Avi Melamed ~ Inside The Middle East
The killing of Iranian Al-Quds Force Commander, Major General Qassem Soleimani by the United States (January 3rd, 2020), launched a shock wave that ripples through the Middle East.
Qassem Soleimani was the Al-Quds Force commander. The Al -Quds force is an elite unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRG). The IRG reports directly to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Soleimani was the mastermind, the spearhead, the lead strategist – in charge of designing, leading, and implementing Iran’s hegemonic vision in the Middle East. His role was to spread Iran’s reach and influence and make Iran the superpower in the region. And he did so primarily by creating, supporting, and nurturing a network of militias – agents and proxies – throughout the Middle East including Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, Iraqi Shi’ite militias, Yemeni Houthi forces, Afghan and Pakistani Shi’ites militias, etc. Under Soleimani’s command, Iran deepened its hold in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and the Gaza Strip.
Soleimani became one of the key figures of the Middle East. Due to his role, Soleimani was loathed by a large segment of the Arab world.
Accumulating information indicates that the last hours of his life he passed between Beirut, Damascus, and Baghdad. This track symbolizes Soleimani’s enormous involvement and influence in these arenas and others.
According to reports attributed to Iranian media outlets, 12 people were killed in the attack.
Among those killed were two key figures in the Iranian hegemonic vision: Jamal Jaafar Mohammed Al Ibrahim, AKA Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, the Deputy Commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMU) in Iraq, otherwise known as Al- Hashd al-Sha’abi. Al-Mohandes was one of the closest figures to Soleimani. He was one of the most instrumental figures in Iran’s quest to gain control of Iraq through the use of the PMU Iranian-controlled Iraqi Shi’ite militias. The second person killed was Muhammad al-Qawthrani, a senior Lebanese Hezbollah official who was in charge of the relationship and coordination between the Hezbollah and the Iranian-backed Iraqi militias, including the PMU.
The attack also reportedly killed Soleimani’s son-in-law, together with the son-in-law of Imad Mughniyeh (Hezbollah’s Chief of Staff, who was assassinated in Damascus in February 2008). According to other reports, among those killed was also Na’im Qassem, the Lebanese Hezbollah’s Deputy Secretary-General. That report is, to the best of my knowledge, not true.
Iran and its proxies: Iranian regime officials, including the supreme leader ‘Ali Khamenei and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, threaten severe and painful revenge. At the same time, Iran’s National Security Council called an emergency session. Iranian organizations and entities such as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in Gaza, as well as pro-Iranian Iraqi militias such as ‘Asaib Ahl al-Haq, have issued statements of mourning and condemnation and put the responsibility on the US and Israel.
Arab states (except for Lebanon) as well as Turkey: Silence. One can assume they shed no tear over Soleimani’s death. In that context, there are expressions of joy over Soleimani’s assassination on social media platforms in the Arab world. An interesting episode in the context of reactions in the Arab world is a tweet posted by a senior media figure Faisal Al-Qassem (who is a Syrian of Druze origin) who “greets the Arab world on a wonderful morning, a morning of roses. ” This is an interesting tweet because Al-Qassem is the host of a famous talk show program in the Arab world called “The Reverse Direction,” which is broadcast on the Al-Jazeera News Network owned by Qatar. It is hard to imagine Qassem’s tweet being done without the approval of Qatar, which leads a friendly policy towards Iran.
Lebanon: The Lebanese Foreign Minister published a statement condemning the killing of Soleimani, describing it as “escalating aggression on Iran and violation of Iraqi sovereignty.” Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah issued a statement mourning Soleimani and vowing to continue Soleimani’s path and to pursue his goals.
Gaza: Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) have issued condolences and statements of mourning. While the messages condemn the US and Israel, it is worth noting that the statements do not include threats to retaliate.
Israel: Reportedly, the IDF has raised its level of alertness. In this context, the IDF blocked access to the ski resort on Mount Hermon in the northern part of the Golan Heights, apparently because of concern that Iranian – backed militias in Syria will launch rocket attack Mt. Hermon (as they have done in the past).
