In a moment of uncharacteristic candour, Syria's defence minister last week admitted he had been working with Qassim Soleimani since the start of the country's devastating civil war.
"The first battle we carried out was Baba Amr in Homs [in 2011]", said General Ali Ayub.
For anyone who has been paying attention to the war in Syria it was no surprise Soleimani and his men had been on the ground from its earliest days, but this was the first time the regime had publicly acknowledged it.
Iran’s role in the conflict has always been murky. Unlike Damascus’s other main ally, Russia, Tehran has always preferred to keep quiet about its footprint there.
Iran has led a controversial campaign in Syria in the pursuit of controlling an arc of territory known as the “Shia Crescent” from Tehran all the way to Beirut in Lebanon. The late Soleimani, as head of the Quds Force - the external operations arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp - was its architect.
He began by completely reorganising President Bashar al-Assad’s armed forces, modelled on Iran’s Basij militia.
When the uprising against Assad grew, he deployed nearly 80,000 Shia militiamen, including fighters from Lebanon’s Hizbollah, Iraqi militant groups, and Afghan and Pakistani mercenaries, to fight the largely Sunni opposition.
Iran claimed that the Shia fighters going to Syria were motivated by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's call to “fight in Syria… to protect the holy sites.”
Indeed, many of the militias entered the conflict with the pretext of defending the shrine of Zainab bint Ali, the Prophet Mohammad’s granddaughter, in Damascus, and others.
But Soleimani had a much darker master plan. Soleimani tried to reconfigure the country’s sectarian demographics in such a way that would further his Shia Crescent project.
Nowhere was it more apparent than in the so-called “four towns agreement". Zabadani and Madaya, predominantly Sunni towns in the south-west, were besieged for years by Assad and Lebanese Hizbollah forces.
Kefraya and Foah, predominantly Shia towns in the north, were besieged by Islamist opposition fighters. Soleimani oversaw the brutal years-long sieges of the Sunni towns, which brought populations of starving civilians to their knees, and then eventually a deal in 2017 to evacuate all four in parallel.
Sunnis were moved to less “useful” rebel-held regions in the north, while Shia government loyalists went to regime-held regions in the south-west.
In Daraya, a suburb of Damascus where the Sayeda Zainab shrine is located, hundreds of Shia families from Iraq moved into neighbourhoods abandoned by rebels after agreeing to a surrender deal.
A large percentage of the 3.5million people in Idlib, the last-remaining rebel bastion, were forced out of rebel-held towns and cities that fell to government forces.
It is unclear what fate awaits them, but regime forces, supported by Russian air power and now apparently Iranian ground troops, are closing in.
“There is a tendency to describe the militias that Iran drafted into Syria as foreign fighters, or as Hizbollah or Quds Force, whereas Sunnis who went to join ISIS are described as jihadists,” Elizabeth Tsurkov, fellow in the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute told The Telegraph.“Yet both, in their own rhetoric, are fundamentally jihadist.”
Soleimani mobilised militias by convincing them they are fighting a holy war, she said, “religious fighters, after all, are generally much more driven than non-religious.”
The radio communications of Soleimani’s militias in Idlib published today by the Telegraph reveal that each fighter was given the code name “Sajjad” after Ali ibn Husayn Zayn al-Abidin, known as “Imam Sajjad” the fourth Imam of Shia Islam, followed by an identifying number.
“Ya, Ali, Ya, Ali,” one fighter tells his comrade, “we will have victory over them.”
“‘Fight for Ali, for Zaynab (two figures revered in Shia Islam)’, the fighters are heard saying in the recordings,” Ms Tsurkov said.
“You can imagine how terrified this makes people in Idlib - a largely Sunni province. It’s a threat not only to their lives but also their religion.”
Soleimani helped fuel a Sunni-Shia conflict in Syria that threatens to engulf the region for years to come.
Recent remarks by the commander of an Afghan militias under the Quds Force suggest the slain general laid out a five-year plan that will be enacted posthumously.
“Sending young Afghan refugees to go and fight to their deaths, flattening cities, clearing out whole towns, ethnic repopulation. This is Soleimani’s legacy,” said Ms Tsurkov.