Task Forces

06.01.2021.

MORE THAN A GAME – THE PASSING OF COMMANDER SHADOW

By Zoran Cicak*

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg and owlet's wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble
.

(William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act IV, scene I)

I

Flight SAW 501 to Baghdad

The flight was delayed for more than two hours, without explanation - which, after all, sometimes happens even to larger airlines, in more organized countries and in much calmer times. Cham Wings, however, was a small, private company, with only four aircraft, founded in 2007; the airport - the one in the Syrian capital, Damascus; the time - evening on January 2, the first Thursday of 2020.

As at all airports in the world, passengers were annoyed by the delay: they sighed, looked impatiently at their watches, telephoned helplessly, and cursed a little. A notice finally appeared on the big board with the schedule of international departures saying that the flight to Baghdad had taken off, and the flight control immediately released that information to all internet sites with which it was connected world-over.

Looking out the window, however, a youngish man could clearly see that the plane was still on the tarmac, just as he had seen its would-be passengers, scattered around the exit gate. He walked over to the nearby public phone booth and dialed a number; a phone rang in a suburb of Damascus:

"The package hasn't arrived yet."

After half an hour, the passengers were finally invited to board; another control of boarding tickets and passports, getting on two buses, then boarding the plane - it took all of the next half hour. At the very last minute, before two charming flight attendants closed the front door, a convoy of three jeeps suddenly appeared on the runway, almost out of nowhere. Out of the last of them came three men: a man with a gray beard, in his early sixties, with two companions who did not look very pleasant.

Flight SAW 501 to Baghdad finally took off though: just a minute before 11.30pm local time, on Thursday, January 2, 2020. The following message also reached the telephone number in the suburbs of Damascus:

"The package is gone."

A Cham Wings employee, recently recruited by the Israeli secret service MOSSAD, went home satisfied, looking forward to the promised reward. However, he was not given time to enjoy it: even before dawn, he was arrested and taken to the Sadnaya military prison in the suburbs of Damascus. There, he was immediately tortured by agents of the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate, the infamous Idarat al-Mukhabarat al-Amma, excited by the idea that they could expose the entire Israeli network. However, in the first few days, before he succumbed to torture, he gave up the name of only one of his associates - who, again under torture, gave up only one name: his. This closed the circle and there were no further leads. Syrian intelligence also understood where the anonymous telephone tip-off could have come from, which led to the arrest of the man who telephoned from the airport: from his own employers. It was their usual modus operandi: when the job was done, everything was swept up and picked clean.

***

Cham Wings was also known under the motto: "We fly beyond borders." When the Airbus A-320, after exactly one hour and five minutes of flight, touched the runway of the city's airport on the banks of the Euphrates, on Friday, January 3, it was already spending its first hour.

When the plane, driven by a small yellow van, finally stopped at the parking ramp, the Traveler and his companions were the first to descend the steps parked on the front door. They entered another convoy of vehicles waiting for them on the runway. Only when the convoy neared the exit from the runway, were the other passengers allowed to disembark. It was thirty-six minutes after midnight.

The traveler has finally approached his last frontier. Not the one he didn't even pass at the airport border crossing – after all, his diplomatic passport was taken to the counter by friendly hosts, as per custom - but the Final one, for which he prepared himself to cross one way or another, and somewhat secretly wished to, for the last twenty years.

At the head of the column, some hundred meters in front of the other two vehicles, was a Hyundai minibus, with the head of the airport protocol and fifteen armed guards. Behind him, a Toyota Avalon, with the Passenger and his host in the back seats and two bodyguards in the front; one of them, Muhammad Reda, the host's personal companion, was also the driver. Another jeep was at the end of the column: there were two of Traveler's companions in it, one of whom was his son-in-law.

They drove for barely eleven minutes: they had just passed the last of several checkpoints on the way out of the airport and exited the perimeter surrounded by a low barbed-wire wall. Did they feel anything at all? Rare eyewitnesses later said that Hyundai was hit first and immediately turned into a fireball. Seeing that, Muhammad, the driver of the Toyota Avalon, trained for such situations for years, tried to avoid fate: he increased his speed, in order to go around the blazing vehicle from the right side. That is how he managed to avoid another rocket and prolong their lives for mere ten seconds. The third rocket finished the job: it was forty-seven minutes after midnight.

The Baghdad police completed the investigation, that is, what they could do with it, after a full seven hours, with the first rays of the new morning sun: most of the corpses were completely burned and it was almost impossible to identify them. The corpse that caused all this was finally recognized only by the ring with a dark red ruby - on the little finger of his left hand.

In the first hour of the first Thursday in the first week of 2020, a Hellfire missile fired from an American MQ-9 Reaper drone obliterated Qassem Soleimani, better known among friends and comrades-in-arms as Commander Shadow, Major General of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Commander of its Quds Brigades, for over two decades one of the most powerful men in the Middle East.

Who was this man, why was he killed and what are the consequences of this act?

II

Shadow Commander: Nine Lives of Iranian James Bond

For the Iranian Shiites, he was James Bond, Erwin Rommel and Lady Gaga – rolled into one. For the West - an enigmatic person, both an adversary and an ally, someone they could never know exactly what he was thinking, let alone what he intended to do. For many journalists around the world, a master of propaganda who posts selfies from various battlefields on social networks: a kind of modern Lawrence of Arabia, the mysterious commander of the Iranian Foreign Legion. For intelligence, from Washington to Moscow - the chief treasurer to whom Hamas, Hezbollah and dozens of their lesser-known brothers regularly report for various financial or logistical operations.

Qassem Soleimani was born on March 11, 1957, in a village in the province of Kerman in Iran. After finishing school, he moved to the city of Kerman, where he worked on construction for a while to repay the hundred or so dollars debt that his father incurred, unsuccessfully engaged in agriculture. At the age of eighteen, in 1975, he was employed in the city waterworks; in his spare time, he practices weightlifting at a nearby gym and spends his evenings listening to sermons by Mullah Kamiyab, a protege of Iran's future supreme religious leader, Ali Khamenei. Those were the last years of the regime of the Iranian Shah Reza Pahlavi, the country is in deep social and spiritual turmoil and that spirit of the times cannot bypass the young Qassem.

Feelings of injustice and humiliation that he brings with him from the early, formative years; religious radicalization from Kamiyab's evening sermons; the excitement of February 1979, when the masses in Tehran threw into the dust a thousand-year-old empire - all this together, objectively, left young Qassem with only one path of life: he joined the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, the armed wing of the Islamic Revolution.

