In Baghdad, early this morning, Iranian General Qassem Soleimani was killed by an American drone strike. The attack was sanctioned by US President Trump. According to the White House, a "decisive defensive action" was carried out. Soleimani was a major general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and commander of its Quds Force, the elite division for operations outside Iran. Some say he was the second most powerful man in Iran. Soleimani's convoy was hit by an American drone.
This event can be considered as a "declaration of war" by the USA against Iran. It is one thing to pursue terrorists on the run, it is aomething completely different when a foreign high official is assassinated on foreign soil with official blessing by the President. In any case, this is an extremely dangerous escalation of the conflict in the Middle East, directly affecting Russia as well. What is even more dangerous, is that is that it is not clear what American strategy is for the near future, what are the next steps.
Reaction in France and Britain shows there was not enough consultation, if any, before the attack. Experts there expect an "asymmetrical" counter-attack from Iran. They also say that the attack has thrown in disarray a strategy of careful, step-by-step strategy of engaging with Iran, of drawing it away from radical actions throughout the region.
Soleimani (among his supporters he was knwon by the respectful nickname Hajj Qassem, like Tolstoy's Haji-Murat) was heading to Baghdad in connection with the prolonged siege of the American embassy by pro-Iranian groups. It is not clear why, was it in order to continue to act against the American military presence in Iraq, or the opposite, in order to restrain the further escalation of the conflict.
From the outside it is not always clear, but after the fall of the regime of Saddam and especially as a result of a long war with Daesh (ISIS), Iraq turned out to be a field of direct rivalry between the United States and Iran. And the further events unfolded, the more the situation developed unfavourably for the United States. The government of Iraq is now insisting on the withdrawal of all remaining US troops from the country.
Soleimani is considered the chief architect of Iran’s military-political expansion in the region, including an alliance with Russia. As a result, the country has become a regional superpower. This suits some, while others are extremely worried, in particular those in the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel. In the US, Soleimani is on the official list of terrorists. He is also on the sanctions list of the European Union.
Soleimani was the commander of the Iranian special forces Quds with an estimated number of 10 to 20 thousand elite fighters. Quds supported the armed opposition in Afghanistan against the pro-Soviet government in the 80s, then groups that fought against the Taliban regime, and still later supported the Taliban who fought against the pro-American government.
In Iraq, the Iranian Quds supported the Kurds in the fight against the Saddam regime, and later in the fight against Daesh (ISIS). According to some reports, the Quds militants fought in Bosnia on the side of the Muslims there against the Serbs. In the war against Daesh, Soleimani fighters played a key role in a number of important battles. He himself was reportedly seriously injured. In Iran, these reports were denied.
General Soleimani was a confidant of the Russian military. According to reports, it was "Haji Kassem" who brought Russia to Syria. He convinced Moscow of the possibility of a successful military operation there in order to support the Assad regime and defeat Daesh (ISIS). And he began pressuring Russians as early as 2013, even before the Ukrainian crisis. During 2015-2016 he visited Moscow four times for negotiations.
With Russian already in Syria, it was Soleimani who led the operation of the special forces that saved the Russian SU-24 pilot Konstantin Murakhtin, shot down by the Turkish F-16 near the Syrian-Turkish border in November 2015. Soleimani contacted Russian commanders and suggested using special forces under the Iranian command to rescue Murakhtin. The rescue group included 8 Hezbollah fighters and 18 Syrians from a pro-Iranian group. With satellite and air support from the Russian forces, the group penetrated 6 km “beyond the enemy’s lines” (that is, apparently into Turkey) and liberated the pilot, who later returned to the Russian base in Syria (according to reports by the AFP, The Times of Israel, Iran’s Fars Agency and the Persian-lnaguage service of Sputnik).
So far, the US conflict with Iran had remained within the framework of the proxy war. Even despite the fact that over the past two months in Iraq there have been 11 serious attacks on US military and civilians. On the eve of the New Year America began moving additional strike force to the region. Now there are up to 14 thousand US troops there, the army, marines, navy and aviation.
It is unclear how much Washington took into account the role of Soleimani in the Russia-Iran-Turkey triangle. It is clear that this blow to Iran is also a blow to Russia. Further escalation of the conflict will put Russia in a dangerous proximity to the military confrontation with the United States.