Rashad Ali is a counter terrorism practitioner. He is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD).
Qasim Solemani, the commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), has been killed by US forces in Iraq, along with a number of other high ranking militia leaders.
His death comes at a time of heightened escalation in the region: Solemani had sent proxies to storm the US embassy; a US contractor was killed last week, and a US military drone has been shot down by the Iranians. Over the last decade, we have seen a steady drip-feed of American soldiers being attacked and killed by Iranian proxies in the Levant – 603 is the number claimed by the US.
But the significance of Solemani’s death lies in his unique and central role in the Iranian theocratic regime. He was a military leader, but not one whose primary role was as part of Iran’s regular army. Rather, as the leader of the Quds Force, he was effectively the head of the militia and global terrorist arms of Iran. Both the IRGC and Solemani himself were designated as terrorists by the US. He is said to have been the man who took Bin Laden’s children to Friday prayers when Iran was sheltering al-Qaeda.
The Quds Force has played a central role in suppressing the Syrian people in their millions. In practice, that has meant starving and slaughtering entire cities and towns, and repressing those Iraqis protesting against Iranian presence in their country.
Human Rights Watch has reported that more than 500 people have been killed by Solemani and his proxies. Indeed, he died while in transit from Lebanon, where he had been strategising with Hezbollah on the best way to suppress the large uprisings there which, like those that have taken place in Iraq over the last few months, have been overtly non-sectarian.
It is for this reason that the reaction among the Syrians, Iraqis and even Iranians who can freely speak has been one of welcoming his unexpected decline. Syrians have started to say they can finally wish people Happy New Year. Iraqis are rightly scared of what Solemani’s death may mean in terms of retaliation, but point out that there is a proxy conflict already going on and that they are hosting it, whether they like it or not.
Some argue that this action could lead to war. But as Syrians and those following the region rightly reply, the Khomeinist regime is already at war there. Indeed, Solemani was the man who travelled to secure Russian involvement in the current genocide unfolding in Syria. What’s happening in that country is not a civil war. It is a war on civilians that has cost more than half a million lives, and displaced millions in and outside the country.
The death toll that can be laid at the feet of Solemani has been far greater than that attributable to ISIS and Al Qaeda. Solemani’s death has been welcomed in much the same manner as Baghdadi’s and Bin Laden’s for this reason.
However, it would be mistaken to regard the killing of Solemani as merely a symbolic measure. Certainly, the symbolism is powerful. The man who, within US political circles, was nicknamed “Supermani” and was regarded as a larger than life figure in the region is dead.
But we should also recognise the death of Solemani as tactically significant. The military leader to whom the Iranian regime would have turned to craft, strategise and implement the response to an event like this is no more. The strategic vacuum that his death leaves should not be underestimated.
It is likely that Iran will now seek to translate the threats of Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, into concrete responses – most likely through proxies. We should not forget that Iran has military assets throughout the world, in particular in Germany, who could be deployed in such a response. Let us also not forget the stash of explosives discovered earlier this year in London. However, following the killing of Solemani, Iran’s ability to respond in an effective manner has been weakened.
His killing also sends a message – one which the previous administration in the US spectacularly failed to communicate. Actions have consequences. Lines in the sand must not be crossed. Over the last few years, successive Israeli strikes against Iranian regime assets in Syria have demonstrated two facts.
First, that military strikes against Iranian proxies in the region do not result in disastrous consequences.
Second, that in the battle against Iran’s attempt to achieve regional hegemony, it is essential to be taken seriously as a military power. The killing of Solemani now means that the reaction of the US must be taken into account by Iran, when planning its next step in the region.
This is uncharted territory. Clumsy analogies are poor guides to a decent understanding of politics in the Levant. We should be wary of commentators blaming the US for escalation, or criticising the US for taking out a terrorist, a war criminal, and responding to a genocidal regime threatening global integrity and regional sovereignty. Appeasement of genocidal totalitarian regimes has never worked out well.