Earlier this month, a group of 48 men from Iran entered Syria, ostensibly to
visit a Shi’ite shrine.
The group’s alleged purpose was to pay tribute to
the tomb of Sayeda Zeinab, granddaughter of Islam’s prophet Muhammad, who is
buried south of Damascus.
As they were making their way to Damascus
airport, gunmen from the Free Syrian Army kidnapped the men and have held them
ever since. The FSA dismissed the men’s claim that they were innocent pilgrims,
saying they were in fact active members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards
Corps and its elite covert unit, the Quds Force.
FSA gunmen released a
video showing the group of captives presenting photo IDs that a spokesman said
proved the men were Iranian special forces members.
At first, Iran flatly
denied the rebels’ accusations, but later, when confronted with the video and
the IDs, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said some of the kidnapped
men are “retired” IRGC members. Salehi went on to demand their immediate
If the men really are IRGC members, chances are good that they
belong to the Quds Force, a powerful, shadowy unit tasked with managing Iran’s
When it was established in 1984 to operate in Iraq
during the Iran-Iraq war, the Quds Force adopted the logo: “On our way to
Jerusalem, via Baghdad.” Its flag consists of a clenched fist around a rifle,
below a citation from the Koran which reads, “Against them make ready your
strength to the utmost of your power.”
Set apart from the rest of the
Iranian armed forces, the Quds force has been headed by General Qassemm
Suleimani since 1998. Suleimani commands, according to estimates, some 15,000
operatives, and answers directly to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali
Following the US’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Quds Force
returned to Iraq, where it is training and arming radical Shi’ite militias with
armor-piercing weapons and advanced explosives. But Iraq is just one of many
arenas where the unit is active.
Enjoying staff branches, regional
headquarters and generous resources, the Quds Force maintains operations in
Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan and the Gaza Strip as well.
In 2008, its
commander, General Suleimani, felt so confident that, according to The Guardian,
he sent a text message to then-commander of US forces in Iraq, General David
Petraeus, saying, “you should know that I, Qassem Suleimani, control the policy
for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan.
indeed, the [Iranian] ambassador in Baghdad is a Quds Force member. The
individual who’s going to replace him is a Quds Force member.”
Force is behind much of the bad news facing Israeli national security today. It
assists, trains and arms Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, supplying it with tens
of thousands of rockets. It has offered assistance to Hamas and Islamic Jihad in
Gaza. And it has been spearheading terror attacks around the world against
Israeli targets for more than two decades.
The Quds Force has been linked
to the 1994 bombing of the Jewish Community Center in Argentina, in which 85
people were murdered. More recently, it has been linked to a series of botched
terror attacks on Israeli targets in February of this year, in India, Thailand
and Georgia – attacks launched to avenge the assassination of Iranian nuclear
scientists, which Tehran blames on Israel.
“Activating its Special
Operations Unit 400, it carries out a variety of clandestine activities beyond
Iran’s borders. Those activities include terrorist attacks as well as
organizing, training, equipping, financing and directing Shi’ite, and sometimes
Sunni, Islamist networks,” a recent report by the Meir Amit Intelligence and
Terrorism Information Center said.
And now, the Quds Force is trying to
help Bashar Assad, Iran’s sole regional ally, survive.
“It’s become much
more active in Syria,” Ephraim Kam, deputy head of the Institute for National
Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, told The Jerusalem Post this
“Iran has apparently sent hundreds of personnel from the Quds Force
to Syria, including officers and soldiers,” added Kam, a former colonel in the
Research Division of IDF Military Intelligence. “It’s not clear what they’re
doing there. They could be training Syrian forces to fight the rebels. I assume
that the Syrian soldiers are doing the shooting themselves.”
Kam said the
Quds Force “always maintains dozens of members in Lebanon,” where they provide
Hezbollah with training, tactical advice and logistics, such as aid in tunnel
and underground bunker construction.
Ely Karmon, of the Interdisciplinary
Center’s Institute for Counter-Terrorism, said the Quds Force was part of a
recent, enormous Hezbollah military exercise in southern Lebanon involving
10,000 fighters. “The Quds Force members are experienced officers and
professionals,” he said.
“They are considered a very loyal force to the
Iranian supreme leader,” Karmon added.
When Iranian President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad came to power, he did so as a representative of the IRGC, Karmon
said. “But when he began his second term, Ahmadinejad started falling out with
religious and conservative elements and had a serious run-in with Khamenei,
“Hence, we’ve been hearing through reports over the past two years
that Ahmadinejad has lost control of the IRGC [and its Quds Force] to Khamenei,”
the analyst said.
Despite its fierce reputation, the Quds Force appears
to be experiencing somewhat of a drop in its abilities.
In addition to
its high-profile failures in Thailand, Georgia and Azerbaijan, its brazen plot
to use Mexican drug cartels to bomb a Washington restaurant in order to kill the
Saudi ambassador was exposed by the US, to Iran’s
Nevertheless, the unit remains a major threat to Israel’s
national security, and Iran’s chief instrument for wielding regional influence
and organizing terror attacks.
“Israel has a big account to settle with
this unit,” Kam said. “But Israel hasn’t struck it directly. That would spark a
terror war. From what I can see, this cautious approach won’t change
significantly soon,” he added.