Despite having no military training, he is advancing at meteoric speed: first, an ordinary guard, taking part in quelling a Kurdish separatist insurgency in western Azerbaijan, and in the fall of 1980, leading a Kerman volunteer unit in the Iraq-Iran war. At the head of the fighters that he gathered and trained himself, he stands out with the courage that his older comrades say is "bordering on madness". In a few years - still in his twenties - he became the commander of the 41st Tarala Division, the youngest in that war. He took part in the operations Fat-ol-Mobin (he would later describe that as the best in the whole war) and Tarik-al-Qads (in which he was seriously wounded).

With the end of the war, Soleimani became the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in his native Kerman. This border province in the northeast is located right on the road of Afghan opium smuggling to Turkey and further, towards the rich markets in the west; Qassem's war experience helps him intercept smuggling channels and break up convoys. The early 1990s, after a full three decades, are still a rather foggy period in Soleimani's life.

Some sources link him to the civil war in the former Yugoslavia: he allegedly leads Iranian paramilitary formations fighting on the Muslim side in Bosnia and Herzegovina. According to US diplomat Charles Redman, one of the authors of the Washington Agreement (1994) between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, no more than five hundred military instructors from Iran, all members of the Revolutionary Guard, took part in the civil war in Bosnia together with four thousand fighters.

Redman's allegations were confirmed by a report published in mid-January this year by the semi-official Iranian news agency FARS, in close personal ties with the IRG. In addition to Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and the Gaza Strip in Israel, the two sides mention the civil war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992-1995) as one of the conflicts in which the Quds Brigade was engaged in the 1990’s. However, there is no photograph, document or first-hand testimony (eyewitness) that confirms the personal presence of Qassim Soleimani in Bosnia and Herzegovina in those years.

***

The exact date when Kasim took command of the so-called Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards remains unknown to-date. It is estimated that this was not before September 10, 1997 or after March 21, 1998.

The Quds Brigades (Persian: سپاه قدس or sepāh-e qods) are a specialized IRG formation for unconventional warfare, special operations, and complex military intelligence operations abroad. It was named after the Persian word for Jerusalem (Quds), whose liberation - just like with the medieval European crusaders - is the credo of this paramilitary formation. Its strength is estimated at fifteen thousand fighters and an unspecified number of civilians - intelligence and operatives abroad - and is divided into eight territorial directorates:

Directorate 1: North America and Europe

Directorate 2: Russia and the countries of the former Soviet Union

Directorate 3: Iraq

Directorate 4: Afghanistan, Pakistan and India

Directorate 5: Israel, Lebanon and Jordan

Directorate 6: Turkey

Directorate 7: Muslim countries of North and East Africa

Directorate 8: Arabian Peninsula south of Jordan and Iraq

After the al-Qaeda's attack on New York on September 11, 2001, American intelligence agencies were surprised by the degree of their ignorance of the enemy. Just a few weeks after the Twin Towers disintegrated in fire and ashes, the then US Ambassador to Syria, Ryan Crocker, was negotiating in a Geneva hotel with two operatives sent by Qassem Soleimani: the exact targets for the US bombing of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Iranian colleagues provided the CIA operatives, accompanied by Crocker, with enough information to identify the main al-Qaeda operatives, which will eventually lead to their arrest in the coming years. However, this cooperation was abruptly terminated after a few months - when the then US President, Bush Jr., unnecessarily and carelessly, named Iran as part of the so-called "Axis of Evil."

Sometime later, Soleimani worked to strengthen relations between the Quds Brigades and the Lebanese Hezbollah: first his operatives helped capture southern Lebanon, then certain intercepted telephone conversations indicated preparations for the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 and then in 2006 he personally oversaw the combat operations in the short-lived Israeli-Lebanese war.

Senior officials of the American occupying administration in Iraq, Christopher Hill and General Raymond Odierno, met with Soleimani in 2009 - in the cabinet of the then (2006-2014) Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. The British Economist first published this, at first sight unbelievable, story - based on an authentic intelligence report leaked to his journalist, only to later withdraw it - after the official American denial. However, the milk has been spilt. The former CIA operative in charge of covert operations described Soleimani in those years as:

"… Individually the most powerful intelligence officer in the Middle East today and the chief military strategist and tactician of Iran's effort to fight Western influence and promote the spread of Shiite and Iranian influence in the Middle East."

Indeed, in post-Saddam Iraq, a complex hub of religious and tribal conflicts, intelligence and financial intrigues, and clashes between various armed militias, Soleimani's Quds Force operatives play a key role in forming various governments, including bringing to power the former prime minister (2006-2014) and deputy prime minister (2016 - 2018) of this country, Nuri al-Maliki.

On January 24, 2011, Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, promoted Soleimani to the rank of Major General. It is the highest rank in the Iranian army: at that time, there were only thirteen officers of the same rank. However, for those familiar with the situation in Iran, another detail was more important: Commander Shadow is the only one about whom Ali Khamenei already then began to speak publicly as a "living martyr". That phrase will, in many ways, shape the last decade of his life and, probably, the first decade after his death.

III

Final Years: From the Sands of Syria to the Front Pages

Thus, at the beginning of the decade ended with 2020, the myth of Commander Shadow went beyond the borders of Iran where it had originated from. In 2013, the influential American magazine The New Yorker called him "a former CIA operative responsible for covert operations", "individually the most powerful operative in the Middle East today", “a major strategist and tactician in Iran's efforts to counter Western influence and expand Shiite and Iranian control over the region”. He was on the front page of "Newsweek" for the first time at the end of 2014.

According to several sources - including former Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab, who later fled to Jordan - Qassem Soleimani personally got involved in the Syrian civil war in the second half of 2012, as the most influential of several Iranian intelligence and military officials to assist Bashar al-Assad’s government. He housed his headquarters in a villa on the outskirts of Damascus, from where he coordinated the commanders of the Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite militias, and Iranian and Syrian officers. In those critical years of the Syrian war, 2013-2014, when Assad's army was disintegrating and the Islamic State was at the gates of Damascus, Soleimani managed to defend several key cities and communications and thus buy the Syrian president desperately needed couple of years to survive. At the end of that year, 2014, Soleimani made the first in a series of front pages in the leading Western media: the one in the American Newsweek.

However, as early as the beginning of 2015, it became obvious that - even with all the external support, Syria could hardly defend itself from the Islamic State in the long run. Only one-fifth of the territory remained under the control of troops loyal to the government in Damascus, and the Islamists, seemingly unstoppably, advanced towards the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, where the main terminals for Syrian oil exports were located: installations in Tartus and Latakia.

The first information on the real state of affairs on the ground - as a rule brutally cold and, more often than not, in contradiction with the rosy reports by the Syrian official authorities - was compiled by Qassem Soleimani; the sitrep was taken out of the country by his trusted couriers whom no one dared to search. The Damascus regime was therefore more fortunate than wise: as soon as it took a look at Soleimani's maps in Tehran, the Iranian military and political leadership realized that the country could not be saved without massive foreign intervention; in the given military and political circumstances, that intervention could only come from Russia.

