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The Soleimani Airstrike: An End to His Signature Middle East Strategy?

Posted on Monday 1/6/2020
Corri Zoli

By Corri Zoli, Director of Research, Institute for Security Policy and Law

Less well-known than Al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden or ISIS’s Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi, the covert Iranian commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani had widespread strategic influence throughout the Middle East. He was responsible for standing up and activating a clandestine infrastructure of organized armed groups from Hezbollah to Hamas and for ongoing instability and insurgency in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, and elsewhere. It is for this reason that several terrorism scholars and expert observers—myself included—have identified Soleimani’s defeat as far more significant than that of Osama bin Laden or Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.

While the repercussions of his death for Mideast dynamics are still unknown, even in these polarized times, the defeat of Soleimani should warrant a clear-eyed recognition that his two decades of orchestrating a covert signature strategy for Mideast insurgency and instability has come to an end. 

First, the facts as currently known. On Jan. 3, 2020, Soleimani—head of the elite, external clandestine Quds Force, a division of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—was targeted and killed by a US drone airstrike, authorized by President Donald J. Trump. The strike happened as Soleimani and four Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) members—including Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) Commander Jamal Jafaar Mohammed Ali Āl Ebrahim (Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis)—exited their aircraft at Baghdad International airport. 

The five has just arrived from Lebanon or Syria, signaling coordination between Iran’s IRGC and the Iraqi-state supported umbrella PMF, often called the new Iraqi Republican Guard. PMF includes more than 40 largely Shia militia and terrorist groups, including Iran-supported KH, the Khazali Network, and Badr Brigades. 

While some commentators have pointed to a post-US strike escalation of tensions, the drone strike that killed Soleimani and company was in fact a response to KH’s provocative 31 Dec., 2019, attacks on the US embassy in Baghdad—a breach of international law—and its 27 Dec., 2019, attack on the Iraqi K-1 Air Base in Kirkuk, which hosts US Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) personnel. During that attack, KH rockets—more than 30—killed a US civilian contractor and injured four US and two Iraqi military personnel. It is for these immediate precursor reasons that the Department of Defense has characterized the Soleimani strike as “defensive.” 

Forgotten in recent news, however, were a series of highly provocative attacks since 2017 by IRGC across the region. Last year alone, these include the May 2019 Gulf of Oman oil tanker attacks damaged six commercial ships, including two Saudi Aramco oil tankers; the May 2019 Saudi pipeline attack and the Sept. 14, 2019, unprecedented drone hit on Saudi Aramco’s two major oil processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais; and the June 20, 2019, attack on a US RQ-4A Global Hawk surveillance drone for which Trump intended to respond but reversed his decision, instead requesting a United Nations Security Council closed-door meeting on Iranian regional escalation. This pattern is why former US military commanders in the region, such as Gen. David Petraeus, have framed the Soleimani strike as a need to reestablish “deterrence.”

From a broader strategic perspective, for those unfamiliar with the region, the killing of Soleimani uncovers plenty of questions about the region’s politics and conflicts: Why in the world would Iran sponsor an irregular militia to attack a sovereign embassy, which Iraq as the host nation is required to protect? Why would Iran support the targeting of a neighbor’s military airbase, particularly when the world’s most powerful military force is on base? Broadening the aperture, why would Iran—with Soleimani as its operational mastermind—ally with Russia to support Syrian President Bashir al-Assad, since 2012, in the Syrian Civil War with brutal atrocities against his own people? Moreover, why would Iran seek to destabilize Yemen—supporting the Houthi insurgency—at Saudi Arabia’s doorstep, thus drawing the Gulf Arab states into the fray? 

Welcome to the dynamics of proxy warfare and Soleimani’s signature strategy in the Middle East. At its core, Soleimani aimed to blend the power of the state (Iran, and its political power) with the dynamic activism of violent extremist and militant groups, much like the model of Hezbollah in Lebanon, as Middle East expert Ali Soufan observed. That strategy alone—where nonstate groups can draw on the power of a state—warrants a more disruptive response which utilizes all instruments of national power, including economics and kinetics.

