Strange memes have flooded the internet in the first week of 2020: people were cautiously joking about the possibility of World War III erupting before our eyes. In what seemed like a bit of a hungover decision, Donald Trump ordered US drones to target and kill the most powerful Iranian general, prompting the public to anticipate further escalation or even a nuclear showdown.
But the situation is no joking matter and many questions remain shady to say the least. For example, who was the targeted general Qasem Soleimani? What is going on in the Middle East? And what will happen next? Let’s break it down.
The Guardian calls him a farmboy who became more powerful than a president. Soleimani started his military career shortly after the Islamic Revolution and reached a significant promotion by the end of 1990’s - he was named head of the Quds force tasked with spreading Iran’s influence abroad. Soleimani took his duties seriously as seen from his boastful text to David Petraeus, commander of US forces in Iraq in early 2000’s.
Dear General Petraeus. You should know that I control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan.
Syria joined the list soon afterwards, as Iran backed Bashar Assad’s regime in the civil war. It is reported that Soleimani personally visited Moscow and persuaded Vladimir Putin to follow suit.
Both the CIA and Mossad have kept an eye on Soleimani and his endeavours but it was only president Trump who dared give the final order - Soleimani was targeted and killed in Baghdad. Trump called him a monster who “was planning a big attack and bad attack for us.”
Why was Soleimani operating in countries he named to David Prateus? The Islamic republic desires to undermine the American influence and strengthen local Shia forces in each of them.
The process kickstarted in Iraq as early as 2003. Soleimani weakened American efforts in the country by continuously arming and supporting Shia proxies. After the rise of ISIS, however, he turned into an unofficial ally of the very enemy he fought. His soldiers won decisive battles on land while American planes backed them from the air. Many Iraqis view Soleimani as a hero who preserved their freedom but he also has the blood of Iraqi protesters on his hands - the violent dispelling of recent street protests did not happen without the general’s meddling.
A similar scenario was played out in Lebanon where Soleimani worked closely with Hezbollah to secure a gateway for potential attacks on Israel. Arming Shia militias here also served the purpose of preserving peace as recent protests in the country's capital did not suit Soleimani’s plans.
Support of Shia forces was a decisive move in Syria as well. Here Soleimani orchestrated the majority of Bashar Assad’s bloody campaigns, leaving thousands of civilians dead and sites of cultural heritage severely damaged. Assad’s regime would not have survived without Soleimani’s persistence.
Iran has already turned Soleimani’s burial into a show of power and propaganda. Ayatollah Khamenei wept openly and more than 50 people died in a crushing during the procession. Soleimani’s alleged martyrdom is expected to be used as a tool to motivate certain radical groups for revenge, especially in Iran and Iraq, where his influence was the strongest. The Iraqi parliament has already backed a resolution calling for an immediate withdrawal of US troops from the country.
Iran shot several missiles towards American targets, while local Shia militias attacked the American embassy in Baghdad, but the full scale of Iranian retaliation is still unknown.Trump keeps on tweeting threats in all capital letters but even his supporters admit that his decision might be questionable. The president's timing coincides with both the possible impeachment struggles and pre-election campaigns.
Allies of the two states have also remained unusually composed. The Saudi foregn minister called for calm and said the kingdom is keen on avoiding further escalations, while Putin paid an unexpected visit to Damascus, lit orthodox Christmas candles with Bashar Assad and made no mention of Qasem Soleimani’s killing in his official statement.
It remains to be seen whether Iran tries to make trouble in the strait of Hormuz where the majority of the world’s oil supplies passes on its way from the Gulf states. But amids speculations, at least one thing remains clear - Donald Trump has removed what could be described as the biggest nuisance in the Middle East - the one man whose influence was surpassed by the Supreme Leader and no one else. Soleimani was the man who threatened his own president with a military coup should he fail to crush the street protests in Iran. Answering for his death is a matter of honor for the Islamic republic.
In 2018 Soleimani threatened Trump with a showdown. “You will start this war but we will be the ones to impose its end,'' he said. Now Trump promises to spare Iran’s cultural heritage while bombing the country. As for us, we would prefer it to remain a war of words.
*Illustrations: United World International and The Moscow Times