According to Reuters sources, Soleimani's first contact with Russian colleagues around Syria took place in July 2015 in Moscow. At the same time, it was the first time in thirty years that Commander Shadow was looking at a Russian officer not through a gun sight: the last time they had engaged was in the mid-1980’s in Afghanistan. However, the impression he left in 2015 was extraordinary: so good in fact that, when half a year later, the personal envoy of Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, discussed intervention with Syria with Putin, the Russian president ended the conversation with the sentence:

"All right, you convinced me. We will intervene. Send Soleimani to make an agreement.”

Thus, in a few months, a complicated military alliance of a terrifying force was patiently built in the area of northwestern Syria: the regular Syrian army, the Iranian Quds Brigades, the Kurds, the Lebanese and Iraqi Hezbollah, and the Russian Expeditionary Corps. Common situation rooms have been set up, intelligence exchange centers formed, secure communications established, and coordination of units in the field  practiced, for a long time and carefully.

In the decisive moments of the Battle of Aleppo, the Iranian air force also intervened, bombing Islamist positions. To the astonishment of Syrian and Russian officers that Soleimani himself was in Aleppo at that very moment, the Iranian pilots calmly replied:

"Yes, Commander Shadow is in town and leading us to the targets."

In December 2016, exclusive photos were leaked to the public: Qassem Soleimani, in an ordinary camouflage uniform without ranks, on the walls of the newly liberated Citadel in Aleppo. The spine of the Islamic State in Syria was broken. But paradoxically, that military victory - the biggest in his career - was also the trigger for a much more complex process.

At the end of next year, 2017, when the Islamic State was defeated in neighboring Iraq, Qassem Soleimani was included in the 100 Persons of the Year list compiled by the American cult magazine Time: together with Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Theresa May, Pope Francis, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Julian Assange, Neymar and Melinda Gates.

However, this newly acquired status of world celebrity is nowhere more directly - and more wittily - presented than on the cover of the British magazine The Week. There, the artist painted a caricature of Soleimani, as he winked smirking at the symbol of America - Uncle Sam - in bed. The goofy allusion to the joint war against the Islamic State in Iraq was given a very appropriate title: Strange Bedfellows.

The only recognition of a true professional that really matters is certainly the one he receives from his enemies. The Gospel of American diplomats, soldiers and intelligence, Foreign Policy magazine, put Qassem Soleimani on its traditional list of one hundred global thinkers - for 2019. Among the ten candidates in the category of defense and security, he took first place, ahead of the then German Minister of Defense, Ursula von der Leyen (2), the founder of the famous Bellingcat, the British Eliot Higgins (7) and Putin's security adviser Vladislav Surkov (8). The explanation reads as follows:

"Qassem Soleimani has been leading Iran's secret military operations for two decades, but his role has never been greater than it is today. Soleimani's hand is everywhere Iran is active, from Yemen to Iraq and Syria. He has also become a public figure in Iran's response to US President Donald Trump's threats. "We are close to you, where you can't even imagine," Soleimani warned in July 2018. "We're ready."

https://foreignpolicy.com/2019-global-thinkers/

The few people who have had the privilege of meeting Commander Shadow in person do not quite agree on whether this sudden popularity really suited him - or he just used it skillfully, aware that creating an impression in public has become a new weapon in modern warfare.

However, regardless of that, all these processes ultimately launched the American drone from which, some two years later, a rocket was fired at the Baghdad airport. In the very moment the world public began to recognize him as the strongest man in the Middle East, he simply became too powerful to stay alive for too long.

IV

Murder on the Orient Express: The Anatomy of a Conspiracy

The myth of Commander Shadow has been built by Iranian state, military, and religious propaganda for decades; the obsession of various players in the Middle East with his physical liquidation lasted for years; this conspiracy was prepared, patiently and carefully, for months.

The military and intelligence structures of Netanyahu's governments, not once but twice, asked the US administration for approval to liquidate General Soleimani: in the time of George W. Bush (2000-2004) and then Barack Obama (2008-2016) - in both cases they were rejected due to excessive risk. Truth be told, the Quds Brigades, which he led, were declared by the US a foreign terrorist organization as early as in 2007.

As in the cult novel by Agatha Christie, Murder in the Orient Express, there were many and all sorts of people interested in Shadow Commander’s demise; their motives were different, often contradictory; some of them did not even know each other; almost none of them could successfully accomplish it alone; but, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, as said almost two and a half thousand years ago in the ancient Sanskrit scripture of Arthashastra. If Agatha Christie was alive today, and sent her Hercule Poirot today to investigate the Murder on the Baghdad Express, what conclusions would the famous detective come to?

Only with the arrival of Donald Trump in 2017 and the final defeat of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, did all elements click into place: for the first time in this century, America was led by a man who saw foreign policy only in terms of his own rating; for the first time in this century, General Soleimani's help was not needed in the confrontation with some other, worse, more dangerous, Islamic militants.

***

At least ten years - with the mediation of the United Arab Emirates - lasted discreet rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia: three partners together stabilized the Egyptian regime of General Sisi, fought together in Yemen and a little in Libya, together scrutinized the Shiite challenge in the north: Lebanon, Syria, Qatar, hopelessly divided Iraq and - above and beyond all of them - Iran.

The first contact between the United Arab Emirates and Donald Trump, then still a presidential candidate with a rather poor prospect even in his own party, was made in September 2015, through the mediator Eric Prince, founder of the private multinational security company Blackwater, who acted as a "common friend”. He offered the Emirate's financial assistance to Trump's campaign and handed over the list of counter-services requested in return. They mainly referred to Qatar, the UAE’s archenemy. One of the points at the end of the list was the murder of Soleimani. That was the first time Donald Trump heard that there was a person with such a name.

According to New York Times reports from May 2018, the UAE again offered Trump help to win the elections next year, 2016: Donald Trump Jr., Eric Prince (with American side); George Nader, a Lebanese American businessman, lobbyist and sex offender (who represented Saudi Arabia and the Emirates), and Joel Zamel, an Israeli expert on social media manipulation. Each side, of course, had its own interests: Prince asked Nader to persuade the Saudis to finance his private army with two billion dollars to fight Iran's allies in Yemen; Zamel again offered his own project of subverting Iran through social media.

In the end (but only after Trump's inauguration at the beginning of 2017), only one modest transaction (of two million dollars) was made, which Nader paid to the Israeli. What for exactly, was never revealed: it is assumed that it involved a project of opening tens of thousands of fake Facebook accounts that supported Trump's campaign.

