Major media outlets report tonight that a USA missile attack on the Bagdad Airport killed Qassem Suleimani, leader of the Iranian Quds Force.
Iran’s influence ranges across Iraq, through Syria into southern Lebanon and has been molded into a span of Shi’a solidarity termed the “Shi’a Crescent” by King Abdullah of Jordon. This arch of influence has been shaped largely by the efforts of a single man– little know in Western circles, but well known to the region- Qassem Suleimani.
In a 2011 article in the Guardian, Martin Chulov tells the story of then CIA Director, David Petraeus, when he was in command of US Forces in Iraq and engaged in battles with the Shi’a militia in Basrah when he was handed a phone with a text message from the head of Iran’s elite al-Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani.
The message read: “General Petraeus, you should know that I, Qassem Suleimani, control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan. And indeed, the ambassador in Baghdad is a Quds Force member. The individual who’s going to replace him is a Quds Force member.”
“He is the most powerful man in Iraq without question,” Iraq’s former national security minister, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, told the newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat in July 2010. “Nothing gets done without him.”
Suleimani’s journey to supremacy in Iraq is rooted in the Islamic revolution of 1979, which ousted the Shah and recast Iran as a fundamentalist Shia Islamic state. He rose steadily through the ranks of the Iranian military until 2002 when, months before the US invasion of Iraq, he was appointed to command the most elite unit of the Iranian military – the al-Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards.
The al-Quds force has no equal in Iran. Its stated primary task is to protect the revolution. However, its mandate has also been interpreted as exporting the revolution’s goals to other parts of the Islamic world.
Tehran has heavily invested in the survival of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose ruling Alawite clan has links to Shia Islam. Assad’s fall would be a serious strategic setback for Iran and Suleimani. It is perhaps the only part of the region where the general’s preferred mix of strategic diplomacy with aggressive operations is being strongly tested.
To my mind, the assassination of Qassem Suleimani is more eventful than that of Ossama bin Laden or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and may lead the USA into war with Iran. To understand the significance of Qassam Suleimani, click on this link to watch Dexter Filkins’ interview on the Charlie Rose Show.
An article discussed last night with Charlie Rose on PBS and appears in The New Yorker online edition (print edition to appear on Sept. 30th); Dexter Filkins discusses THE SHADOW COMMANDER directing Assad’s war in Syria as being none other than, Qassem Suleimani.
What follows is a very telling bit of history extracted from Filkin’s article that shows how a single word can change history.
In the chaotic days after the attacks of September 11th, Ryan Crocker, then a senior State Department official, flew discreetly to Geneva to meet a group of Iranian diplomats. “I’d fly out on a Friday and then back on Sunday, so nobody in the office knew where I’d been,” Crocker told me. “We’d stay up all night in those meetings.”
It seemed clear to Crocker that the Iranians were answering to Suleimani, whom they referred to as “Haji Qassem,” and that they were eager to help the United States destroy their mutual enemy, the Taliban. Although the United States and Iran broke off diplomatic relations in 1980, after American diplomats in Tehran were taken hostage, Crocker wasn’t surprised to find that Suleimani was flexible.
“You don’t live through eight years of brutal war without being pretty pragmatic,” he said. Sometimes Suleimani passed messages to Crocker, but he avoided putting anything in writing. “Haji Qassem’s way too smart for that,” Crocker said. “He’s not going to leave paper trails for the Americans.”
Before the bombing began, Crocker sensed that the Iranians were growing impatient with the Bush Administration, thinking that it was taking too long to attack the Taliban. At a meeting in early October 2001, the lead Iranian negotiator stood up and slammed a sheaf of papers on the table. “If you guys don’t stop building these fairy-tale governments in the sky, and actually start doing some shooting on the ground, none of this is ever going to happen!” he shouted. “When you’re ready to talk about serious fighting, you know where to find me.” He stomped out of the room. “It was a great moment,” Crocker said.
The cooperation between the two countries lasted through the initial phase of the war. At one point, the lead negotiator handed Crocker a map detailing the disposition of Taliban forces. “Here’s our advice: hit them here first, and then hit them over here. And here’s the logic.” Stunned, Crocker asked, “Can I take notes?” The negotiator replied, “You can keep the map.” The flow of information went both ways. On one occasion, Crocker said, he gave his counterparts the location of an Al Qaeda facilitator living in the eastern city of Mashhad. The Iranians detained him and brought him to Afghanistan’s new leaders, who, Crocker believes, turned him over to the U.S. The negotiator told Crocker, “Haji Qassem is very pleased with our cooperation.”
The goodwill didn’t last. In January 2002, Crocker, who was by then the deputy chief of the American Embassy in Kabul, was awakened one night by aides, who told him that President George W. Bush, in his State of the Union Address, had named Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil.” Like many senior diplomats, Crocker was caught off guard. He saw the negotiator the next day at the U.N. compound in Kabul, and he was furious. “You completely damaged me,” Crocker recalled him saying. “Suleimani is in a tearing rage. He feels compromised.” The negotiator told Crocker that, at great political risk, Suleimani had been contemplating a complete reevaluation of the United States, saying, “Maybe it’s time to rethink our relationship with the Americans.”
The Axis of Evil speech brought the meetings to an end. Reformers inside the government, who had advocated a rapprochement with the United States, were put on the defensive.
Recalling that time, Crocker shook his head. “We were just that close,” he said. “One word in one speech changed history.“
The take away from posting this article and background on Qassem Suleimani is to challenge you. Things are not always what they appear, especially when it comes to Syria.
For Suleimani, giving up on Assad would mean abandoning the project of expansion that has occupied him for fifteen years.
In a recent speech before the Assembly of Experts—the clerics who choose the Supreme Leader—he spoke about Syria in fiercely determined language.
“We do not pay attention to the propaganda of the enemy, because Syria is the front line of the resistance and this reality is undeniable,” he said. “We have a duty to defend Muslims because they are under pressure and oppression.”
Suleimani was fighting the same war, against the same foes, that he’d been fighting his entire life; for him, it seemed, the compromises of statecraft could not compare with the paradise of the battlefield. “We will support Syria to the end,” he said.
He did and in the end, Iran has won.