most stages of regional expansion during the period of Qasem Soleimani, then what is after perfection is the decrease and decline. especially in light of a new leader who is facing great difficulties to become Strong one like his predecessor, which threatens further decline and the decline of Iran’s regional influence in the region, which will have serious repercussions on the stability of the regime inside Iran.