What is, however, more important than all these details is the new axis whose traces we can locate already in 2016: Washington - Tel Aviv - Riyadh - Abu Dhabi. The common enemy of all these players is, of course, Iran. And the human face of that enemy is, more and more, the face of General Soleimani: just as it will be, quite conveniently, written two years later by a key-note speaker in Foreign Policy…

***

And while the obscure George Nader, after this meeting, entered Trump's inner circle (his numerous meetings with Jared Kushner, Michael Flynn and Steve Bannon were recorded and documented), a completely different process began to take place in Israel at the same time. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been facing a serious police investigation due to allegations of various abuses since December 2016. As time passes, and as these investigations move from the police to the prosecutor's offices, five serious criminal cases have been formed: case 1000 (unauthorized receipt of gifts); case 2000 (illegal contacts with the owner of a tabloid in which changes in regulations that would harm his competition were agreed upon); case 3000 (allegedly receiving bribes for the purchase of three submarines and four warships from a German company); case 4000 (conflict of interest between the Ministry of Telecommunications in Netanyahu's government and the telecommunications company Bezeq); case 1270 (attempted bribery of the Israeli public prosecutor in connection with case 1000).

While all this is happening, according to the American administration, the idea of killing Qassem Soleimani is floated more and more: first in informal conversations, then in unofficial papers (so-called non-papers), then at official meetings. It is noted that it was first mentioned by Trump's first national security adviser, retired General Michael Flynn; then his successor, again a former general McMaster; so his successor (needless to say - former) John Bolton; and then Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State. Several sources have confirmed to us that Trump has always accepted all these proposals in principle, but that he still refused to sign a document for a long time that would make this execution a legal military operation: allegedly, in 2017, he approved the decision to assassinate him but also laid a red line in the sand – any action against Soleimani would be justified if it was preceded by loss of American life for which Soleimani would be responsible.

However, no matter how much all these delays must have frustrated the participants in the conspiracy, in the American establishment, the idea of Soleimani's murder not only did not weaken, but, on the contrary, strengthened. Slowly, more and more people started believing that it is a kind of magic wand: Israeli and Saudi lobbyists are counting on earning their fees, Trump's PR advisers are getting a chance for a new tweet, a military-industrial complex to demonstrate the effectiveness of drone killing. As in that Chekhov drama, the rifle remains on the wall, even when the piece is entering its fourth act.

When the Iranian Revolutionary Guards shot down a US reconnaissance drone over the Strait of Hormuz with a surface-to-air missile, on June 20, 2019, according to several reliable sources, Donald Trump signed an executive order to assassinate General Soleimani. At that time, the necessary logistics for this order to be implemented in practice had not yet been set; there was also a serious reservation in the order: that its execution must, in any case, be re-approved. Just a few days later, the United States concluded a defense pact with the United Arab Emirates; Pentagon professionals concluded that the new ally would provide them with elements that were still missing.

In the meantime, the prosecutor's office in Israel did its job, and Trump's opposition in the US House of Representatives did their job. Finally, on November 13, 2019, the hearings of witnesses in the Trump impeachment procedure began, and on November 21, 2019, the Israeli prosecutor accused his prime minister of three counts of those five criminal acts.

There was no stable majority in Israel for a new government even after the third consecutive elections; with the indictment issued, the country slowly slipped into a state of emergency, and the usual, almost desperate scapegoat always in such circumstances - the security crisis in the region - remained the only lifeline option. This time, small skirmishes in Gaza, the West Bank or southern Lebanon would not suffice; something much bigger was needed. The biggest that was offered as an option was, of course, Iran. Especially since September 14, 2019, when the Iranian allies in Yemen used Iranian drones to target Saudi oil fields.

Thus, in the last days of November 2019, when asked directly by the Prime Minister how to most effectively destabilize Iran, MOSSAD analysts gave the answer that was expected of them: the assassination of Qassem Soleimani. Secretary of State Pompeo was chosen to convey the most important message to Trump: the Israeli intelligence network in Damascus will be made available in order to precisely locate the movement of the Shadow Commander in the Syrian capital. It was reasonably assumed that he would have to pass through Damascus - either on the way to Beirut, or on his way back from Beirut to Baghdad and Tehran.

V

The Red Line: How to Find a Citizen Suitable for Death?

The decision on the murder was sealed on Sunday, December 3, 2019, in a direct telephone conversation between Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu. Since that conversation ended, Qassem Soleimani started living on borrowed time:

https://www.i24news.tv/en/news/international/middle-east/1575265492-trump-and-netanyahu-discuss-threat-from-iran-during-phone-call

Thus, the anatomy of this conspiracy entered its last, surgically precise, phase. The whole mosaic lacked only one more small detail, in order to cross the red line that Trump set in 2017: the loss of the life of an American citizen.

But where and how to find a citizen suitable for death?

Nawres Waleed Hamid was born in 1986 in Kirkuk, Iraq. In 2011, he received an American immigrant visa and, with his pregnant wife, went to Sacramento, California. He worked hard, did various jobs and studied at the same time, graduated from college and then - with an excellent knowledge of English - got a job as a translator in one of the companies that provided services to the US military in Iraq: Valiant Integrated Services from Virginia.

Valiant is a company that provides a wide range of different services, related to the management of American military bases in Iraq: from design, maintenance, supply, to protection. It was, in short, the caretaker of American bases. The president of this company, James Jaska, received a contract in September 2019 for USD$ 119 million to equip a simulation center for the US military in South Korea: just in time to return the favor to the Deep State…

In those years, Nawres Waleed Hamid realized his American dream much faster than he expected: not only did he finish school and get a job, but - how conveniently - at the end of 2017 he also became a naturalized American citizen. The happiness of the small family (in the meantime, he and his wife Nur had two sons) had no end.

That happiness was not marred by an unexpected invitation, for urgent translation services, to Kirkuk in Iraq, at the beginning of December 2019. After all, Hamid was a Muslim, and what was more natural than to - during the upcoming Christmas holidays - replace his fellow Christians who had been given a long-desired leave?

But why - of all the American bases in Iraq guarded by Valiant - did Hamid find himself in K1 in Kirkuk, which the CIA had announced weeks before that it would be the probable target of the attack? And how - out of hundreds of American soldiers and civilians who lived and worked in K1 - that Friday, December 27, 2019, at half past seven in the evening, only the unfortunate Hamid found himself there?

None of this, of course, has ever been clarified. Nawres Waleed Hamid was buried in a Muslim cemetery in Sacramento, California, on January 7, 2020, the same day that Qassem Soleimani was also buried in Kerman, Iran. The costs of transporting Hamid's body from Iraq and his funeral were borne by the generous Valiant. His desk in Sacramento was decorated by colleagues with photographs of his two sons.

