For Syrians in Idlib, killing of Soleimani a 'victory'

QAH (Syria) (AFP) –


In parts of the Middle East, Qasem Soleimani is revered as a hero. But in opposition-held Syria, the slain Iranian commander was seen as the man to kill.

"We thank God for his assassination," said Ismail al-Asali, who survived a November missile strike on the northern Syrian displacement camp of Qah where he lives.

"But we had hoped that he would be killed at the hands of the Syrian opposition... because then we would have secured revenge," the 22-year-old told AFP from Idlib province, Syria's last major opposition bastion.

Asali said the strike in which he was wounded two months ago killed his wife, brother and nephew. His one-year-old son lost a leg.

Soleimani, who was assassinated in a US drone strike in Baghdad a week ago, had been a key regional power-broker for two decades as chief of the elite external operations Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards.

In Syria, his strategic prowess was seen as instrumental in defeating the Islamic State group and warding off the disintegration of President Bashar al-Assad's regime, which barely controlled a fifth of the country before its Iranian and Russian allies stepped in to help.

As Iran's main man in Syria, Soleimani masterminded many attempts by Damascus to claw back territory it lost at the beginning of the nearly nine-year-old war.

At the helm of a wide-reaching force of Shiite paramilitary groups mobilised from across the region to battle Assad's opponents, Soleimani has left his stamp on some of the conflict's deadliest battles.

He is credited with the recapture of Albu Kamal -- the last town held by IS jihadists in eastern Syria -- in late 2017 and with preventing Aleppo from being fully besieged by rebels in 2013.

For rivals of the regime, this legacy is a grim one.

"Not a single massacre has happened in Syria, without him partnering with the regime and Russia in the killing of Syrian people," Asali said.

- Aleppo battle -

The Syrian opposition and Aleppo's displaced residents accuse him of masterminding a brutal operation that killed hundreds and displaced thousands of the city's residents.

"Soleimani was the most influential element of this campaign, before he came we managed to hold up our defences for five years," said displaced Aleppo native Abu Ahmed.

"I am happy about the killing of this criminal that was behind the displacement of thousands of people," the 35-year-old added.

As the battle neared its end in 2016, photos circulated on social media showed Soleimani walking in the streets of the city, a move Abu Ahmed said added insult to injury.

"It wasn't enough for him to just kill people, he also had to walk over our blood and our wounds," he told AFP.

According to a security source and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, Soleimani sustained a light injury during the Aleppo battle in November 2015.

His assassination, Abu Ahmed said, showed that the arc of history always bends towards justice.

"The death of Soleimani is a victory over injustice," he said. "Every tyrant should meet the same fate."

Mahmud Sharimo, another displaced Aleppo native, said his enmity towards Soleimani is a deeply personal one.

The 29-year-old said rocket fire he blames on Iran-backed forces hit his neighbourhood in Aleppo at the end of 2015, killing his five-month-old daughter.

The intensification of violence forced him and his family to flee, he added.

"Behind all of this is the Syrian regime, Iran, and particularly Qasem Soleimani and his militias," he said.

Soleimani's killing is not likely to impact Iran's intervention in Syria or weaken its steadfast support for Assad, but his death does hold symbolic importance for the Syrians who oppose him.

Many in Idlib distributed sweets and staged celebrations after receiving news of his January 3 assassination.