When the US killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, one of the chief architects behind Iran’s militia network in the Middle East, on January 3, there were mixed responses. Iran vowed “harsh retaliation”, and some feared an escalation in the Middle East, in particular, Iraq.
However, one angle has been overlooked by many: Syria.
While current US partners in Syria, like the YPG, are stunningly silent, former US-vetted Syrian rebels and figures of the Syrian opposition cheered the killing of Soleimani. The most intriguing silence came from the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, which is perceived as one of the most effective local partners of the US.
The YPG is the Syrian branch of the PKK, a group the US, European Union, and Turkey have designated a terrorist organisation.
After the killing of Soleimani, the armed and political Syrian opposition has posted several comments welcoming the news of his death.
Mustafa Sejari, the political head of Firka Muattasim, an armed faction officially supplied by the US with $5,346,800 worth of stipends in the fight against Daesh, used the American flag in his tweet.
He said: Thank you America. Thank you, Trump. This is a great job for the USA. Today, the Arab world is living in unspeakable joy and happiness in the Syrian, Lebanese, Iraqi and Yemeni lands after long suffering from the big terrorist Qassem Suleimani [sic]. A blow to terrorism.”
After his tweet, Sejari continued to post and shared videos of himself, including one in which Syrians distribute sweets in Turkey celebrating Soleimani’s death.
The celebratory messages continued. Sayf Abu Bakr, the leader of Firka Hamza, another armed group officially backed by the Pentagon to the tune $8,821,150 in the fight against Daesh, tweeted: “Qassem Suleimani [sic] was a cruel butcher with the blood of innocent people on his hands. While I congratulate the Trump Administration for eliminating this butcher, I once again condemn the Obama Administration, which paved the way for Iranian militias in the region.”
While the two armed groups above were formerly US-vetted Syrian rebels in the fight against Daesh, other Syrian rebels who were vetted by the US via the MOM program against the Assad regime also welcomed the news about the killing.
The commander of Jabhat Shamiyah, one of the oldest Syrian rebel groups still active in Syria, Abu Ahmad Nour, tweeted a picture of Soleimani in Aleppo, writing: “The end of the criminal Soleimani. This is a blessing of God. I think the third of the three most criminals against the Syrian people were he, Bashar al-Assad and Suhail al-Hassan [sic]. Today millions of Syrians and Iraqis rejoice at the death of this damned person.”
The leader of Sultan Murad, also one of the oldest Syrian rebel groups still active in Syria, Fehim Issa, welcomed the news but expressed his wish that his killing would be from the hands of the Syrian people instead of the US.
Many more Syrian rebels also came out and celebrated the killing of Soleimani. However, these people have something in common.
All of them are part of the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army and took part in the Operation Peace Spring in northeast Syria. The American public condemned them for fighting against their local partner in Syria.
On the other side, the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have kept their silence and not taken an official position. It seems the most effective local US partner wants to avoid a confrontation with Iran.
Interestingly, no videos or images emerged from SDF-held areas of people celebrating the death of Soleimani either, but areas held by the Syrian opposition had many events of ordinary civilians distributing sweets and celebrating.
While a further escalation with the US and Iran may be on the horizon, the US government and the US Senate needs to rediscover the armed Syrian opposition to balance Iranian activities in Syria. The current US partner forces in Syria were not created to fight or limit Iran, nor do they have the capacity or willingness to do so.
The armed Syrian opposition hates Iran more than any other state actor in the world and has a long history of fighting against Iran. The empowerment of the Syrian opposition in Syria would work as a natural buffer against the Iranian Crescent from Tehran to Beirut.