Still one of the best strategic profiles of Soleimani is Dexter Filkins’s 2013 New Yorker essay, “The Shadow Commander” in which Filkins explains how Soleimani was shaped by the 1980s Iran-Iraq War (with its use of chemical weapons) and then tasked as early as 1998 to advance the 1979 Iranian Revolution and reshape the Middle East into the Shia Crescent zone of influence. As part of this vision, Soleimani went on—all at the same time—to help direct and fund Assad’s war in Syria, Hezbollah’s control of Lebanon, and the ongoing insurgencies against US and coalition forces in Afghanistan and Iraq (since 2001). 

Soleimani’s endgame was to reshape the Mideast into a zone of Iranian influence, thus, advancing the Iranian revolutionary flame ever forward. While this goal is by no means unique to Soleimani—Iran’s Supreme Leaders share this core aspiration—what was unique to the general was his powerful execution of this goal by building a vast covert organizational infrastructure of dozens of Iran-backed militant and terrorist organizations. These proxies and special groups have been increasing at rapid rates due to fighting against US coalition forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also in Syria and against Islamic State. 

In light of Soleimani’s long-term signature strategy, it is not surprising to see successive US administrations designate these proxy and covert forces as terrorist organizations. On April 8, 2019, Soleimani’s IRGC and Quds Force were both designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) under Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, augmenting earlier Obama-era Treasury designations in 2007 and 2010. Likewise, in July 2009 under executive orders 13438 and 13224—covering those who threaten stabilization efforts in Iraq—the Obama Administration designated Kata’ib Hezbollah a terrorist organization, the only Iraqi Shiite militia so designated by the US. Soleimani himself was a “specially designated national” (SDN) since 1999, again in 2010 under EO 13382, with additional sanctions after his foiled plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in the United States.

Such tactics also were used at home. In early December the world witnessed an Iran “convulsed” by what The New York Times called its “worst unrest in 40 Years,” with anti-government protests across 21 cities. These protests were followed by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s “brutal crackdown”—with IRGC involvement—resulting in more than 1,500 protesters killed. Iranians were protesting rising fuel prices, the result of economic mismanagement and EU and US sanctions issued in response to IRGC provocations. These included the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which passed overwhelmingly by both houses in 2017 (including sanctions against Russia and North Korea).

There’s no doubt Soleimani will be replaced, but his successor will have very large strategic shoes to fill. Reports indicate that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has regrouped and will replace the head of its agile, covert militant network with Quds Force deputy Brig. Gen. Esmail Ghaani

Governments in and beyond the region are collectively holding their breath, hoping that violence will not escalate. Some—such as Russia, Iran’s ally in Syria—criticized the US action and, in turn, praised Soleimani for having “faithfully served and defended the national interests of Iran.” Any realistic account must address the conflicting, multiperspectives in the region. In addition to celebrations among communities in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere, journalist Kim Ghattas notes that Soleimani was not only a problem for the US, he “haunted the Arab world,” so his death has been greeted with often-quiet “elation.” While Iraq’s parliament will ask for the removal of US forces, some see the post-Soleimani moment as a win for a stronger Iraq. No doubt, US military servicemembers, directly targeted by the IRGC especially in Iraq, offer important insights.

Critics of this action will fixate once again on the Trump Administration’s strategy, positing the US as responsible for Mideast conflict and crisis. Some of these critics ignore Soleimani’s two decades of militant infrastructure-building or the audacity of Kata’ib Hezbollah to target its neighbor’s embassy and airbase. They also forget that KH Commander Muhandis—killed along with Soleimani—was the alleged mastermind of the US and French embassy bombings in Kuwait in 1983, as well as the assassination attempt on Kuwait’s emir in 1985. Such forces have been hard at work for a long time. 

While we do not know what happens next, with Soleimani’s demise, Iran and its proxies have lost their strategic architect.