Soleimani’s assassination shocks the Iranian regime for several reasons:
Soleimani’s assassination significantly disrupts Iran’s goal of regional superiority. He was responsible for the entire Iranian expansion policy. He oversaw everything and was in charge of the entire strategy and structure. The Iranian regime will neither quickly nor easily recover from – or overcome the loss of Soleimani.
It seriously undermines the assumptions and great sense of self-confidence the Iranian regime has held that it is immune to direct harm. That confidence was bolstered when there was no response to the regime’s attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf in May and June 2019. And was further strengthened in September 2019 when Iran’s attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities passed without any military retaliation. The Iranian regime’s self-confidence is fueled by two underlying assumptions: One is that the West recoils from a military confrontation with Iran. And the other is that US President Trump, who is in an election year, would not risk initiating moves that could lead to a direct confrontation with Iran that would cost the lives of American soldiers. Iran has sustained two fierce blows by the US in just a few days. On December 29, the US attacked Iraqi Hezbollah militia bases in Iraq and Syria. And now the killing of Soleimani. These events significantly undermine the Iranian regime’s self-confidence that it is immune. And this presents a severe challenge to their hegemonic vision.
The timing of Soleimani’s death is very challenging for Iran. The assassination which undermines Iran’s underlying assumption of immunity, and severely damages its deterrence image happens while there are ongoing protests in Lebanon and Iraq. Protests, which, to a large extent, are aimed at getting Iran out of those two countries. An attack on Iran at this time that shows the regime’s vulnerability and weakness could bolster the protests in Lebanon and Iraq. That is bad news for the Mullah regime. Furthermore, the insurgencies in Iraq and Lebanon against the deepening Iranian involvement in their countries happen side by side with intense and growing public discontent inside Iran.
Iran’s proxies like Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza face a complex socio-economic reality. Those and other considerations will quell their willingness to initiate a military move in the service of Iran against Israel in response to Soleimani’s assassination.
Some argue that the assassination of Soleimani will increase tensions in the Middle East. This outlook confuses cause and effect: Tensions in the Middle East have intensified over the past decade because of the violent Iranian aggression which Soleimani spearheaded. Aggression which has led to Syria’s destruction and the disintegration of Lebanon and Iraq. Aggression that threatens maritime routes and safe passage in the Arab (Persian) Gulf and the Red Sea, a direct attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities that spiked oil prices and compromised the world’s oil supply. Aggression that has fueled and intensified tensions – including direct military confrontations – between Iran and its proxies and Israel.
General Soleimani and the Al-Quds force led the escalation in the region in the service of the hegemonic vision of the Iranian Mullah regime. Their actions have so far claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, led to the destruction of states, the disintegration of cities, and caused a wave of millions of refugees. Killing Soleimani is not the cause of the escalation – but the result.
What to expect over the next few days?
In my view, Iraq will be the main arena. As of now, the Iraqi government maintains silence. Iraqi forces were reportedly sent to secure key areas in Baghdad and blocked access to the US Embassy in Baghdad. As expected, the Iranian-backed Iraqi militias react with fury and vow to take revenge on the US and Israel.
However, the killing of Soleimani might escalate existing unrest and tensions within Iraq, possibly leading to some significant developments with potentially both domestic and regional repercussions.
On the domestic front, Iraq may experience internal clashes between Iranian-backed militias and Iraqi forces who want to or have been commanded to end – or significantly reduce – Iran’s influence on Iraq.
In that context, it is worth noting the response of two central and prominent figures in Iraqi politics. One is a Shi’ite politician and cleric Ammar al-Hakim, the former leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (2009 – 2017). He issued a statement urging the Iraqi government to “take steps to deter any hostilities.”
