Of the most feared terrorist leaders the United States has hunted and killed this century—from Osama bin Laden to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—no death ever had the significance of the one America just dealt. The killing of Iran’s Quds Force commander, Qassem Soleimani, in a U.S. strike yesterday in Baghdad wasn’t just the targeted assassination of a state military leader. It marked a dangerous new chapter in a roiling region Soleimani has helped shape for more than a decade, and moved the U.S. and Iran’s cycle of proxy violence and sabotage closer to outright war.
President Donald Trump did not immediately claim victory as he did for the death of Baghdadi in October. The president instead tweeted out a single image of an American flag as early reports of Soleimani’s demise circulated. The Defense Department confirmed that the U.S. military had killed Soleimani on Trump’s orders.
Soleimani has been called “the most powerful general in the Middle East today,” and the mastermind behind a strategy of backing sympathetic proxies in Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon to secure influence and attack Iran’s enemies. Through the summer and fall of 2019, as the Trump administration ramped up its financial pressure campaign on Iran after leaving the nuclear deal, Soleimani’s forces or their proxies were blamed for attacks on oil tankers near the Persian Gulf, rocket volleys against American interests in Iraq, the shoot-down of an American drone, and a strike on an oil facility in Saudi Arabia.
Unlike bin Laden or Baghdadi, Soleimani had the power and resources of an entire state at his back—and open support at high levels of the government in the state where he was killed. Both bin Laden and Baghdadi died in hiding and on the run; Soleimani traveled openly in the region where his forces operated. “It’s one thing to kill someone who is considered a terrorist by everyone, including the host country,” Abbas Kadhim, the director of the Iraq Initiative at the Atlantic Council, told us. “It’s another thing to kill someone who is designated as a terrorist by the U.S. but not by the host country—Iraq, in this case.”
“General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region,” the Defense Department statement said, declaring Soleimani responsible for a series of attacks on U.S.-led coalition bases over the past several months—including one in late December that killed an American contractor. “We know that the intent of this last attack was, in fact, to kill” Americans, Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a press conference yesterday morning, noting that about 100 U.S. military personnel were at the attacked compound in December, in addition to about 200 contractors. “Thirty-one rockets aren’t designed as a warning shot.”
That strike prompted U.S. strikes against five targets in Iraq and Syria where an Iranian-backed militia, Kataib Hezbollah, was operating. The leader of that militia, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who also served as an adviser to Soleimani, was reported killed alongside the Quds Force commander.
Earlier yesterday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper had told reporters that he fully expected Iranian retaliation for the strikes on Kataib Hezbollah, but that the U.S. might act preemptively, and Iran wouldn’t like the results. Now further retaliation from the Iranian side seems all but inevitable, even if what form that will take is unclear. Further U.S. responses may be equally inevitable.
“They will strike back. Just a question of target,” Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which advocates for a hard-line policy toward Iran, told us. “This ends any possibility of nuclear negotiations.”
Phillip Smyth, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who studies Iran’s military forces and their proxies, called the attack on Soleimani the most important decapitation strike America has ever launched, because it’s against a state-backed entity “totally different than ISIS or al-Qaeda.”
“We are talking about the core leadership of a transnational Iranian-led network,” he told us. “They controlled tens of thousands of fighters throughout the region and were old hands—true believers. These were the people who were creating the future for Iran's imperial project.” (The Islamic State is believed to still have perhaps 14,000 to 15,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria, and had no territory left by the time Baghdadi was killed in October.)
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, of which Soleimani’s Quds Force formed the expeditionary wing, has, however, been labeled a terrorist group by the Trump administration, Smyth noted, and the IRGC networks Soleimani controlled included “numerous groups that the U.S. had labeled as terrorist entities.” Despite being state-directed, these groups “use terrorism—and have used it more effectively.” They are far more powerful, Smyth added, than al-Qaeda or ISIS ever were.
This distinction will be especially important in the days to come—because it underlines how dangerous the response from Iran and its proxies could be. Ilan Goldenberg, who worked on Iran in the Defense Department under President Barack Obama, speculated on Twitter that the response might involve escalation in Iraq or missile attacks on U.S. regional allies such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
U.S. soldiers who fought in the Iraq War have bitter memories of Soleimani and the bloodshed he unleashed in the country. Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican who served in Iraq, said in a statement that Soleimani “got what he richly deserved, and all those American soldiers who died by his hand also got what they deserved: justice.” Seth Moulton, a Democrat in the House of Representatives and an Iraq War veteran who has been a vocal critic of Trump’s Iran policy, issued a statement late Thursday night calling Soleimani “an enemy of the United States with American blood on his hands.”
Yet, like others in his party, Moulton worried where Soleimani's assassination might lead: “The question we’ve grappled with for years in Iraq was how to kill more terrorists than we create. That’s an open question tonight as we await Iran’s reaction to Donald Trump’s escalation, which could ignite a regional war, with still no strategy from the Administration.”