The United States has killed Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force and, by almost all accounts, the most influential military and intelligence operative in the Middle East.
Soleimani died in an airstrike at Baghdad’s international airport, along with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces.
The two men were among more than a half-dozen who perished in the attack.
“The American and Israeli enemy is responsible for killing the mujahideen Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Qassem Soleimani”, Ahmed al-Assadi, a spokesman for the PMF said.
The Pentagon later confirmed that the US carried out the strike. “Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region”, a statement reads. “This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans”.
Donald Trump personally ordered his assassination. The White House delivered a celebratory tweet:
At the direction of the President, the U.S. military has taken decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad by killing Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, a US-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization.
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) January 3, 2020
The strikes occurred as the PMF’s airport protocol officer, Mohammed Reda, arrived to collect what one official described as “high-level” visitors from a neighboring country. There is no “higher” level official than Soleimani.
One official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AP that al-Muhandis came to the airport in a convoy to receive Soleimani who had arrived on a plane from Syria or Lebanon. “The airstrike occurred as soon as he descended from the plane to be greeted by al-Muhandis and his companions, killing them all”, AP says.
Additional details recounted Friday by The New York Times said the plan to kill Soleimani was put in motion last week after the death of the US contractor whose misfortune set in motion the series of events which culminated in the drone strike on the General.
“The military’s Special Operations Command spent several days looking for an opportunity to strike. An option provided, and eventually approved, was dependent on General Soleimani’s arrival at Baghdad International Airport”, The Times said, adding that “if he was met by Iraqi officials, the strike would be called off, but… it was a ‘clean party,’ and the strike was approved”.
As we recounted earlier this week, the demonstrations at the US embassy in Baghdad, the US airstrikes on Kataib Hezbollah and the attack on an Iraqi military installation which prompted those strikes, were the latest episode in America’s long-running Tom and Jerry act with Soleimani.
His death will almost surely prompt a furious response from Iran. The IRGC has already said they will take revenge. Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, called the attack “an act on international terrorism” by the US. He also reminded the world that the Sunni extremists so feared in the West themselves feared Soleimani as a child fears the monster under the bed.
The US' act of international terrorism, targeting & assassinating General Soleimani—THE most effective force fighting Daesh (ISIS), Al Nusrah, Al Qaeda et al—is extremely dangerous & a foolish escalation.
The US bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism.
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) January 3, 2020
Earlier Thursday, Mark Esper indicated the US was prepared to take a harder line after the events that transpired over the last week. Among other things, Esper warned the Pentagon was prepared to launch preemptive strikes. “The game has changed”, he told reporters, in what now seems like a particularly foreboding soundbite.
Soleimani’s demise brings to a close one of the most storied careers in the modern history of spycraft. His death draws the curtain on a battlefield legend who has, at times, taken on an almost mythical status. His name inspires terror, adoration or outright disgust, depending on the company you happen to keep.
“For 23 years, he has been the equivalent of the J.S.O.C. commander, the C.I.A. director and Iran’s real foreign minister”, Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of hawkish think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told The New York Times. “He is irreplaceable and indispensable”.
This will have dramatic ramifications across the region. Tehran’s proxies in Iraq, Syria and Yemen will likely seek retribution against any and all US interests – and in short order.
The significance of his death cannot be overstated. Soleimani’s influence in regional affairs goes back decades. Consider the following excerpts from a 2013 profile called “The Shadow Commander“, as published in The New Yorker:
Suleimani took command of the Quds Force fifteen years ago, and in that time he has sought to reshape the Middle East in Iran’s favor, working as a power broker and as a military force: assassinating rivals, arming allies, and, for most of a decade, directing a network of militant groups that killed hundreds of Americans in Iraq. The U.S. Department of the Treasury has sanctioned Suleimani for his role in supporting the Assad regime, and for abetting terrorism. And yet he has remained mostly invisible to the outside world, even as he runs agents and directs operations. “Suleimani is the single most powerful operative in the Middle East today,” John Maguire, a former C.I.A. officer in Iraq, told me, “and no one’s ever heard of him.”
When Suleimani appears in public—often to speak at veterans’ events or to meet with Khamenei—he carries himself inconspicuously and rarely raises his voice, exhibiting a trait that Arabs call khilib, or understated charisma. “He is so short, but he has this presence,” a former senior Iraqi official told me. “There will be ten people in a room, and when Suleimani walks in he doesn’t come and sit with you. He sits over there on the other side of room, by himself, in a very quiet way. Doesn’t speak, doesn’t comment, just sits and listens. And so of course everyone is thinking only about him.”
You can (and should) read the entire profile for yourself, but suffice to say Soleimani is a ghost story; Keyser Söze in the flesh. He was a larger-than-life figure in the region and a household name in Iran. Recently, his fingerprints have shown up on everything from Putin’s intervention in Syria to the infamous kidnapped Qatari falconry party that purportedly helped spark the Qatar embargo in 2017.
In the summer of 2015, when Iran was angling to elicit Russia’s support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Khamenei is said to have sent a senior envoy to Moscow to meet directly with Vladimir Putin. “‘Okay we will intervene’. Send Qassem Soleimani”, Putin reportedly told the envoy.
Here is another account of the same episode, from a West Point profile:
In July 2015, despite peremptory U.N. sanctions prohibiting him from travel outside Iran, Soleimani flew to Moscow (reportedly on a commercial flight) for talks with the Russian defense minister and, reportedly, President Putin himself. A few weeks later, Soleimani was back in Syria, spearheading a coordinated offensive against rebel and jihadi groups, under cover of a massively stepped-up Russian air campaign. Putin’s intervention turned the tide decisively in Assad’s favor. By December 2016, Soleimani was pictured touring the remains of Aleppo’s historic heart, a few days after his militias, fighting alongside Syrian regulars, retook the city.
One of the ironies of the Trump administration’s “tough on Iran” stance is that the fanfare has arguably strengthened the mythos around the General. Last year, he famously traded Game of Thrones memes with Trump on social media.
“Waging a war [with Iran] will destroy all that you own”, Soleimani cautioned Trump, during a 2018 speech in Hamedan. “You may begin the war, but it us who will end it”.
His body, badly burned in the strike, was identified only by the ring he wore.