The death of the ‘Shadow Commander’

Aftermath of airstrike that targeted IRGC-Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Baghdad, Iraq.
Aftermath of airstrike that targeted IRGC-Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis near Baghdad International Airport, Baghdad, Iraq.

 

  • At 0230 GMT on 02 January 2020, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) confirmed that Lieutenant General Qasem Soleimani, the head of the IRGC – Qods Force (IRGC-QF), was killed in a US missile strike on ‘Airport Road’ (Route Irish) near Baghdad International Airport as he was travelling by vehicle. Soleimani was killed alongside the deputy head of the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis after travelling from either Lebanon or Syria.
  • A day earlier, the US had named Muhandis, who leads the Iran-backed Hezbollah Brigades (Kata’ib e-Hezbollah) militia, as one of those accused of being behind attempts to storm the US embassy in Baghdad.
  • This followed a US strike on targets belonging to the Hezbollah Brigades in which at least 25 fighters were killed. The US strike came in response to the killing of a US civilian contractor and the injury of four US soldiers in a rocket attack on a military base in Kirkuk.

Biography of Qasem Soleimani

Soleimani was appointed commander of the IRGC-QF, a special unit charged with extraterritorial operations, in 1998. Prior to the 1979 Revolution, Soleimani was a former contractor at Iran’s water agency after moving from his home town of Qanat-e Malek to the city of Kerman, Iran, at the age of 12. Soleimani joined the IRGC following the 1979 Revolution and led Iran’s Sarallah 41st division against Iraqi forces in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. A loyalist of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, Soleimani was reputed to be one of the most influential figures in contemporary Middle Eastern politics and was sanctioned by the US Treasury for his role in the Syrian Civil War.  Soleimani was active in leading military operations in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. In March 2019 he was awarded Order of Zolfaqar, Iran’s highest military order, making him the first military official to receive it since the 1979 Revolution. He was posthumously promoted to the rank of lieutenant general by the Supreme Leader.

‘The Shadow Commander’

Undoubtedly, Soleimani was a highly regarded and influential leader; his death has been met with extreme anger by the Iranian government and religious authority.  Notwithstanding his command of the IRGC’s most prestigious and highly elite force, Soleimani was also highly regarded by the Supreme Leader to an extent where the two men would hold weekly meetings behind closed doors.  Additionally, Soleimani gained increased notoriety for personally commanding the Shi’a militia groups to oust Islamic State from Iraq.

Qasem Soleimani with militia fighters in Iraq during operations to liberate Tikrit
Qasem Soleimani with militia fighters in Iraq during operations to liberate Tikrit

Despite being subjected to a US-enforced travel-ban, Soleimani met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in October 2016. Intelligence source indicates that the meeting paved the way for the deployment of Russian forces to Syria to enable the IRGC-QF to deploy all available assets Iraq, ahead of a major advance by Shi’a groups in Salah al-Din and Anbar provinces. As a testament to his capability, Soleimani was the architect behind the formation of a number of pro-Iranian proxy groups throughout the Middle East. Additionally, following his appointment as the commander of the IRGC-QF, Soleimani re-structured and created a Special External Operations branch that is now referred to as ‘Department 400’. In addition, Soleimani oversaw the incorporation of MOIS special operations into the IRGC-QF that resulted in the creation of a second Special External Operations branch that is referred to as ‘Department 900.’

Most notably, it was reported that Soleimani personally took command of the effort to release several Iranian hostages held in Syria in 2012. The kidnapping of the hostages occurred whilst Soleimani was visiting IRGC forces in Syria. Reports state that Soleimani had geolocated the position of the hostages and led with the tactical effort to secure their release from a Mosque in Damascus.

Reactions

Iran’s Supreme Leader has declared a three-day period of mourning whilst the deputy commander of the IRGC-QF, Esmail Qaani, has been appointed as the new head of the organisation. Iranian broadcast media have been mourning what they described the “glorious martyrdom” of Soleimani. A breaking news caption on rolling news channel IRINN at 0105 GMT reported the death of a number of people in an attack by US helicopters at Baghdad airport. In its 0130 GMT news bulletin, the channel aired footage of the scene of the airstrike, adding that a number of senior figures from the PMU, and several of “their guests” were suspected to have been killed in the attack. Citing an IRGC statement, the channel announced the “martyrdom” of Soleimani at around 0230 GMT, immediately putting a black diagonal band on the upper-left corner of its screen. IRINN, Channel One (IRTV1) and Channel Two (IRTV2) also put a diagonal black band on the corner of the screens.

