The significance of Qasem Soleimani's assassination

The significance of Qasem Soleimani's assassination

Qasem Soleimani's death has shocked the Middle East, but it might ultimately prove a more symbolic blow to Iran rather than a strategic one, writes Paul Iddon.
5 min read
04 January, 2020
Qassem Soleimani headed Iran's elite Quds Force [Getty]

In a major escalation in its increasingly tense standoff with the Islamic Republic of Iran, the United States assassinated Major General Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC] extraterritorial Quds Force, in Iraq on January 3. Soleimani is undoubtedly the most high-profile figure of the Iranian regime the US has ever killed. 

Soleimani, along with the deputy of Iraq's state-sanctioned Popular Mobilisation Forces [PMF] paramilitary and Kataib Hezbollah militia leader Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandi, were killed in the early hours of January 3 when a US drone bombed their convoy as it left Baghdad International Airport. 

The attack follows a week of tense escalation between the US and Iran proxies in Iraq. Since October, Iran-backed members of the PMF, Kataib Hezbollah in particular, have fired projectiles at various bases housing US troops in Iraq. Washington repeatedly warned it would not sit idle in the face of these continued attacks.

None of the attacks were fatal until December 27, when Kataib Hezbollah fired Katyusha rockets at the K1 military base in Kirkuk and killed an American civilian contractor. Two days later, the US unleashed airstrikes at five different targets relating to the militia, three in Iraq and two in Syria, killing at least 25 of the paramilitaries and wounding several more.

Enraged supporters of the group attacked the US embassy compound in Baghdad on December 31. Hadi al-Amiri, head of the Badr Organisation, who has long held close ties with Iran was spotted attending that violent protest.

US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper stated that "Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region" when Washington assassinated him. He also said Soleimani approved the aforementioned attack on the US embassy.

Whatever happens as a result of Soleimani's killing, the assassination of such a high-profile Iranian figure is a hugely significant development.

Soleimani has often been described as the second most powerful man in Iran, behind only Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in terms of power.

He fought in the Iran-Iraq War back in the 1980s.

In 1986, he was one of the commanders to send thousands of Iranian troops into unrelentingly heavy Iraqi artillery fire in a frantic bid to capture Iraqi territory in Operation Karbala-5, which eventually became the largest battle in that bloody and depleting war. 

In 1998, Soleimani became the IRGC Quds Force commander. He later became a well-known figurehead representing Iran's outreach and activities in numerous countries including Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Afghanistan.

Early in 2008, US four-star General David Petraeus received a text message directly from Soleimani which read: "General Petraeus, you should know that I, Qasem Soleimani, control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan. And indeed, the ambassador in Baghdad is a Quds Force member. The individual who's going to replace him is a Quds Force commander."

Soleimani always seemed happy to convey to the Americans that Iran was a formidable force to be reckoned with in the region.

Under his leadership, the Quds Force amassed a formidable force of approximately 200,000 Shia militiamen across the Middle East, according to veteran Iran analyst Nader Uskowi. This force gave Iran considerable influence in various war-torn countries across the region.

Shortly after the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad broke out in Syria in 2011, Soleimani organised several Shia militias to help bolster the Damascus regime. He commanded thousands of IRGC and Shia militiamen who decisively helped Assad recapture Syria's second city, Aleppo, in 2016.

Tellingly, during that crucial campaign, Iran lost "the largest number of generals killed in action" since the Iran-Iraq War. 

In Iraq, Soleimani also organised the various Iran-backed Iraq militias that made-up a large part of the PMF after the Islamic State group infamously captured one-third of the country in 2014.

His profile and reputation as "the shadow commander" grew in the West as he made many publicised trips to battlefields in both Iraq and Syria. These trips were not so inconspicuous given the fact the so-called "shadow commander" often posed for selfies.

In 2015, after Iraq recaptured Tikrit from the IS, Soleimani was photographed walking through its streets smiling. The symbolism of such a high-profile IRGC general and Iran-Iraq war veteran confidently strutting through the streets of Saddam Hussein's hometown was certainly not lost on the ubiquitous Soleimani and once again conveyed Iran's reach in Iraq and the wider region.

The Quds Force commander also orchestrated the Iraqi takeover of Kirkuk from Iraqi Kurdistan following that region's independence referendum in September 2017.

The day before the October 16 Iraqi takeover of Kirkuk an IRGC commander close to Soleimani sat down with Kurdish commanders in the northern Iraqi city and warned them to handover the city without a fight.

"If you resist, we will crush you and you will lose everything," the Iranian delegation, which also included Muhandis and Amiri, warned the Kurds.

It's widely believed that this threat, along with an earlier Iranian-sponsored deal between the Kurds and Baghdad, prompted the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan [PUK] to withdraw its Peshmerga forces from the city, which were hitherto the predominant Kurdish force in Kirkuk.

Kirkuk infamously fell 24 hours after that warning. Muhandis was present when the Iraqis removed the Kurdish flag and replaced it with Iraq's national flag.

Kirkuk governor Najmaldin Karim, who had to flee his city after he was warned Iranian-backed forces were approaching his office to either capture or even kill him, told The New Arab afterwards that Iran executed the takeover.

Qasem Soleimani's fingerprints, as with so many other events across the region in recent years, were clearly all over that operation.

While his death is hugely significant and will likely lead to more clashes between the US and Iran-backed elements in Iraq, it might ultimately prove a more symbolic blow to Iran rather than a strategic one.

As Iran analyst Arash Karami pointed out, while Soleimani's death was undoubtedly "a big deal" it's not "a strategic blow" to Tehran.

"Iran hyped him as a symbolic resistance fighter but they have a dozen commanders with his skill set and experience," Karami tweeted. "It's an escalation Iran can/will manage."

The position of Quds Force commander was quickly assigned to Esmail Ghaani, Soleimani's deputy, mere hours after the prominent major general's demise. Soleimani was also posthumously promoted to the rank of lieutenant general.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon