The killing of Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, by the United States on Jan. 2 is an escalation of proxy war in the Middle East and an indication of a stricter stance against Iran, according to regional and national experts.
“From now on, Washington will deal with Tehran’s malice with kinetic action,” Sam Bazzi, a Middle East Asia analyst and founder of the (the web-based) Islamic Counterterrorism Institute and Hezbollah Watch, told The Epoch Times.
“This could lead to the U.S. obliterating all hostile sectarian militias in Iraq and destroying Tehran’s land-bridge to the Mediterranean,” said U.S.-based Bazzi, explaining how the developments will have long term impact on the U.S.-Iran relationship.
In a statement on Jan. 2, the Pentagon said that Soleimani was killed at the “direction” of President Donald Trump to protect American citizens abroad.
“General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region. General Soleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more,” said the Pentagon.
Joseph A. Kechichian, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, told The Epoch Times that Soleimani was a target for some time and his death doesn’t come as a surprise, although it has changed the dynamics of hostile relationships in the region.
“Although the Soleimani kill is a game-changer, it is part of the Low-Intensity Conflict underway between the United States and Iran, and which I mentioned earlier. The man was a target for some time now and his [killing] is not a surprise. There will probably be retaliation in Iraq and Lebanon,” said Kéchichian.
Manjari Singh, a fellow with the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, told The Epoch Times that the situation is most likely to escalate into a full-blown proxy war between the United States and Iran.
“Elimination of such a powerful man will result in Iran not keeping quiet. Well, it might not go for an all-out war with the U.S., but asymmetric Warfare from the Iranian side cannot be ruled out,” said New Delhi-based Singh.
Why the US Killed Khamenei’s ‘Right Hand’
Experts told The Epoch Times that Soleimani was not just an ordinary leader, but had a wider influence over military and political affairs in the Middle East.
Bazzi, who is of Lebanese origin, said Soleimani’s death will intensify the animosity between the United States and the Iranian regime and its many proxies.
“It is very likely that Tehran will retaliate in a very bold way. Soleimani was Khamenei’s right-hand man in the region,” he said.
Singh said Soleimani was not just a military commander but also a major actor in the Iranian forces and his death could bring the anti-America factions in Iran and Iraq closer to each other.
“One can also maybe see the involvement of more international players in the region. Iran definitely will try to align with its friends outside,” said Singh.
She explained that Soleimani was involved in major Iranian operations since 2003 and was responsible for many killings.
“He oversaw Shia militia operations against Americas which claimed many American lives following the U.S. invasion of Iraq,” said Singh, adding that one “never knows” if this operation was a response to the killing of a U.S. Defense contractor on Dec. 27 or the Aramco attacks of Sep. 14.
“Maybe all this while the U.S. was gathering intelligence against Iran and when the time was ripe conducted these strikes,” she said.
However, the aftermath of the strikes, according to her, also calls for more protection for strategic assets of American allies in the region.
“It’s probable that Iran will retaliate in an asymmetric form wherein it will try to block the major U.S. supplies in the region and will try to weaken America’s allies,” she said.
Bazzi explained that the Iranian retaliation arises from the fact that it is a big loss for the Iranian regime and it’ll be difficult to replace him. He elaborated on Soleimani’s Hezbollah links and explained how the recent attack by Kata’ib Hezbollah on an Iraqi military base was linked to Soleimani.
According to Bazzi, Hezbollah is “an Iranian-backed Shia militia with clear and recognizable links to the Iranian regime” and reports to the Iranian leadership. Kata’ib Hezbollah is an Iraqi Shia paramilitary force backed by Iran and actively operated in the Iraqi and Syrian civil wars.
“Their common leader was Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC-Quds Force. They all answered to him. Soleimani reported directly to Iranian ‘Supreme Leader’ Ali Khamenei,” said Bazzi.
In its statement, Pentagon confirmed Soleimani’s involvement in attacks on coalition bases in Iraq in the last several months, including the attack on Dec. 27.
“General Soleimani also approved the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that took place this week,” according to the Pentagon.
Killing of the Founder of Kata’ib Hezbollah
The strikes near Baghdad International Airport that happened early Friday morning local time also killed six other Iraqi militia members and senior officials, including 65-year-old Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the founder of Kata’ib Hezbollah and Muhammad Reza Al-Jabri, the director of public relations at the PMF.
Al-Muhandis was the founder of Kata’ib Hezbollah, the terrorist group that attacked an Iraqi military base on Dec. 27, and the deputy commander of Popular Mobilization Forces, an Iraqi state-sponsored militia organization. He worked under Soleimani’s direction and was also the deputy national security adviser of Iraq, according to Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper.
Al-Muhandis was responsible for attacks against the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait and was sentenced to death in absentia in a court in Kuwait.
Militia belonging to al-Muhandis stormed the embassy of the United States on Dec. 31 in retaliation for the airstrikes on Kata’ib Hezbollah bases.
Al-Muhandis operated “weapons smuggling networks and participated in bombings of Western embassies and attempted assassinations in the region,” according to TRT World, an Istanbul based media.
Bazzi said “the U.S. is upending Iran’s regime’s role in Iraq and trimming Khamenei’s wings” by these eliminations and arrests. He explained how the Khomeinist organizations operate and why Soleimani’s death is a direct hit at Khamenei’s power.
“Although Soleimani carried tremendous political weight and influence, the true source of his power is Khamenei. Regional Khomeinist organizations are developed on the basis of absolute loyalty to the Supreme Leader, and therefore, whomever Khamenei appoints as a Quds Force commander will be readily obeyed by his subordinates,” said Bazzi.
Multiple Factors into Play
Experts told The Epoch Times that the changing dynamics in the Middle East after Soleimani’s killing cannot be understood in light of this incident alone and there are multiple factors into play.
“Many factors are at play, including U.S. domestic political struggles, the presidential elections, the Russian and Chinese stances, the ability of Israel to withstand an all-out war between its staunchest ally and its most lethal enemy, and most importantly, Iranian capabilities and military surprises,” said Bazzi.
The Middle East expert explained how Soleimani’s death could work toward the interests of the United States in the region.
“In the short term, the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani is likely to rally most of America’s Middle East allies around the White House, as the Trump administration had demonstrated that it is both capable of restraining itself in the face of Iranian regime provocations and making bold and challenging moves at the right time,” said Bazzi.
Bazzi said Soleimani had a role to play in Iraqi politics and his death could mean a change.
“He had carried a lot of political weight and influence among the Iranian regime’s regional proxies and political allies. His death comes at a time when Iraq is divided and in the process of electing a new prime minister,” said Bazzi.
“Soleimani runs the pro-Tehran politicians in Iraq, but he couldn’t himself run in the elections there because he’s not an Iraqi citizen,” explained Bazzi.
“Now that he’s out of the picture, the Trump administration can push for its preferred candidate(s) and encourage a shift in the country towards Washington and away from Tehran.”
Bazzi said Soleimani’s death could provide more geopolitical leverage to Trump administration in Iraq.
“I would presume that the Trump administration had prepared extensive plans for the aftermath of the strike. It is critical for America to prevent Iraq from remaining in Tehran’s grip, as the presence of Iranian regime forces in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon pose an existential threat to Israel and U.S. strategic interests,” said Bazzi.
He, however, also mentioned that things could change if the United States gets engaged in “catastrophic and expensive war, some players might opt to abandon the Trump administration’s ship and resort to neutrality or a negotiated deal with Tehran.”