Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Major General Qassem Soleimani (1957-2020)

Major General Qassem Soleimani, killed by a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad on 3 January 2020, was the long-time commander of the Quds Force, the elite special forces division of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps responsible for extraterritorial military and clandestine operations. Soleimani played a key role in many conflicts in the Middle East. This article explores his life, his tactics, and his role in shaping the politics of the region.

Qassem Suleimani
Qassem Suleimani, SIPA Press

Major General Qassem Soleimani (killed by U.S. drone strike in Baghdad on 3 January 2020) was the long-time commander of the Quds (Jerusalem) Force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps‘ (IRGC) elite special forces division responsible for extraterritorial military and clandestine operations, and considered by some to be among the finest of its kind in the world.

A veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, Soleimani played an active role in many conflicts in the Middle East, especially in the Levant, while generally trying to maintain a low profile. His methods were a blend of military intervention through ideological proxies and hard-nosed strategic diplomacy.

Soleimani – usually referred to as Haj Ghasem Soleimani by the Iranian media – was born on 11 March 1957, to a poor peasant family in the mountainous, sparsely populated village of Rabord near the town of Baft in the south-eastern province of Kerman. After completing elementary school, he left home and moved to Kerman, the provincial capital. Several years later, he joined the Water Organization of Kerman as a technician.

Rising through the ranks

As Iran’s former shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had at that time eliminated all viable political groups, the clerics who opposed his regime grew in influence. One such cleric was Seyyed Reza Kaamyab, who was well known in Kerman for his fiery speeches. Soleimani was a religious follower of Kaamyab, who would be assassinated by the Marxist Mujahedeen-e-Khalq Organization in July 1981. Soleimani also participated in the revolution that toppled the shah in February 1979.

In May 1979, Soleimani joined the newly founded IRGC as a ‘volunteer’. He proved to be a fast learner and was soon rising through the IRGC’s ranks.

The Iran-Iraq War

In 1980, Soleimani was instrumental in training and dispatching to the front of the Iraq-Iran War several IRGC battalions from Kerman. He was eventually appointed to command the 41st Saarallah Division based in Kerman, which was sent to the front and played a key role in preventing Iraqi forces from overrunning the town of Susangerd in Khuzestan Province. He was reputed to be one of the “bravest and shrewdest guys” at the front, and he personally led operations during which he willingly risked capture by Iraqi forces.

When the war finally ended in August 1988, the IRGC commanders became commissioned officers. Most of the top commanders were given the rank of brigadier general, like Soleimani, or lieutenant brigadier general.

Ties to the Ayatollah

When reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami was elected president of Iran on 23 May 1997, he began a cautious programme of reform. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei abruptly removed Major General Mohsen Rezaei from his position as IRGC chief and appointed Brigadier General Yahya Rahim Safavi, a hard-liner, in his place. Thirty-three high-ranking IRGC officers, including Soleimani, signed a letter protesting against Rezaei’s dismissal and implicitly blamed Khatami for it. Interestingly enough, though, Rahim Safavi subsequently appointed Soleimani as the commander of the Quds Force.

On 24 January 2011, Khamenei promoted Soleimani to major general, a rank held by very few military commanders in Iran. Later, speculation circulated as to who would be the military’s candidate in the 2013 presidential election. According to a ‘well-positioned’ source in Tehran, Soleimani had been talked up in hard-line circles in part because he had proven consistently loyal to Khamenei. In the event, Soleimani was not put forward and the election was won by the centrist candidate Hassan Rouhani.

Iran’s general in Iraq

Soleimani had political and military influence in Iraq through Shiite and Kurdish political parties, who rebelled against Saddam Hussein in the 1991 uprising.

The US and British invasion of Iraq in March 2003 greatly worried the Iranian leadership. Thousands of Iranian intelligence agents and Quds Force personnel penetrated Iraq, establishing links with various groups and reportedly distributing vast sums of money. As resistance to the occupation intensified, the US military began to accuse Iran and the Quds Force specifically of intervening in Iraq and bearing responsibility for several American casualties.

