Death in Damascus: Is Iran's Major General Qassem Suleimani dead?

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  • Rumors of Suleimani’s death in Damascus probably came as a pleasant surprise to the US military. @Alfoneh

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  • One thing is for sure: if Suleimani indeed was killed in Damascus, the regime would not admit it.

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  • Reports of Suleimani’s death in Damascus show the obsessive interest in his person. @Alfoneh

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Ever since the July 18th, 2012 bombing in Damascus killing President Bashar al-Assad’s top aides, Israeli and Arab sources have speculated about the death of Major General Qassem Suleimani, commander of the extraterritorial operations Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC QF), who allegedly participated at the fatal meeting.

Rumors of Suleimani’s death in Damascus probably came as a pleasant surprise to the United States military. After all, according to military historian Kimberly Kagan by August 2007, the Suleimani led Iranian-backed violence in Iraq accounted for roughly “half the attacks on Coalition forces.”

However, on July 21st Ramezan Sharif, IRGC Public Relations commander, dismissed the reports on Suleimani’s death as “immoral and hostile propaganda campaigns of some Arab media and their Western counterparts against Iran,” and the Iranian press has since released a portrait and a group photo in which Suleimani appears to be attending Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s July 24th address to the Islamic Republic officials.

Yet, apart from the two photos allegedly taken on July 24th, Suleimani has not appeared in public since the Damascus bombing – further fueling speculation about doctored photos attempting to keep his death secret.

A recent Iranian Student’s News Agency (ISNA) report has added to that speculation. On September 23rd, ISNA released a “hitherto unpublished” interview, which Suleimani allegedly gave the news agency in 1989, in the immediate aftermath of the end of the war with Iraq and at a time when Suleimani commanded the 41st Tharallah Division based in Kerman.

Remarkably the interview does not make any reference to Suleimani’s main focus at the time, which was the fight against drug cartels in south-eastern Iran and supporting Iran’s Afghan allies who later became known as the Northern Alliance in the West. What the interview lacks in Suleimani’s professional focus, it makes up for with unprecedented detailed biographic information about Suleimani.

For example, Suleimani is widely believed to be a native of the village of Rabor in Kerman province in south-eastern Iran, but according to the ISNA interview Suleimani was born in Qanat-e Malek (which is incorrectly spelled “Namak” in the article), a small village close to Rabor.

The ISNA interview also provides new information about Suleimani’s educational background: Lacking any information about Suleimani’s secondary education convinced this author that Suleimani’s formal education was limited to five years of elementary school, but according to the ISNA interview he also holds a diploma.

The ISNA interview also provides rare insights into Suleimani’s family life. With the exception of a single background article in Panjereh, in which Suleimani’s parents and brothers were identified and in which there was an indirect reference to Suleimani’s daughter – who was wed to her husband by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei – no information was hitherto available about Suleimani’s immediate family in the open source material. Also in this regard the ISNA interview is significant since it discloses that Suleimani is married, and has two children: A son and a daughter.

Why would Suleimani provide such detailed biographic information about himself to ISNA in 1989? And why would the Islamic Republic censorship allow the media to release so much private information about the commander of the extraterritorial operations arm of the IRGC in 2012?

Is Suleimani really dead and is this article an attempt to beatify a martyr? It may take some time before we will know the answer, but one thing is for sure: if Suleimani indeed was killed in Damascus, the regime would not admit it. The regime is therefore likely to stage Suleimani’s assassination by an obscure terrorist organization inside of Iran. Helping the Assad regime to kill women and children in Syria is hardly a legacy the state propaganda machine wishes for its martyr.

Reports of Suleimani’s death in Damascus show the obsessive interest in his person, which is understandable when his influence is taken into consideration. However, that interest should never cloud interest in the force under his command; attempts by the Islamic Republic to “export” its revolution abroad; and more fundamentally, the central role “export of the revolution” plays in the political dynamic of the Islamic Republic.

In that context, Suleimani’s fate is of secondary importance.

Ali Alfoneh is a Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Follow him on Twitter: @Alfoneh

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About the Author


  • Ali Alfoneh's research areas include civil-military relations in Iran with a special focus on the role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in the Islamic Republic. Mr. Alfoneh has been a research fellow at the Institute for Strategy at the Royal Danish Defence College and has taught political economy at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Southern Denmark.

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