Can Javad Ghaffari Fill the Hole in Syria That Qasem Soleimani Left for Iran?

Major General Qasem Soleimani, the Commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC-QF), was a figure of national resilience in Iran against four decades of U.S. pressure. Soleimani had an outsized role in designing Iran’s security and military policies in the Middle East, especially with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and Afghanistan.

The general was a shadowy leader of Iran’s geopolitical ambitions, aimed at expanding the Iran-led Shia arc of influence, or so-called “axis of resistance” that stretched from Iraq all the way to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea in Syria and Lebanon. When Soleimani was assassinated in Baghdad in January, 2020, it constituted a major blow to Iran’s regional ambitions.  

Esmail Qaani replaced Soleimani as the commander of the Quds Force. However, given the fact that Qaani lacks the strong personal relationships that Soleimani had with key figures in the region coupled with his low profile and lack of experience in the Middle East, Iran might be in a weaker position to achieve its regional strategy. 

Tehran has been supporting Damascus militarily and politically since anti-regime demonstrations in Syria erupted in early 2011. Iran’s most effective commanders, who increased its military presence and influence in the ongoing Syrian civil war, were Hossein Hamadani, who was killed in Aleppo in 2015, and Qasem Soleimani. After the death of these two important figures, it became a matter of curiosity what kind of policy the Quds Force – the foreign operations unit of the IRGC – will follow in Syria and by whom the military operations will be led. 

The commander who would be Soleimani’s second in command also became a matter of great interest to foreign powers. There is a mysterious Iranian commander who is likely to play a more expansive role in Syria after Soleimani’s death: Sayyid Javad Ghaffari. Information about Ghaffari, however, is quite scarce.

The Iranian Commander Held Responsible by Israel for Drone Attacks from Syria

The Israeli press announced that, on the night of August 25, 2019, Israel carried out an attack against the Quds Force of Iran who were preparing “for an operation against Israel” in the village of Akraba near Damascus. Later, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu claimed that the aim of the attack was “to show that Iran is not untouchable anywhere”, admitting that “we made a great effort to negate the attack towards Israel”.

A spokesperson for the Israeli army stated that with these attacks Iran’s attempt to carry out operations with “killer drones” inside Israel had been thwarted. In a post on the Persian Twitter account of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), command of the attack was credited to “Brigadier General Javad Ghaffari, who is under the direct command of Commander of Quds Force Qasem Soleimani.”

Soleimani was the Quds Force Commander and next in rank was Javad Ghaffari , who was the “Commander of Iranian forces in Syria.” Ranking beneath them were two Hezbollah members, Yasir Ahmed Daher and Hasan Yusuf, under the title of the attack team. These two Hezbollah senior members, who were allegedly preparing to attack Israel with drones, were also killed in Israel’s attacks near Damascus on the night of August 25th.

Israeli Army Spokesperson Avichay Adraee, in a post tweeted from his personal Twitter account, stated that Javad Ghaffari was closely following the drone flight training of the two Hezbollah members mentioned above.

Such rigorous offensive strategies raise the question of what role Javad Ghaffari exactly plays? Ghaffari’s name does not figure in many state-run news websites in Iran, especially Fars and Tasnim state-run news agencies that are affiliated with the IRGC. Could Ghaffari have been an imaginary Iranian commander invented by Israel?

In response to this question, two of the sources in contact with the officials in the IRGC in Iran, confirmed that Ghaffari is a real person with a verified identity: “We were also surprised that his name was not even mentioned in the Iranian media. Because of his critical mission in Syria, his name is kept a secret, there is a broadcast ban on him.”

Ghaffari’s Responsibilities in Syria

According to  a report  released by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), one of the key organizations abroad opposing the Islamic Republic of Iran, Sayyid Javad Ghaffari, whose original name is claimed to be “Ahmed Madani”, fought at the Iraq War front between 1980 and 1988 just like Qassem Soleimani.

The NCRI report alleges that Javad Ghaffari, the commander of the Northern Front (Aleppo) of the IRGC in Syria, was appointed commander of all Shia militias in Syria after Brigadier General Hossein Hamadani was killed near Aleppo in October 2015.

After his new assignment, according to the aforementioned report, he conducted various operations from the Ruqayyah military base, which was established between the Jaarah and Tat villages west of Lake Al Jaboul, 30 km southeast of Aleppo city center and 5 km south of Safira district.

