The direct attack against legendary Commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Qods Force – General Qassim Soleimani along an airport road at Baghdad International Airport must be viewed as significant in multiple ways.
First, the attack was effective. Qassim Soleimani is dead. This is a man who has, for decades appeared on many battlefields and has moved with relative ease among the many hotspots where Iran expanded her influence through the use of secretive and malign actions. He has escaped death many times, until now.
Second, in many ways, given his decades of leadership in the shadowy world of the Qods Force, Qassim Soleimani is the spirit of the IRGC and the numerous proxies spawned by it in places like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen among others. His death will surely be a cause for martyrdom in the eyes of his shadowy followers. There will be an outpouring of martyr images and idolizing. There will also be, among the groups he formed and sustained, a soul-deep desire to avenge his death. This may lead to actions taken by loyal subordinate commanders on their own against American iconic interests or persons within their operating areas abroad. We should expect the reactions to not be limited to Iraq. And Iran, governmentally, will not be in control of these actions.
Third, attacking Soleimani reflects a new policy direction that is aiming directly at the malign activities of Iran. It is these activities that have gone largely unchecked for decades, despite efforts in every US administration since that of President Carter to curb the malign activities using law enforcement and financial instruments of power. This time, force is being used directly. That is different.
Fourth, the exporting of the Islamic Revolution in Iran takes active form in highly effective propaganda and teaching, effective organizations that provide to the propagandized populations what struggling governments are unable to provide, and finally in the form of militias – the most promising of which will become proxies of the IRGC-Qods Force, and their leaders until now would become protégées of General Qassim Soleimani. That is where the other “big fish” killed in the attack comes in. Namely, Jamal Jafaar Mohammed Ali Ibrahimi – better known throughout the Shiite world of southern Iraq where I operated against him as “Abu Mahdi al Muhandis” or “The Engineer.” He was effective in developing broad militias, tied to political parties, who maneuvered their way into day-to-day life in southern Iraq among the majority Shi’a populations. His work was more effective than that of many others enabled by Iran’s Qods Force like Akram al Kaabi, Qais al Khazaali, even Muqtada al Sadr who frequently demonstrated impetuousness and required disciplining by Qassim Soleimani. Given the permission to activate Special Groups who were more militarily advanced, trained and sustained by the IRGC Qods Force, Abu Mahdi parlayed the support of Qassim Soleimani into the leadership not only of Kata’ib Hezbollah – the Hezbollah Brigades of Iraq – but also into the broader militia combat operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, known as Popular Mobilization Forces. This is the Soleimani model and his champion in Iraq, Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, is also dead with Soleimani. This will leave less capable, less strategic, and less disciplined leaders to emerge now in the Iraqi vacuum. The pressure to be brought to bear on the Iraqi government will escalate significantly in the near term and the potential for great gains by these Iranian-backed groups in political elections will further change the fabric of the Iraqi political system. In-fighting among the Shiite groups will emerge more visibly (it is always ongoing) as the lesser leaders seek to take the place of the two dead leaders. Iraq will remain politically unstable well into this new decade.
Finally, the growth of the broader IRGC (under which the Qods Force ostensibly falls) in the internal organs of the Iranian regime elevated them above the regular Iranian Armed Forces in political as well as military influence. The IRGC, filled with revolutionary fervor, has become an impediment to any kind of progress in negotiations with Iran. Evidently, the US policy now is to diminish the power of the IRGC, beginning with its effective external arm, the Qods Force, in order to improve the chances for progress on nuclear matters and on external malign actions. Because of the visibility of the attack and the stature of General Soleimani, the Iranian regime will take actions to exact a cost on the US and her interests. These actions will be indirect in nature, that is, actions that will create economic effects or create crises in governance among US allies and partners. Of course, no one was better at creating these indirect effects than Qassim Soleimani himself. Will they be as effective now? Will this signal a more virulent strain of Qods Force or alternatively perhaps, will this signal the beginning of the end of this disruptive capability? Time well tell. To be sure, the game just changed. Expect chaos ahead.
General Vincent K. Brooks, US Army (Retired) is a Senior Fellow with the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, a Distinguished Fellow with the Clements Center for National Security as well as the Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas, and he is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.