Iranian news coverage of Soleimani’s death
Iranian news coverage of Soleimani’s death

In a statement, the Supreme Leader promised that his country will avenge the death of Soleimani. Congratulating and simultaneously expressing his condolences for Soleimani’s “martyrdom”, Khamenei in his statement declared three days of mourning for Soleimani and for Muhandis,

Soleimani’s death has largely been met with condemnation from Russia, Iraq, China and Syria.  Additionally, Iranian-aligned groups including Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Houthi Movement and 14th February Youth Coalition have condemned the strikes. Meanwhile, Israel has reportedly placed the Israeli Defence Forces in an elevated state of alert along its border with Lebanon and Syria.

In Iraq, caretaker Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi stated that the killing of Muhandis is considered an act of aggression against Iraq. Abdul-Mahdi condemned the killing of Muhandis and Soleimani, saying it will spark “a devastating war” in Iraq. He added that “undertaking assassination operations against Iraqi leading figures or those from friendly countries on Iraqi territory is considered a flagrant violation of Iraqi sovereignty and a blatant assault on the dignity of the nation”. Abdul-Mahdi said the move is a “dangerous escalation that sparks a devastating war in Iraq, the region and the world”. He added that he had sent a formal invitation to parliament to hold an extraordinary session to declare an official stance and take “the necessary legislative decisions to safeguard Iraq’s dignity, security and sovereignty”. Meanwhile, Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called on the Mahdi Army – a faction under his command – to “get ready for defending Iraq”. He described the strike against Soleimani as “targeting jihad, the opposition and the revolutionary spirit of the state”.

In Syria, the Foreign and Expatriates Ministry released a statement indicating that it condemns in strongest terms the US “criminal aggression” which led to the “martyrdom” of Soleimani and Muhandis, adding that they considered the act a “dangerous escalation” of the situation in the region. Additionally, the secretary-general of Hezbollah, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, said the deaths of Soleimani and Muhandis “would not be in vain”.

In Moscow, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement: “We view the killing of Soleimani in a US airstrike on the outskirts of Baghdad as a reckless step that will lead to escalating tensions in the whole region. Soleimani loyally served the cause of protecting Iran’s national interests”. The Ministry added, “We express our condolences to the people of Iran”.

Assessment

Soleimani’s legacy is – and will – remain characterised by his involvement and support towards insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan that has accounted for the deaths of a significant number of coalition military personnel. His death in Iraq – a country where his actions resulted in the deaths of 4,809 military personnel – is expected to be met with increased condemnation, even retaliation. For their part, the decision by the US government to kill Soleimani was likely to have been taken out of the necessity to further restrict the extent of Iran’s influence in Iraq. At a time when protests in Iraq over financial and administrative mismanagement within central government and Iranian meddling with armed faction and political groups, there is a sense that Soleimani’s death may bring the protest movement a step-closer towards implementing the change they want to see take place.

However, the US government’s actions are likely to be viewed as an escalatory step that has the potential to result in an increase in hostilities with Iran. Whilst the majority of hostilities between the US and Iran has until recently been limited to discreet covert actions, the death of Soleimani is expected to force Iran to respond in the same stead. Previous IRGC-QF attacks, notably those against Israeli targets in India, Georgia and Thailand in 2012, indicate Iran’s capability to operate in countries considered less permissible. Although Iraqis are fearful of the country becoming increasingly caught between a large-scale conflict between the US and Iran, this eventuality is considered unlikely and not in either party’s interests. That said, the risk of retaliatory attacks taking place in the Gulf region cannot be discounted. A retaliation by Iran is unlikely to take place during the period of mourning, though it is possible that any such retaliatory attacks may take place at any time and place of Iran’s choosing.