The good, the bad, and the ugly of killing of Qassem Soleimani

The good, the bad, and the ugly of killing of Qassem Soleimani
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The killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani has proven to be among the most controversial White House moves so far in the already volatile Middle East. Some say the man got what he deserved and that America is safer for it. Others say it was hugely irresponsible. In truth, there is some good, some bad and some ugly.  

The good 

Soleimani was an accomplished and dedicated foe of American forces in the Middle East. He was behind recent attacks on U.S. bases and probably the siege of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. He smuggled explosively formed projectiles into Iraq that killed hundreds of U.S. troops in the early 2000s.

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Soleimani built militias in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon and armed some of them with guided rockets and missiles. He maintained the murderous Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power as he gassed and barrel-bombed his largely Sunni population into submission. The Iranian general posed a serious, ongoing threat to U.S. forces and interests across the region, in addition to attacks he may have planned shortly before his death.

Soleimani was the long-time leader of the Quds Force, the most dynamic and destabilizing element of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the ideologically-driven parallel military stood up after the Iranian revolution to defend the regime and aggressively pursue its regional aims, which included forcing the U.S. out of the Middle East. 

He was the public face of these efforts and a powerful figure among Iran’s hardliners. Soleimani built the Quds Force into a creative exemplar of unconventional warfare, sabotage and subversion that has destabilized governments and outmaneuvered the U.S. in conflict zones across the region.

It took an evil genius such as Soleimani to make all this happen, a public figure with charisma and access to Iran’s Supreme leader. His absence will be sorely felt among the ranks of the IRGC, Iranian hardliners, and the militias he helped build and sustain. 

There no doubt will be additional Iranian retaliation beyond last week’s missile strikes, whether ordered by Iranian leadership or spontaneously conducted by Shia militias, but that retaliation probably will not be as creative, strategic or well-orchestrated as when Soleimani was alive. Future IRGC commanders, their subordinates and proxies will have to be more careful.

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The strike on Soleimani was conducted openly by an armed UAV at the Baghdad airport in daylight without the apparent knowledge of the Iraqi government. The White House publicly acknowledged the strike and made further threats. It was an audacious move that demonstrated cavalier disregard for the consequences. It was rash, some might even say irresponsible, but it also showed resolve to hold Iran accountable for attacks on U.S. forces and installations.  

The bad 

The killing of Soleimani sets a dangerous precedent. He was a decorated general and public figure on the official business of a legitimate state. He was traveling openly in Iraq with the consent of the Iraqi authorities and reportedly on a quiet diplomatic mission aimed at easing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The Americans and Soviets did not kill one another’s high-ranking officials during the Cold War for good reason, and certainly not overtly. The U.S. now has cracked open this door. This is dangerous ground, given that U.S. officials one day may find themselves fighting shadowy wars involving proxies without scruples.

Soleimani was a respected figure in Iran, not just for his recent activities but his role in defending the country against an unprovoked invasion by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1980s that involved poison gas and the deaths of more than a half-million Iranians. Soleimani was not a murderous fanatic like Osama bin Laden or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Hundreds of thousands came out for his funeral in a spontaneous outpouring of support for the man and what he represented. 

The White House has made Soleimani a martyr, killed by his arch enemy at the height of his power and influence. There probably was no better candidate for martyrdom than this living legend of Iran’s secret wars and hero of the Iran-Iraq conflict. His death will be a boon for IRGC propagandists and recruiters. 

At age 62 and reportedly not in perfect health, he did not have many years left for productive mischief-making given the constant travel his job required. He now will make mischief for generations in the minds of millions of people, not just in Iran but among Shia in different countries inclined to resist America, Israel and Sunni sectarianism. The U.S. will be dealing with these consequences for a long time.

The ugly

Middle East politics and security affairs probably will become messier and more volatile. The motley crew of Iran-supported Shia militias in Iraq are without the powerful mastermind who coordinated their efforts and helped keep them in line in pursuit of long-term aims.

This will contribute to an already chaotic situation in Iraq and present an ongoing threat to U.S. forces training the Iraqis and fighting ISIS. It will be more dangerous for U.S. troops in Afghanistan where Shia militias have become more active.

Soleimani’s killing makes U.S. policy appear uglier and more unhinged. The decision appears to have been impulsive. The White House followed soon after with threats to bomb Shia cultural sites, which goes against the law of armed conflict and puts the U.S. on par with the Taliban and its destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas.  

By making the strike personal, and offering little if any strategic rationale, the Trump administration has increased the level of emotion, vengefulness and hyper-partisanship that distorts U.S. policy towards Iran and contributes to chaos in the region. It will be even longer now before reason again prevails, if it ever does.

Jerry Meyerle is a senior defense analyst in Washington who has advised various U.S. commands in the Middle East and South Asia. He served multiple tours in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf, and is the author of two books on irregular warfare. The views expressed are his alone.