In one of his tweets, Donald Trump mentioned an "American hero" who lost his life in an attack by Iranian terrorists. Of course, he never even knew his name. Presidents, after all, have the privilege of never finding out things that would upset them. Hamid somehow found himself there, just in the right place and at the right time to become a hero, struck by one of the thirty 122-millimeter rockets fired from a launcher of the Shiite group Kata'ib Hezbollah, the main Iraqi branch in networks of General Qassem Soleimani.

That is how Trump's red line was finally crossed: now an American citizen has been killed: the only victim in this whole attack and the very victim that was necessary to complete the planned act.

All that remained was to the end this small play: in retaliation for the shooting of the K1 base in Kirkuk, the American air force bombed the positions of Kata’ib Hezbollah in the border areas of Syria and Iraq, on December 29. And, somehow, on the very last day of the old year, as in a well-directed film, the whole world could watch the siege of the American embassy in Baghdad for hours, live on various social networks, the mob climbing over the fence, breaking into the yard first and then to the main building, passing by the porter's lodge, taking triumphant photographs with confiscated souvenirs - war trophies, so to speak - mocking the Marines crouched on the roof of the building. It was, again, retaliation for the December 29 bombing.

The spiral of death has accelerated: it led exactly where it was planned to go many months ago.

"America is humiliated!" - Shiite internet portals have spread. "America is humiliated" - astonished European newspapers wrote. "America is humiliated" - social networks went wild. America was humiliated - on that last day of 2019 and the first day of 2020 - just as much and for as long as it needed to be.

Because, on that first day in 2020, Major General Qassem Soleimani flew from Tehran to Beirut, for a conversation with the leader of the Lebanese Hezbollah, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. The next day, January 2, he flew from Beirut to Damascus, to the head of the Syrian General Directorate for Security, his colleague, Mohamed Dib Zaytun. From there, he left for Baghdad that evening, on SAW 501, which started this story…

VI

Rendezvous With Destiny: the Last Thirty-Six Hours

General Soleimani's security in Iran was handled in parallel by two intelligence services (out of a total of sixteen in the country): the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Intelligence Service, headed for ten years by his longtime friend and ally in the Iraq-Iran war, Hassan Taeb, and Nahadhayih ittia'ti-yih muvazi, (the best, though incomplete, translation would be: a parallel intelligence organization) is a semi-official body composed of the most capable operatives and analysts of all security and intelligence structures, reporting directly to the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

We refer those readers who are more interested in the structure of the Iranian intelligence community to the concise but very good analysis that was written in 2015 for the American Journal of the U.S. Intelligence Studies by Carl Anthony Veg, a professor and expert on Middle East intelligence structures:

http://www.afio.com/publications/WEGE%20Iranian%20Intel%20Services%202015%20Sep%2001%20FINAL.pdf

We also draw attention to this report from the Jerusalem Center for Public Policy, one of the leading Israeli institutes that studies security issues, from May 2019:

Are the Changes in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Preparations for Conflict?

https://jcpa.org/are-the-changes-in-the-iranian-revolutionary-guard-preparations-for-conflict/

Here, however, we return to the mainstream of our story: the first announcement that the option of Soleimani's assassination was seriously mentioned in Washington was received by the Iranians in June 2017: it was information from one of their HUMINT sources about a conversation held at a restaurant in Georgetown, in which Dina Powell (1973), the then Deputy National Security Adviser, General McMasters, also took part. Dina (who in the meantime returned to where she came from in the Trump administration – to the investment bank Goldman Sachs) then - according to the source who transmitted this information to Tehran - said literally:

"The Shadow Commander will be shattered into pieces."

Maybe that first warning could be shrugged off as exhibitionism by a young woman, known for her addiction to alcohol more than would be advisable for her job at the time? However, similar warnings continued appearing over the next two and a half years. Not only have they become more frequent, but they have also begun to come from an increasing number of unrelated sources: something that professionals know must never be ignored.

Thus, from the beginning of 2019, a special counter-intelligence department was formed within the intelligence service of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, headed by Hassan Mohaqeq, which dealt only with the protection of Soleimani. From the beginning of 2019, they will start applying all the measures that are common for such occasions: the number of people with whom Soleimani came into personal contact has suddenly and drastically decreased; he stopped using private military and government planes and started using regular passenger lines, whose planes are not so convenient to shoot down; he changed the usual routes: sometimes on the way to Baghdad, at the last minute, he would take a plane to the far north, to Kirkuk, and then continue by car to the south; did not use a mobile phone or the Internet; he was accompanied by as few people as possible; no schedule was made in advance.

***

However, none of these precautions could have saved Qassem Soleimani's life in the last thirty-six hours. That Soleimani's itinerary - the flight Tehran - Damascus, on Thursday morning, then the car trip to Beirut (85 kilometers) - return to Damascus the same afternoon and evening flight to Baghdad - was obviously known to the Israeli services before it started. Did the Mossad have an informant in the general's entourage, or did it just put together information obtained from various sources in the Iraqi, Syrian and Lebanese capitals? Or both? That is still not known exactly. In any case, the information about Soleimani's itinerary was not passed on to the Americans by the Israelis until January 1, 2020.

As we have seen, the Mossad has made its cell in Damascus available for this operation - two members of which, after the job was done, it sacrificed itself in order to limit possible further losses. Their role was to confirm the time of take-off and the destination of the plane that Soleimani will enter.

In Baghdad itself, the CIA had associates at the British company G4S, which provided external security for the airport, as well as two security officers from the airport itself, an Iraqi. The first ones had the task to announce the description and registration numbers of the vehicles that will come to the airport to wait for the general, and the second ones to confirm the final schedule of passengers in the vehicles when they enter them on the runway.

The circle was thus closed.

VII

Kill on Sight: The doctrine of Bethlehem

Under international law, the assassination of General Soleimani would be justified in only two cases:

·        If the United States and Iran were at war - in which case the general (like all his colleagues, American or Iranian) would be legitimate targets of the enemy's armed forces, and

·        In the case of the so-called self-defense (Article 51 of the UN Charter).

Since there is obviously no war (yet), only this second instance could serve to justify the murder. Here, however, another problem arose: how to prove the causal (cause-and-effect) connection between Soleimani's arrival in Baghdad and the actions from which it would be necessary (or at least expedient) to take an act of self-defense?

Here we come to an interesting concept: the so-called Bethlehem Doctrine of Preemptive Self-Defense, named after Sir Daniel Bethlehem (1960), legal adviser in Benjamin Netanyahu's first government in Israel (1996-1999) and chief legal adviser in the British Foreign Office in the last government of Tony Blair (2006-2010).

