At the very beginning of the year, World War 3 began to trend on Twitter. If you were bewildered and decided to log on to see what had happened, then you are now aware of a man called Qassem Soleimani. His assassination, carried out by the United States has been one of the most significant events in the world in January 2020, and probably the year 2020.
But with a world changing event like this, there come some questions. Questions about who this man is and what he meant? What value did he have and what does his death imply? Why was he killed? What happens now? And of course, is this going to cause World War 3? It is a lot to go into, but hopefully this article can provide you with a starting point.
Who is Qassem Soleimani?
Way back in the 1980s, Iran and Iraq were at war with each other. Iraq was fighting the Islamic revolutionaries who had removed the Shah and was led by Saddam Hussein. Hussein, at that point, was backed by the United States in his endeavours. Soleimani was a general in the Iranian army then, who took up missions behind enemy lines i.e. against Iraq. These were mostly reconnaissance missions, of course, but he made a mark for himself in the military of Iran. However, it was when the US finally invaded Iraq that Soleimani rose to prominence, so to speak. Despite that, he was never really well known, and in fact was that man who sat in the corner, silent and unspeaking until the time came for him to step in.
Soleimani has been no stranger to organized militancy and was known for using to consolidate power all over places like Lebanon, Iraq and Syria. He has been known to train and arm groups like the Hezbollah and used terror tactics in the region to increase power. Hezbollah is now one of the largest militaries in the region and has contributed a lot in cementing Iran’s influence. He even used a lot of these tactics against the US when they were in Iraq. The process was simple. Train Iraqis who had come over to Iran from their country and send them back to fight the US. Similarly, in Syria, he used his tactical knowledge to train militias, through the Quds Forces, that supported Bashar-al-Assad. It was in Syria, in 2013, when people began to hear of him more and more, especially fighters in the various militant groups that were in Syria.
Soleimani’s stature was made clear when the announcement of his death in Baghdad led to a large amount of people celebrating in the streets. Some experts have compared his assassination to killing a “head of state” or in American terms, “taking out the Vice President directly.” There have been “Death to America” chants at his funeral and tensions between the US and Iran have never been higher. Iran, on the other hand, declared three days of public mourning and his funeral was attended by thousands of citizens.
Qassem Soleimani was killed on 3rd January in an airstrike carried out by the US military. Killed along with him was Iran militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. The attack took place in the Baghdad airport, specifically near the cargo terminal. It ended up killing five people who were part of Iraqi paramilitary groups and two guests, who were the two targets.
It is a little complicated to understand why this assassination even took place but there are a whole host of factors. The first thing, of course, is why now? Soleimani has not been an angel throughout his life and can clearly be linked to a lot of the things that happen in the region. So why kill him now?
On the 27th of December, at a military compound near Kirkuk in northern Iraq, a rocket barrage occurred. This barrage resulted in the death of a US defense contractor and injured four other United States service members. The US blamed the Kataib Hezbollah for the attack, a Shiite Muslim extremist group, and retaliated by bombing them back. Two locations in Iraq and one location in Syria were bombed in an attack against the Kataib Hezbollah. This ended in the killing of at least four KH commanders.
Response of the Supporters
So, how did his supporters respond? By practically storming the US embassy in Baghdad, in a protest that saw people throw stones at the embassy and prompted US to send extra troops and threaten reprisals. In two days, the protesters retreated after the Popular Mobilisation Forces issued a message saying that the demonstrators’ message had been heard.
But, what does this have to do with the attack? Well, the US has stated that Soleimani has been responsible for a large number of attacks on Iraqi soil in the past few months and was also responsible for the one that claimed the life of the US defense contractor in Kirkuk. US have also gone on to say, in the words of Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, that “he was actively plotting to take actions that would have put dozens of American lives at risk.” Donald Trump even went on Fox News to openly state that Soleimani had plans to “blow up four embassies.” Additionally, it’s no secret that tensions between Iran and US have been uneasy ever since Trumped backed out of the nuclear deal between the two countries.
And then there is also the other major casualty of the attack – Abu Mahdi-al-Muhandis. It might interest you to know that he was one of the people who helped found the Kataib Hezbollah. He was part of the crowds of protestors who threw stones at the embassy in Baghdad. Phillip Smyth, a US based researcher has gone on record to state that in the case of Muhandis, a “stronger ideal” of Iran’s influence in Iraq could not be found. Muhandis has also been a personal adviser of Soleimani.
Soleimani’s death has elicited strong reactions amongst the people and leadership of Iran. Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described him as the “international face of resistance” in the fight against terrorism and declared three days of mourning. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif did not mince any words and called it an act of “international terrorism.”
Many experts, such as Brett McGurk (US Special Envoy), Ben Rhodes (former WH Security Adviser) and Robert Malley (Gulf Coordinator) have state that this is tantamount to a US declaration of war. Dalia Dassa Kaye, a political scientist at the RAND corporation and director of Centre of Middle East Policy, called it an “unprecedented escalation that goes beyond proxy conflict” and that the Iranians are likely to view this as an “act of war.”
Within the international community, the UK government expressed their desire to de-escalate even though they recognised the threat posed by the Quds Force led by Soleimani. They also expressed concern over the fact they had not been privy to what the American government had been planning. Russian Senator Konstantin Kosachev referred to it as a “worst-case scenario” while China urged all parties involved to “exercise restraint” and “avoid escalation.” Israel, on the other hand, was open in its praise and support of Donald Trump, saying that they “stand fully by the United States in its just battle for security, peace and self-defense.”
