Major General Qasem Soleimani , the commander of Iran’s Quds Force who was killed in a U.S. air strike in Baghdad on Friday, had an illustrious career as a spymaster and military strategist and a celebratory status in Iran. Always a defender of the Islamic revolution, Soleimani reported directly to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and, of late, was the main architect of Iran’s recent foreign interventions, mainly in Iraq and Syria. He was so close to Khamenei that the Supreme Leader, the commander of Iran’s armed forces, once called him “the living martyr of revolution”. For the Iranian revolutionaries, martyrdom is service. As the Supreme Leader once said about another fallen soldier, in the end, Soleimani “drank the sweet syrup of martyrdom”.
From war hero to commander
Soleimani joined the Iranian Army immediately after the revolution. He was on the frontlines during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. His commanders were so impressed by his bravery during the war that they promoted the young soldier, in his 20s, to head the 41st Tharallah Division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
The Iraqi forces, which had the backing of the Sunni kingdoms in the region and the West, made huge gains in the initial stage of the war, but later Iran retaliated through suicide missions targeting Iraqi troops. When the war ended through a ceasefire in 1988, the Mullahs in Tehran, who Saddam Hussein and his Gulf allies wanted to overthrow, were totally in control of Iran. Soleimani was rewarded for his war performance. In 1990, he was named the IRGC commander of Kerman Province.
Iran had laid the foundations of its “forward defence” doctrine during the war. Tehran was aware of its limitations as a conventional military power and also about the challenges it faced in a hostile region. To overcome this asymmetry, Iran started cultivating deep ties with the Shia population across the region and help build networks. The main job of the Quds Force, as the foreign operational wing of the IRGC, was to build a network of operatives, organisations, militias and parties under Iran’s influence. In the 1980s, Iran helped create Hezbollah in Lebanon, which during the decade carried out a host of terrorist operations targeting the U.S. and Israel. Iran had also built ties with Shia parties in Iraq. By the time Soleimani was appointed the head of the Quds Force in 1998, Iran had already established a network of resistance. His job was to take it to new levels. And he did just that.
Defender of revolution
A believer in Islam, Soleimani was a hardliner of the hardliners. He never hid where he stood in Iran’s complex power dynamics in which the hardliners, moderates and reformists compete for influence through elections and other means. In 1999, when students revolted against the regime demanding more freedom, Soleimani and other senior military figures wrote a letter to the then reformist President Mohammad Khatami, demanding action against protesters. “Our patience has run out,” they wrote, warning that if the government didn’t crush the protests, the military would. It was a blunt warning from the establishment, which is loyal to the Supreme Leader, to a more popular wing of the regime, the elected government. The police finally cracked down on the protesters.
In recent years, when Iran has rapidly expanded its presence in both Iraq and Syria and ties between Tehran and Washington were fast-deteriorating, Soleimani , as the commander of Iran’s foreign missions, was very much in focus. In 2018, he responded directly to a warning from President Donald Trump against the Iranian President not to threaten the U.S. Soleimani said, “It is beneath the dignity of our President to respond to you. I, as a soldier, respond to you.” Understandably, he was extremely popular among the Revolutionary Guards. When Mike Pompeo, the U.S. Secretary of State, called for global efforts to deter Soleimani in July 2018, the IRGC retorted, “Soleimani is not a single person. The great people of Iran support him.”
Enemy of IS
The main challenges Soleimani faced in the final years of his career and life, besides the threats from the U.S., were the civil war in Syria and the rise of the Islamic State (IS). In 2011-13, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad kept losing territories to the rebels. Mr. Assad’s Syria was the only national ally of Iran in the region and is also a critical link between itself and Hezbollah in Lebanon. If Mr. Assad falls, Tehran would be weakened. Soleimani ’s mission was to stop it happening. “The Syrian army is useless,” he once told an Iraqi politician, according to the New Yorker profile of the General. What he did was to build and train Shia militias and send them to Syria to fight the rebels along with the regime.
He also coordinated with Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, in strategising the war. In 2013, the regime troops, Shia militias and Hezbollah fighters captured Qusayr, a town on the Syria-Lebanon border, from the rebels in a joint operation, which was one of the early victories of the Assad regime in the civil war. Though the Russian intervention in 2015 actually turned around the conflict, the real ground support for the Assad regime came from the Iranians. And it’s Soleimani who oversaw that ground support. Syria was his war.
He did the same strategy in Iraq in the war against the IS. The Iran-trained militias, the same militia that was bombed by the U.S. last month that precipitated the current crisis, were in the forefront of the war against the IS. Soleimani ’s men fought in the battlefield along with the Kurdish Peshmerga militia and the Iraqi Army while the U.S. provided air support. This model was tested in Amirli, a predominately Shia town in Iraq on the Iranian border, which was captured by the IS. In 2014, the Iraqi Army, backed by Shia militias, broke the siege of Amirli, in what was called Iraq’s biggest victory against the IS at that time. This model was repeated in Tikrit, Fallujah, Ramadi and finally Mosul, which all were liberated from the IS.
The IS Caliphate is now destroyed. The Syrian regime has survived the civil war. But the man who played a pivotal role in both these achievements has been assassinated by the U.S. Iran may not take it lightly as Soleimani was too big a figure in Iran for the regime to push it away. The risks of a major conflict are at an all-time high now.