This military base is also where special battalions of the IRGC-QF “Sabireen” are stationed. The militia of the Afghan Liwa Fatemiyoun Brigade provide security around this base, which is also home to Hezbollah commanders.

One allegation made about this base is that Iran has initiated missile production activities here, an allegation all but confirmed by Iranian military commander Mohammad Bagheri.

Javad Ghaffari, who came to prominence with the claim of preparing a drone attack on Israel, has recently been affiliated with another incident: the 2016 siege of Aleppo.

The Butcher of Aleppo

It is possible to see the fingerprints of Ghaffari in and around Aleppo. In December 2016, Russia and Iran-backed regime forces besieged Eastern Aleppo. After negotiations between Russia and Turkey, an agreement was reached for the evacuation of the besieged opponents and civilians. However, despite the planned agreement, Shia militias under Iran’s command fired on evacuation convoys killing dozens of civilians. Sayyid Javad Ghaffari, who allegedly organized the attack on the convoys, was then given the name “the Butcher of Aleppo” by Aljazeera Arabic.

Ghaffari’s actions in Aleppo are not limited to this incident. This time he appears in the city of al-Hadher, southwest of Aleppo. I noticed Ghaffari in a video I watched while I was going through the speeches of Qasem Soleimani that had taken place in Syria.

In the image shared on the Iranian Judiciary-linked Mizan Online News Agency with the headline “Qasem Soleimani’s speech in the first moments of the liberation of the city of al-Hadher” on December 30, 2015, the militia who shot the video turns to a white pickup and says in Persian that the commanders came to the city and mentions two names: Sayyid Javad Ghaffari and Qasem Soleimani. One by one, the militias welcomed Ghaffari and shook hands with him. Ghaffari also seems to be briefed about the area that has been seized. Afterwards, Soleimani  steps out of the vehicle and gives his victory speech.

My second encounter with Ghaffari in videos was one broadcasted by BBC Persian about Mahmoud Mousawi Majd, who was executed by Iran on charges of spying on behalf of Mossad and the CIA in Syria. The Mizan News Agency claimed in a report that Mousawi Majd, who was working as a driver, shared information about the movements of the commanders of the IRGC in Syria, especially Qasem Soleimani, with foreign intelligence services.

The BBC suggested that Majd was not just a simple driver, but that he fought for the Quds Force in Syria and might have been the victim of internal rivalries within the IRGC-QF. In this video sent to the BBC by some of his friends, Majd appears with a gun in his hand while walking with a small armed group. In this video focusing on Majd, Sayyid Javad Gaffari can be immediately recognized. He appears to be the person with white short hair and beard who walks with the same entourage that he commands while also being briefed.

The Key Figure in Post-Soleimani Syria

Soleimani’s absence may result in the weakening of Iran’s position against Russia in Syria as well as the erosion of the morale of Shiite militias as well as the loss of the Quds Force’s military effectiveness. It is clear that no current Iranian commander can fill the post-Soleimani vacuum. In this context, although he may not replace the role of Soleimani, the birth of a new leader that will have strong influence over the Shiite militias and ensure the continuation of the gains in Syria is a necessity for Iran.

Ghaffari, like Soleimani, has been at the frontlines in Syria since the beginning of the war. Having established relations with most of the actors in the field in addition to the military and security apparatus in Syria, he is not a stranger to the agenda pursued by Soleimani. The rigid attitude he displayed during the 2016 evacuation of Aleppo is also one of the features he shares with Soleimani. The persistent aggression of Iran-backed Shiite militias in Idlib after Soleimani’s death and their seizure of Saraqib have served as messages of determination to show that there has been no decline in Iranian intentions.

That said, Israel is cited as the possible suspect for the recent assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the mysterious figure of Iran’s military nuclear program. Following the assassination of Fakhrizadeh and the explosion of the Natanz nuclear facility near Isfahan, it would appear that Tehran is pursuing a policy of “strategic patience.” Syria is likely to remain a critical arena of confrontation between Israel and Iran.

From ordering an attack on civilians evacuated in Aleppo, to the production of missiles in Safira, the capture of the city of al-Hadher, and the preparation of a drone attack on Israel, Javad Ghaffari, who appeared before us in many stages of the Syrian civil war, could be Soleimani’s successor. Ghaffari’s name will be heard more in the rising tensions between Tel Aviv and Tehran.