Another response has come from Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shi’ite cleric and leader of the Saeroun coalition, which supports Iraqi independence and calls for reducing Iran’s influence in Iraq. Al-Sadr said he expresses his hope that Iraq and the region will not sustain negative ramifications following the killing of Soleimani. Describing himself in his message as a “National Resistance Leader,” Al-Sadr urged Iraqi forces affiliated with the “National Resistance” to be on the alert.
Both Al-Hakim and particularly Al-Sadr, sent a signal to the Iranian-backed Iraqi militias to restrain their reaction. At this time, in that context, there is no official response from yet another major key factor in Iraq, and that is the Shi’ite spiritual supreme leadership and particularly Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who opposes Iranian influence in Iraq.
Another thing to pay attention to in Iraq is a rift that took place over the past few months between Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, the Deputy Commander of Al-Hashd al-Sha’abi, and Faleh al-Fayyad, the Supreme Leader of Al-Hashd al-Sha’abi who is also Iraq’s National Security Advisor. In September 2019, after al-Fayyad reportedly removed Al-Mohandes from his position, al-Fayyad met with senior US officials in the United States. The tension between Al-Mohandes and Al-Fayyad can be attributed to the fact al-Mohandes played a very active role in deepening Iran’s presence and influence in Iraq at the expense of Iraq’s national interests. In that context, Al-Mohandes facilitated the storage of Iranian missiles in bases and warehouses near Baghdad, in Western Iraq, and in Syria close to the Syrian-Iraqi Al-Qaim Border Crossing. In recent months those storage facilities in Iraq and Syria have been attacked. Another factor that was fueling the rift between Al-Mohandes and al-Fayyad is the involvement of Iranian-backed Iraqi militias that are violently repressing the Iraqi popular uprising. Thus far, more than 500 Iraqis have been killed by Iranian-backed Iraqi militias, and tens of thousands have been injured. The casualties have overwhelmingly been young Iraqi Shi’ites in southern Iraq demanding to end the Iranian presence in Iraq. The ongoing massacre of Iraqi protesters is angering the large Shi’ite tribes of southern Iraq who threatened to seize weapons to protect their sons. Al-Fayyad is the son of southern Iraqi Shi’ite tribal leader Albu ‘Amer. The inner Power struggle within al Hashd Al Sha’abi between those who want to increase Iranian influence in Iraq and those who want to free Iraq of the Iranian grip could evolve into a direct collision between militias on both sides.
From a regional point of view, an internal flare-up in Iraq could lead to a drastic Iranian move, which has two possible – and perhaps parallel tracks. One track is a missile attack on Israel from western Iraq. The other is direct Iranian military intervention in Iraq. In this context, accumulating information indicates the presence of Iranian-armed forces inside Iraq. For example, in September 2019, the Iranian Army’s Chief-of-Staff announced that Iranian Revolutionary Guards, together with the PMU units, will secure the Iranian pilgrimage to the sacred Shi’ite sites in southern Iraq. In December 2019, a video was released documenting the alleged transfer of tanks and armor from Iran to Iraq. Reportedly, Iranian fighter jets have flown near the Iran-Iraq border shortly after the killing of Soleimani. Iran has made it very clear it views Iraq as a critical component for its national security. Hence, one should not rule out the possibility of direct Iranian military intervention in Iraq in the case of an internal flare-up in Iraq.
Strategic Intelligence Analyst, Avi Melamed is the President & CEO of Inside the Middle East: Intelligence Perspectives, training current and future leaders to independently and accurately decipher the Middle East. For more of his articles, see www.avimelamed.com – Because True Knowledge is a Real Asset.
Links to some related articles I have published:
Zoom-In on the Middle East (December 2019)
Belly Dancing In Baghdad (July 2019)
A Dangerous Loop in the Persian (Arab) Gulf (June 2019)
My Enemy is My Best Asset (September 2017)
Pax Amer – Iran (March 2015)
Masters of Chaos: The Iranian Mullah Regime (June 2010)
Is War in the Middle East Inevitable? (February 2012)