Iranian military mastermind Soleimani vows to 'surprise' world in Syria

Major General Qasem Soleimani, the shadowy former leader of Iran's elite Quds Force, the special operations arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IGRC), has asserted that plans being made by Damascus and Tehran in regard to the Syrian civil war will "surprise" the world.

Soleimani, who had been directly overseeing the eastern offensive on the Isis-held Iraqi city of Tikrit before it was successfully recaptured in April, is Tehran's key link between the Shia militias in Iraq and the Assad regime in Damascus.

Iran has been a key financial and military ally to Damascus since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011. In 2013, Tehran granted Syria a credit line of $3.6 billion (€3.2 billion) which is close to being used up, with Damascus lobbying for another $1 billion (€890 million).

"The world will be surprised by what we and the Syrian military leadership are preparing for the coming days," Iran's official IRNA state news agency quoted the general as saying.

The agency added that it "takes no responsibility for the information" although Syrian sources have already confirmed that thousands of Iranian and Iraqi fighters have arrived in Syria over the last month in order to strengthen the Assad regime's manpower in the face of rebel gains in Idlib province. The rebel coalition known as Jaish al Fateh captured the last town held by the regime last week.

"Around 7,000 Iranian and Iraqi fighters have arrived in Syria over the past few weeks and their first priority is the defence of the capital. The larger contingent is Iraqi," the Syrian security source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP news agency.

"The goal is to reach 10,000 men to support the Syrian army and pro-government militias, firstly in Damascus, and then to retake Jisr al-Shughur because it is key to the Mediterranean coast and the Hama region," the source added.

The general's statement came after a prominent Iranian militant group, Ansar e-Hezbollah, called for as many as 50,000 troops to be sent to Syria to prevent the fall of Assad. Analysts believe that such statements from Soleimani and reports of Iranian troop deployment in Syria represents Tehran reassuring Assad that Iran will continue to play a pivotal role in the civil war.

"It's a way for Soleimani to suggest to Assad and the Alawite community in Syria that they are on their side and they will not let them go," says Benjamin Decker, senior intelligence analyst at the Tel Aviv-based geopolitical risk consultancy, The Levantine Group.

"Soleimani wants to present this huge gift to the Syrians, saying we are going to give you way more troops than you expected and everything is going to be okay in a couple of months," he adds.

Throughout the battle for Tikrit, the Iranian general was regularly pictured with fighters on the frontlines around the edge of the city, in photos shared widely on social media. There are also rumours that Soleimani has been spotted in Anbar province in Iraq as Baghdad seeks to recapture the city of Ramadi, which fell to Isis last month.

The Syrian regime's losses have heightened fears in Damascus that rebels could launch a two-pronged assault - from the Turkish border and Idlib province - on the strategic coastal province of Latakia, where the port city of of the same name is located. The city acts as a critical transport route for Iranian assistance to the Syrian regime, and if it were to be captured it would represent one of the most significant losses for the regime since the beginning of thel war.

Earlier this week, Washington accused the Syrian regime of conducting air strikes around the northern city of Aleppo to aid Isis militants in their advance on the city which is currently held by Islamist rebels.