In early 2008, the al-Mahdi Army of the Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr began fighting the forces of the US-backed Iraqi government. With the situation slipping out of their control, representatives of the two sides met with Soleimani in Qom and, after intense negotiations, agreed to a ceasefire. This was yet another manifestation of Soleimani’s influence and power in Iraq.

The Guardian newspaper quoted Iraq’s former national security minister, Muwaffaq al-Rubay’i, as saying, “[Soleimani] is the most powerful man in Iraq, without question. Nothing gets done without him.” A senior US official added, “He dictates terms then makes things happen and the Iraqis are left managing a situation that they had no input into.”

In 2009, a leaked report alleged that Soleimani had met Christopher Hill and General Raymond Odierno, America’s two most senior officials in Baghdad at the time, in the office of the then Iraqi President Jalal Talabani (who has known General Soleimani for decades). However, Hill and Odierno denied that the meeting took place.

The war against Islamic State

Soleimani also assisted in the command of combined Iraqi government and Shiite militia forces that advanced against the Sunni extremist group Islamic State (IS) in 2014-2016.

Soleimani’s role in fighting IS was clearly evident in the Iraqi city of Amerli where he cooperated with Iraqi forces to push back IS militants in September 2014. According to the Los Angeles Times, which reported that Amerli was the first town to successfully withstand an IS invasion, it was secured thanks to ‘an unusual partnership of Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers, Iranian-backed Shiite militias and US warplanes’.

Similarly, a senior Iraqi official told the BBC that when the city of Mosul fell, the rapid response by Iran, rather than American bombing, was what prevented a more widespread collapse in Iraq.

Soleimani also played an integral part in the organization and planning of the crucial operation to retake the Iraqi city of Tikrit, which had been captured in 2014 when IS made immense gains in the north and centre of the country.

In May 2016, several reports indicated that Soleimani was directly involved in planning and coordinating the Iraqi military campaign aimed at liberating Fallujah from IS. A picture of Soleimani was posted on Facebook, allegedly showing him with a number of commanders of Iraqi Shiite militant groups in the ‘Fallujah operations room’ discussing plans to storm the city and drive out IS militants.

Supporting the Syrian regime

In 2012, Soleimani helped bolster the Syrian government, a key Iranian ally, in the war against mostly Sunni rebel groups. In the second half of 2012, Soleimani assumed personal control of the Iranian intervention in the Syrian war, when Iran became deeply concerned about Bashar al-Assad‘s inability to fight the opposition. Soleimani was reported to have coordinated the war from a base in Damascus to which a Lebanese Hezbollah commander and an Iraqi Shiite militia coordinator had been mobilized alongside Syrian and Iranian officers. According to a Middle Eastern security official, thousands of Quds Force operatives and Iraqi Shiite militiamen had been brought into Syria. “They’re spread out across the entire country,” he said.

Soleimani was widely credited with delivering the strategy that has helped al-Assad turn the tide against rebel forces and recapture key cities and towns. The details of his involvement are sketchy but many events, from the training of government-allied militias and coordination of decisive military offensives to the sighting of Iranian (spy) drones in Syria, strongly suggest that the Quds Force is engaged in many aspects of the war. In a visit to the Lebanese capital Beirut on 29 January 2015, Soleimani laid wreaths at the graves of slain Hezbollah members, including the late Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyah, who was killed in Syria, also linking Soleimani to Hezbollah’s military activities in Syria.

Links to Iran’s nuclear programme

In March 2007, the United Nations Security Council issued Resolution 1747, which prohibited arms sales to and from Iran because of concerns over its nuclear programme. The edict also imposed sanctions on several IRGC commanders, including Soleimani. In October that year, the United States imposed additional sanctions on him, accusing him of supporting terrorism and nuclear proliferation activities. To date, however, no evidence linking the Quds Force to Iran’s nuclear programme has been made public. If such evidence exists, Iran’s shadow commander is a master at covering his tracks.

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