Soleimani's militia still follow instructions of dead commander
Iranian soldiers and Afghan mercenaries oversee military operations in Idlib, northwest Syria, despite having promised that they would not take part in the fight during peace talks, a Telegraph exclusive reports.
Soleimani's Quds Force is thought to still be operating in Idlib on his instructions, which he produced as part of a five-year strategy plan.
This comes as Syrian regime forces inch ever closer to capturing a key rebel-held city in southern Idlib province, four kilometres from Maaret Al-Numan.
Independent activist group Macro Media Centre (MMC) gave the recordings to the publication; they were from spotters at a local observatory who had managed to tune into the frequency of the militias' radio transmissions.
They were made between September and November, with some recordings made sometime last week and were found to have come from a base in Tamanah, Maarat al-Numan district.
This is miles away from known bases in Aleppo and Homs, which suggests the Iranian forces were operating covertly.
The recordings are mainly in Farsi, and in one, Afghan fighter speaking in Farsi are heard saying to one another: "Let's go together toward their position tonight, to see whether it is a bird or a fox," he said in animal-coded language.
"They can't defend it, even with the whole battalion," one says. "We will go in secret and we will hit and then take it, it'll be no big deal."
|Bombardment by Syrian regime forces on Kafr Ruma, Maaret al-Numan|
"Iranian militias seem to deliberately hide their presence in Idlib but in reality they are here," said Abu Hamza Kirnazi, a field commander in the Turkey-backed National Front for Liberation (NFL). "They have heavy weaponry and have used artilleries and rocket launchers against us in Al-Tamanah and other areas."
The area is being carved up by proxy interests including Turkey, who is the Islamic Republic's key trading partner in the wake of US sanctions.
Syrian regime forces were prepared to enter Maarat al-Numan in the southern rebel-held Idlib province, a city that once held over 110,000 people.
Nearly all of its inhabitants fled last month following intense airstrikes by both the regime and Russian forces.
The escalation coincides with a recent spike in regime attacks on the rebel-held west of Aleppo province, which neighbours Idlib.
Between 15 and 19 January, more than 38,000 people fled violence in western Aleppo, according to the United Nations.
Idlib and parts of Aleppo are dominated by the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham alliance, led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate.
The Idlib region is home to some three million people, nearly half of whom have been displaced from other parts of the country.