In essence, Bethlehem's doctrine means that every state "has the right to preemptive self-defense against an imminent attack." If we were to look for an analogy with criminal law, it would roughly mean that if a burglar points a gun at you, you have the right to shoot him; if you wait for him to shoot first, you won't have a chance to defend yourself. This is an understanding with which a vast majority of lawyers, including the author of this text, can agree.

What is controversial in this doctrine, however, is its interpretation of the term "immediate": in its usual meaning, it is interpreted as an act that will "happen soon" or "had just happened" - in a temporal and spatial context, equally. However, in Bethlehem's doctrine of "preemptive self-defense" it is justified even if you know nothing about the details of that attack and the time of its occurrence. So, you can be killed by a drone or an air strike (the doctrine was created to justify such actions) only on the basis of "intelligence" (that is, information of much lower cognitive quality than clues, let alone evidence) that you are, or might be, involved in any conspiracy, and there is nothing in that data about what kind of conspiracy it is, when and where it should take place. The doctrine even contains the view that if you have been involved in an earlier conspiracy, that fact is quite sufficient to assume that you can be involved in a new one, so it is reasonable to kill you.

Bethlehem's doctrine was used as a formal legal basis for the so-called extrajudicial executions by various Israeli, British and American governments over a period of over ten years, mainly by air strikes or (more recently) by drones. Bethlehem himself wrote an article about this in the American Review of International Law in late 2012:

https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5305/amerjintelaw.106.4.0769?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

It is also interesting that the British government in 2015 took the position that the very content of the Bethlehem doctrine is a state secret which (due to the risk of not being published somewhere without authorization) even MPs cannot be briefed about – or, at least, not in unnecessary details. Answering before the parliamentary committee on September 15, 2015, when asked about the legal basis for the drone attack that killed British citizens Rajad Khan and Ruhul Amin, in the Syrian city of Raqqa (at that time the ISIS unofficial capital). In August of that year, the government's chief legal adviser Jeremy Wright said:

"Our obligation is to ensure that the legal advice that the government receives is as complete and honest as possible." It is also important to keep in mind the principle of collective responsibility of the entire government. Keeping the regime secret will allow lawyers not to worry that their opinions will ever be published. ”

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/sep/15/syria-drone-strikes-uk-attorney-general-refuses-to-disclose-advice

Thus, when Pompeo said that the attacks by Soleimani were "imminent" he did not use the word "immediate" in the usual meaning of the word ("imminent") in the English language, but in the much broader meaning it has in Bethlehem's doctrine, according to which you can kill people on the basis of (pre) feeling that they may do something, somewhere and sometimes - without actually knowing what, where or when.

The idea that preemptive killing of a person - who you've been informed might attack you but don't really know when, where or how he intends to do so - can be justified as legitimate self-defense, failed to receive widespread support (in fact, it has received almost no support at all) with serious lawyers around the world, outside of a few extreme neoconservatives and Zionists. That is why Daniel Bethlehem was hired as the chief legal adviser of the British Foreign Office in 2006: practically none of the existing lawyers in this institution wanted to sign the opinion that British participation in the aggression against Iraq in 2003 was legal; Bethlehem was the only one to write a paper in 2004 claiming that "it was, because both the existing law and the judgments of the courts are wrong." It is, by the way, a defense that very rarely succeeds in a serious court.

The legal understanding that the murder of Soleimani is a crime under international criminal law was not backed only by lawyers from countries where this could be expected like Iran and Russia but also by those from other countries of the Islamic world or individuals who are critics of American foreign policy.

In support of this, we quote only one part of the letter published on January 17, 2020 in the New York Times by Benjamin Ferenc (99), a graduate of Harvard Law School, an investigator of Nazi war crimes in occupied Germany in 1945 and the chief US military prosecutor in one of the twelve trials in Nuremberg after the Second World War (the so-called Einsatzgruppen trial):

“The US administration recently announced that, on the orders of the President, the United States had "removed" (which really means "killed") an important military leader of a country with which we are not at war. As a graduate of Harvard Law School, who has written extensively on the subject, I consider such immoral action to be a clear violation of national (US) law and international law.

The public has a right to know the truth. The United Nations Charter, the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice in The Hague have all been circumvented. In this world of cyberspace, young people are in mortal danger everywhere until we change the hearts and minds of those who prefer war to law.”

VIII

More Than a Game (1): Consequences - America

The consequences of the murder of Qassem Soleimani are multiple, complex and long-lasting. Some of them are already obvious, others will only be revealed over time: gradually, layer by layer, like peeling an onion.

We will start, first of all, with the United States itself: a country that is at the same time obsessed with security, more than ever after 2001, and deeply divided, not only politically but also culturally. The assassination at the Baghdad airport will have double consequences for them: first the political ones - which are already being publicly written about and various debates are being conducted - and then the military ones.

Let us consider the former first: the numerous reactions in the United States itself have been very critical: not only in political, media and professional circles around the American Democratic Party, which could be assumed to chase its opponent in every upcoming election, but also in those social, intellectual, and cultural centers that have traditionally supported the concept of a “strong America,” America as a “world policeman”.

For example, Brookings, the uncrowned king among Washington's foreign policy institutes - whose board also includes representatives of Goldman Sachs, Arcelor Mittal, Marriott, Heinz, Lazar and Deutsche Bank - in its first comment, just four days after the assassination, entitled "Trump's hasty policy in the Middle East has brought the United States to the brink of war," wrote that the

“…painful irony is that Trump increased tensions with Iran at a time when he was weakening the overall American position in the Middle East. This action could lead to the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, make the fight against the Islamic State more difficult and strengthen the strong-willed in Tehran, while at the same time making all American allies timid and insecure.”

https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/01/06/trumps-reckless-middle-east-policy-has-brought-the-us-to-the-brink-of -war / amp /? __ twitter_impression = true

The author of the text from which we quoted this passage, Daniel Bayman, is not some enthusiast, liberal, fighter for world peace and human rights or a great democrat: on the contrary, he is just the opposite. With experience in the RAND Corporation, the National Commission to Investigate Terrorist Attacks on the United States (the so-called 9/11 Commission), multiple and long-standing personal ties to the House and Senate intelligence committees, Bayman is in the small group of people for whom it can be said that they are not just close to the famous "Deep State", but that they are indeed a Deep State themselves.

Bayman's basic thesis - that Soleimani's unnecessary assassination interrupted a months-long wave of protests in Iran itself, but also in Iraq and Lebanon and thus de facto homogenized the establishment's hard wing in Tehran and strengthened its position - was repeated only a day later (January 7th). Other important authors, this time in the New York Times, Elizabeth Cobbs, a history professor at the University of Texas, and Kimberly Field, one of the few women to become a brigadier general in the U.S. military, posed a rhetorical question: does the United States have a Grand strategy, a concise vision, a high-level role in the world?

