Nobody saw it coming. Nobody. General Qasem Soleimani, the most feared man in the Middle East, was assassinated in Baghdad by a US drone strike in the early hours of Friday morning, and not a single Middle East analyst, journalist or pundit had seen it coming. When disbelief finally faded and reality set in, the confirmation of the news that the commander of Iran’s Quds Force had been assassinated on orders from Washington sent shockwaves around the world. We were and are witnessing an era-defining moment for the Middle East.
The Soleimani era is over, not a single person predicted it, and not a single person knows what will happen as a result for the region, or for the world. And that is terrifying. “A multitude of mixed feelings, but ‘fear’ is the dominant one,” tweeted Iraqi journalist and editor of Irfaa Sawtak, Rasha Al Aqeedi. “God-like figures aren’t supposed to die. When they do, it gets very confusing.”
But that is precisely what has happened. To understand the gravity of events, Qasem Soleimani was treated as untouchable by the two presidential administrations that preceded Trump, even as they held him personally responsible for the deaths of hundreds of US service members in Iraq, for fear of the severity of the potential retaliation from Iran.
Donald Trump must have been presented with this same information, and his decision to ignore it will reverberate around the Middle East for decades. Recently retired senior CIA officer Marc Polymeropoulos tweeted his astonishment at the situation: “In usual national security processes, a lot of thought goes into such decapitation strikes..in this case, I am most curious if analytic assessments prior to the event warned of a regional conflagration, and if such assessments had any effect on Trump. Or, were they done at all?”
The only way to understand Qasem Soleimani’s legacy is to trace the trail of bloodshed in his wake across the Middle East. As head of the Quds Force, Soleimani personally oversaw an international multi-billion dollar terrorist proxy network, and he did so with total impunity. In a famous incident in 2008, General David Petraeus, then commander of the United States Central Command, was handed a phone by then Iraqi President Jalal Talabani with a text message from Soleimani. It read “Dear 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 member.”
But the most defining legacy in the Middle East of the man who ran Tehran’s insurgency against US forces in Iraq was not the deaths of hundreds of US service members, nor the wave of political assassinations he masterminded throughout the last two decades. Soleimani made his mark through his unrestrained barbarity towards civilians in Syria and Iraq, and he was personally responsible for the deaths of thousands of people. These include the hundreds of Iraqi civilians who were shot dead by Iraqi security forces within the last three months, acting directly under his orders.
Soleimani was brutal, merciless, and ruthlessly efficient at his trade, slaughtering his way across the Middle East in the pursuit of regional hegemony. If he could not bulldoze his way through civilian infrastructure, he had a near endless supply of impoverished, forcibly recruited Shia conscripts from Afghanistan and Pakistan that he could send over the trenches in World War One-like human wave attacks until all resistance was broken, their lives apparently as cheap to him as the lives of the civilian protest movements he crushed.
It is little surprise to see social media videos of Iraqi protesters dancing in the streets of Baghdad last night in jubilation at the news that the man who had butchered hundreds of their brethren was dead. Nor was it surprising to see the celebrations in Idlib, Syria, home to 3 million people, the vast majority of them refugees from Aleppo, Douma, Darayya, Madaya, Homs, Hama, Daraa and every other city and town Soleimani had brutalised, besieged and starved before their forced displacement.
Soleimani’s defenders point to battles between the proxy forces under his command and the Islamic State group across Iraq and Syria. But it is a preposterous and grotesque revisionism of history to suggest that the man who harboured al-Qaeda in Iran was some sort of counter-terrorist. The brutality of Soleimani’s policies in Iraq was as responsible for creating the material conditions IS needed to flourish as Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq did (Obama doesn’t get off lightly here, either), and his forces carried out acts of unimaginable cruelty against civilians in IS-occupied territory in the process.
Nobody should fool themselves into thinking that Trump’s decision to assassinate Soleimani had anything to do with justice for Soleimani’s victims. The American president has proved his own brutality towards Middle Eastern civilians. Soleimani was killed because he was a vain and egotistical man who believed himself untouchable. His decision to order his proxies to storm the US embassy in Iraq on Tuesday was no more brazen in its audacity than his smiling selfies taken on his tour of every town and city he turned to rubble in Syria. But as his militias spray-painted his name on the side of the US embassy wall and publicly goaded Trump, he finally found the last line in the sand that he would ever cross.
Qasem Soleimani was a tyrant, a terrorist and a mass murderer. His death has made the world a better place. But it has also made the world a less safe place. Iran cannot let the killing of its second most powerful figure go unpunished. It is no longer a matter of if Iran will respond, but how, and when. Despite the unprecedented nature of proceedings, it still seems unlikely that any sort of US invasion of Iran is on the table. The question Iran faces is: just how far is it willing to go to respond?
There is no scenario in which Iran’s regime, for all its regional strength and power, can win in a conventional war against the United States military. For all its bellicose rhetoric and belligerence, it prefers to focus its aggression against civilian protesters or poorly armed farmers on the backs of pick-up trucks than it does against military powers, as clearly shown by its near total lack of response to Israel’s repeated air strikes against Iranian targets in Syria over the last few years. But Trump’s unpredictability and the previously unthinkable situation we find ourselves in today has torn the conventional rule book to shreds. We are in uncharted waters without a compass, and Trump’s abysmal record on foreign policy proves there is absolutely nobody at the wheel.
But the reality is that if a new war is on the horizon, it is unlikely to be Americans who will suffer the most. It will be terrified and trapped civilians across the Middle East, which would in a sense be a continuation of Soleimani’s life’s work. We should also disabuse ourselves of the notion that there isn’t an ongoing war still raging in Iraq, Syria and beyond. Soleimani’s wars have engulfed his victims for decades, Middle Eastern civilians are the ones paying the price, and every action or inaction from global superpowers has a price in blood. We live in dangerous, unprecedented, terrifying times. But for tonight at least, our thoughts should be with the families of Qasem Soleimani’s victims. For better or for worse, a brutal tyrant is dead.