The most direct response, however, came from Hezbollah. It came in the form of a missile attack on the Ain al-Asad air base in Iraq, accompanied by threats of more to come. Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Hezbollah, made it very clear that he was ready to respond and referred to the attack on the air base as a “slap on the wrist.” He went on to say that “The Americans have to leave the region vertically, or horizontally (in coffins).”
After reading all of this, one can not help but ask if war is on the horizon. And to say that the answer to that is complicated would probably be the understatement of the decade. But let’s take a closer look at this, shall we?
I have mentioned the timing of this attack before and that is one of the major questions surrounding Soleimani’s death. Why now? Iraq had also been dealing with major protests since October with protesters demanding that the US and Iran no longer influence the Iraqi government and Iran has been trying their level best to crackdown on these protesters.
Then the attack on Kirkuk happened followed by the embassy attack. All reasonable justifications, but there have been escalations before. Attacks against tankers in the Gulf, the attack on the Saudi Arabian oil field – these have not elicited a single response from the government.
The Pentagon has gone on to say that these strikes to kill Soleimani acted as some sort of a deterrent against future conflict, but surely the killing of a leader as influential as him wouldn’t be without conflict. The 5000 troops that have been shipped out to Iraq may have been in anticipation of such a response but this could make things worse as those very troops could be the perfect target for Iranian proxies.
It is also not a very good sign when the very basic claim underlying the reasoning behind these attacks is faulty. Trump had stated very clearly in an interview with Fox News about how Soleimani planned to blow up four embassies but questions have been raised about that claim.
US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said in an interview that the President did not “cite a specific piece of evidence” and that he “didn’t see one with regard to four embassies.” While there is not any evidence of this, or any statement in this regard, but it would not be too much of a leap to look at the timing of this attack and realise that it might be nothing more than a very dangerous move to gain political mileage ahead of the US elections. This could completely backfire, of course, and this “manufactured war” might just be another nail in Trump’s coffin after the impeachment hearings last year.
However, there is a case to be made for the fact that Soleimani’s death could actually be a good thing. He was openly revealed to have been heavily involved in top-level talks with regards to the formation of Iraq’s government. It should be worth pointing out that he was responsible for a large number of militias in the region that acted as Iranian proxies and helped influence places like Syria and Iraq. Most of these groups have carried out atrocities on a large scale and have caused the deaths of countless people.
This kind of reach, thus, could be seen as essentially replacing the US as the dominant force in those regions and hence, practically demanded swift action from the US. His death could also mean that anti-Iran sentiment in places like Lebanon and Iraq could rise and help many of these places gain control back from the Islamic Republic.
But even if his death brings about these changes, the immediate effects of his death cannot be ignored. The Hezbollah missile attack is just the beginning. Unrest in Iraq becoming even worse would be the most likely even to take place next. If a war is to happen, then it shall be a proxy war and there is a good chance that it will be on Iraqi soil. It also doesn’t help that Soleimani was well known throughout these regions, had a rapport with fighters all over and had a deep knowledge of military affairs in the area – making his death a potential catalyst for a lot of instability.
Zooming out a little and trying to understand the geopolitical implications outside of the Middle East makes everything even more complicated. Very recently, Iran, Russia and China undertook a joint naval exercise in the Gulf of Oman. Russia and China’s support for Iran is a clear message against Trump’s very anti-Iran rhetoric, so that throws another very interesting light upon the attacks on Soleimani.
Mike Pompeo even directly reached out to Israel, UAE and Saudi Arabia just after the attacks, drawing condemnation from Iraq and Syria. Saudi Arabia and UAE’s relations with Iran have been on the mend, something that goes against US interests. These attacks will definitely halt, if not altogether truncate, those processes, especially since with Soleimani gone, both these countries now have more free reign to pursue their interests in the region.
Anyone reading this probably has their mind numb at this point but this has always been the state of politics in the world has it not? In the end though, it boils down to one simple concept – preparation and retaliation. Is war going to happen? That will depend on how prepared the US is for the inevitable escalations that will happen in the region.
How those escalations are handled will set the stage for future events. But it also depends on how Iran will retaliate. There have been statements from leaders declaring that Trump is the enemy of Iran and not the American people, but Hezbollah have clearly stated otherwise. Sadr, a powerful Shia faction, has called on other factions to unite and expel US from Iraqi soil. Such sentiment isn’t new but it has been given an entirely new facet with Soleimani’s death. All out attacks on Americans could be on the horizon but it is equally likely that the response will be nothing but a series of strikes that are more strategic.
Things have already started to happen, as direct or indirect consequences. Oil prices have gone up. Stock prices have fallen. Experts are already debating on how the world economy will be affected, especially given the fact that oil, one of the pillars behind the health of the global economy, flows through the Strait of Hormunz. A war of any kind, clearly, would have major implications for the global economy. And most importantly, there’s the human cost of war that needs to be considered. Any proxy war will happen on Iraq soil, a country that has already suffered through the disastrous effects of America’s invasion.
At the time I write this article, Iran has accidentally blown a Ukrainian airliner out of the sky and called it human error. The missile that took out the airliner was just like the missiles that were used to attack the air base in Iraq. It has been 2 weeks since Soleimani died and there is already been collateral damage – people who had nothing to do with this conflict are now dead. So yes, it is easy to feel pessimism and helplessness at the state of affairs.
But unlike 2002, people do realise the cost of a war this time. Many American leaders, such as Bernie Sanders, have spoken out against this war and any problems it may cause. Hopefully, their warning are heeded and all out war is avoided but there can be no denying that instability in the Middle East is at an all time high. A strategic approach to this may actually make Soleimani’s death mean something and bring some semblance of power back in the hands of the people, especially in Iraq. But if Trump’s rhetoric is to be believed then that does not seem likely.