"Disturbingly, it’s a bit of a trick question. America doesn’t really have a grand strategy. What we do have, a patchwork of doctrines left over from the Cold War, fails to match our abilities, our national goals and the changing shape of global threats and opportunities.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/07/opinion/soleimani-killed-us.html#click=https://t.co/XW8gMPoSLJ

However - at least that is what the authors think - this fact has never been seen so clearly before, and has not produced so many negative consequences at once, as in the decision to kill a high-ranking officer of another state, in the sovereign territory of a third state, and to publicly take responsibility for this senseless and dangerous act in front of the whole world.

This fact caused astonishment on the other side of the Atlantic: in Europe, already tired of the constant risks of suffering additional economic damage in a new armed conflict and thus further endangering already shaky positions in the important Iranian market. The British Royal Institute of International Affairs, the famous Chatham House, was the first to warn that the murder of Soleimani, and not in the long run, was the straw that could break the camel's back.

Thus, the European sister of Brookings, on the same day (January 6), wrote the following in her analysis:

" The massive funeral scenes in multiple Iranian cities displaying unending waves of mourners chanting against the United States has provided the Islamic Republic with a unique opportunity to showcase its mobilizing potential. This potential is not limited to Iran but also extends to Iraq and Lebanon, where Tehran’s transnational summoning power has also been visible. The Iraqi parliamentary vote to end the American military presence is one early negative consequence. While the region awaits Iran’s response, further anti-American rallying cries will continue to reverberate."

(https://www.chathamhouse.org/expert/comment/how-soleimani-assassination-will-reverberate-throughout-middle-east)

However, Soleimani's assassination (we continue to peel that onion now) left serious consequences for internal relations within the American apparatus of power. For the first time since the U.S. has carried out such extrajudicial killings (and there have indeed been plenty of them in the last two decades), one U.S. Secretary of Defense - this time it was Mark Esper - has deviated from strictly defined procedures. Almost all senior officials of his own cabinet, as well as the top of the Joint Committee of Chiefs of Staff (the highest level of coordination of branches and types of US armed forces), were excluded from the process of making operational decisions implementing the presidential order. Many whose job it is to approve such a murder only found out about it from the media. One of them, speaking anonymously for Foreign Policy, explicitly confirmed this:

"The usual decision-making process and authorization did not happen."

https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/01/05/pentagon-chief-kept-tight-circle-on-suleimani-strike/

And not only that: even among those who knew what it was about and were consulted, there lacked a single attitude that it was a really wise decision: obviously the matter was too sensitive. The FP source confirms this:

"The Ministry of Defense did not agree that killing the second most popular person in Iran, at the international airport in Iraq, was a good idea."

Some careful observers, close to the Pentagon, attributed this unusual decision to Esper's recent (December 4, 2019) article in the American Wall Street Journal, which revealed the sending of fourteen thousand new American soldiers to the Persian Gulf, with the aim of "deterring Iran":

https://www.wsj.com/articles/trump-administration-considers-14-000-more-troops-for-mideast-11575494228

That claim was publicly denied, but the leak of such a high degree of confidentiality to the newspaper fueled Esper's already present paranoia. If there are individuals in the military leadership who could leak this decision somewhere - who knows for what reason - and thus warn Soleimani about what is being prepared for him, the operation would fail.

IX

More Than a Game (2): Consequences - Middle East

The first important theater in the Middle East where experts expect major consequences of Soleimani's assassination is Iraq. In the period from the end of 2016, when Aleppo was liberated in Syria, until the end of 2017, when - at least for now - they were defeated, the remaining operational reserves of the Islamic State withdrew to northwestern Iraq. The Iraqi army itself was no match for them from the beginning: Mosul, the third largest city in the country (about one and a half million inhabitants), for example, surrendered to jihadists in 2014 without any fighting.

In 2017, however, Qassem Soleimani in Iraq developed several parallel networks of Shiite militias under his personal control; many Iraqi regular units have their instructors. The offensive on the strongholds of the Islamic State on the ground is led by Soleimani's militias and government troops in Baghdad, and their air operations are supported by the Americans. That alliance saved Baghdad itself from the first raid of the Islamic State, and in counterattack it captured all ISIS strongholds.

However, it did not destroy it: the reports of intelligence agents on the ground, American, Russian and Iranian alike, agree in the main assessment - that key Islamic State operatives in Iraq have gone underground, and that they continue to control a significant number of their clandestine bases, armed followers. The Islamic State may have lost the state, but it has preserved the army.

A significant factor of instability in post-Soleimani's Iraq are the political divisions that reflect the ethnic and religious fragmentation of that country: when, on January 5, 2020, the Iraqi parliament voted to withdraw all foreign troops from the country, the decision was made unanimously. However, all the one hundred and seventy deputies who voted for her were Shiites. Of the one hundred and fifty Sunni envoys, none attended.

During his lifetime, Soleimani had enough influence to guarantee the stability of a (predominantly Shiite) government and a tacit ceasefire between numerous Shiite and Sunni militias: tribal and territorially divided, usually in multiple links with various organized crime networks, each knowing its own maneuvering space and borders just as it knew that of the others. Violation of these rules was paid very dearly and not worth a try.

Along with Soleimani, on the last night of his life, there was also the leader of the most influential Shiite paramilitary group in Iraq, Kataib Hezbollah, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Their joint deaths strengthened ties between Iranian and Iraqi Shiites, but left the latter without one of the main commanders:

“From Isis’s point of view, a U.S.-Iran conflict works in its favor in a couple of different ways. A weakening of the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq, especially the militias, creates space for its people to try and stage a comeback. With the U.S. going after Iran and its allies in the region, less focus is on ISIS, which adds to its room to maneuver.”

https://www.bloomberg.com/amp/news/articles/2020-01-09/islamic-state-s-revival-is-back-in-play?__twitter_impression=true

This excerpt from the analysis of Kamran Bokhari from the Center for Global Politics in Washington, one of the leading experts on post-Saddam Iraq, published in Bloomberg, published on January 9, 2020, was confirmed only twenty-four hours later: al-Naba, a magazine for believed to be an almost semi-official Islamic State newspaper in Baghdad, issued a statement on January 10 attributing General Soleimani's death to "God's will" and saying that "divine justice" was for an apostate to die at the hands of his allied infidels ”.

***

The other theater is Syria and Lebanon, a space where Soleimani, for the first time, showed his organizational, intelligence and military skills on the international stage. One of the typically superficial American assumptions was that, with his departure, the connection between Iran and Syria would weaken, and that this would result in less Russian influence in that country. The practice, however, showed something quite the opposite: without Soleimani, his key operatives in Syria were very quickly integrated into the regular military and intelligence structures of the Syrian regime, thus de facto increasing Tehran's influence; at the same time, with the departure of the most capable commander in the complex vertical Damascus - Tehran - Moscow, the empty space was filled by the Russians. In a way, Soleimani’s death indirectly even benefited Russia, as it left Iran without a key strategist who shaped complex relations in the struggle for supremacy with a major competitor.

These assumptions were confirmed by Mona Yacoubian, of the American Institute of Peace - another expert who has been well acquainted with the situation in the Middle East for more than a decade - in her analysis of January 7, 2020:

"However, despite Soleimani’s strategic role, his death will not diminish Iran’s presence in Syria. Unfortunately, Soleimani’s legacy in Syria will outlive him as evidenced by the integration of some Iranian-backed armed groups into Syria’s security and military structures. These efforts are likely to continue as the regime seeks to regain control over the whole of Syria. Soleimani essentially helped lay the groundwork for a strategy that is likely to continue for months if not years.”

https://www.usip.org/publications/2020/01/how-soleimani-strike-impacts-syria-and-fight-against-isis

However - in the medium and long term - the high probability that Soleimani's death will bring the American-Iranian conflict into a new, more dangerous phase will certainly raise the already existing chaos and instability in Syria itself to a higher level. In principle, all extremist groups thrive under such circumstances: they always use the escalated levels of religious, ethnic and tribal conflicts to recruit new members. This will now happen to the Islamic State as well: once already dead, in a war in which its opponents were led by Qassem Soleimani, with his departure it will be resurrected and fill the empty space.

***

The third theater is Iran itself, which will also have double consequences: military and political.

In military terms, the choice of Soleimani's successor is interesting: Brigadier General Ismail Qaani (61), a veteran of the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s (in which he commanded the 5th Nasr Brigade and the 21st Armored Brigade Imam Reza), Soleimani's deputy in the Quds Brigades, since 1997, architect of various secret missions in Africa (Gambia, Senegal) and Latin America (Brazil, Bolivia, Venezuela). However, what makes Kani, at least among those who are better acquainted with this issue, the most famous is his engagement on Iran's eastern border: in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Ever since the mid-1990s, the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan - essentially the same kind of Sunni fundamentalist as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria two decades later - has worried the Iranian leadership. After 1998, Soleimani and Qaani jointly conducted a complex operation to arm and train Afghan Shiites (mostly ethnic Khazars) in Afghanistan. Together with Uzbek paramilitary leader Rashid Dostum, they formed the so-called Northern Alliance, a loose alliance of armed tribal militias that conduct sporadic military operations against the Taliban with varying degrees of success. Only after the American invasion of Afghanistan, at the end of 2001 - George W. Bush's response to the attacks on the towers of the World Trade Center in New York - did the Northern Alliance have the opportunity, this time with the help of a powerful ally, to finally overthrow the Taliban.

Since then, and without interruption for the next almost twenty years, Afghanistan threatens to become the new Vietnam for America, but also the white ball in billiards (the one with which balls of all other colors are sunk into the holes on the table) for Iran. As General Soleimani increasingly dealt with the Western Front (Iraq and Syria), his deputy Qaani took over the key influence on the eastern border (Afghanistan and Iran).

According to the analysis of Umer Karim from the British Royal Institute for the Armed Forces (RUSI), the oldest, and one of the most prestigious, research centers for international security issues:

"… Recently disclosed pictures circulating in the Afghan media suggest that General Qaani was operating as the deputy ambassador of Iran to Afghanistan as late as 2018, a story which only emphasises his prime role in managing Iran’s Afghan policy."

(https://rusi.org/commentary/death-qassem-soleimani-what-expect-afghanistan-and-pakistan)

So what Iraq, Lebanon and Syria were for Soleimani, Afghanistan and Pakistan will be for his successor: an area in focus of all his efforts for decades; a space that presents him with a professional challenge; a theater where he personally knows practically every key player; a zone in which he has deployed his intelligence and in which he can manage a whole complex spectrum of people: ministers, foreign diplomats, journalists, tribal leaders, smugglers, heads of criminal gangs.

Without a doubt: he could have done all that - and he did - even while Soleimani was alive. However, the unexpected advancement he received will no doubt significantly increase the importance of the entire theater of operations - the 4th Quds Brigade Directorate, or Iran's eastern border - on Tehran's overall list of priorities for the military and political leadership.

On the other hand, when it comes to political consequences, American analysts have accurately spotted deep fractures within the Tehran regime, not only between religious leaders and politicians, but also within each of the two basic strata of the Iranian establishment - the conservative and reformist wing. Various protests, demonstrations, and even occasional conflicts, are nothing new in Iran and, in various forms, have been going on there for a full two decades. Iranian society is much more complex and dynamic than the superficial, simplistic, images of it that still prevail in the Western media and public opinion.

The dominant approach during both Obama administrations (2008-2016) was to keep the Iranian risk complex under control primarily by playing the card of these divisions, with the eventual ultimate goal of regime change. Soleimani himself - especially after 2012, when he mainly engaged in operations outside Iran - was not an active participant in domestic politics, although - since 1999 - he has not hidden his sympathies for the conservative option.

However, his assassination greatly disrupted the overall dynamics: the nation's homogenization over the martyrdom of a favorite military commander strengthened the conservatives' position, dealt a severe blow to the reformists, and thus likely affected the outcome of the February 21 parliamentary elections. In the wave of anti-Western sentiments created by the assassination of Soleimani, support for conservative candidates for two hundred and ninety seats in the Iranian Parliament (Majlis) is undoubtedly greater than it would otherwise be.

***

Finally, the fifth important consequence concerns the internal cohesion of the Western military alliance: although about 5,000 American troops remain in Iraq itself, the political arrangements that have ensured their survival so far, are highly complex. They are primarily based on (mostly fictional) multinational military operations, the same ones conducted in 2003 against Saddam Hussein. After the assassination of Soleimani, many countries (which were not even informed about the act) faced with the increased risk and humiliation inflicted on them by America, simply withdrew from this adventure: first the largest of them, Germany, and then Canada, Denmark, Austria, Slovenia…

It is interesting that at the beginning of January, just after Soleimani's assassination, the United States deployed three and a half thousand more soldiers in the Gulf - from the 82nd Airborne Division - something that the media was shy to report … So the Americans were left alone, and Trump's administration was left to shoulder not only the military burden of the Iraqi adventure (taken over during his predecessors), but all the fresh and sudden political burdens.

X

Last Page of the Book: Winners and Losers

At first glance, it could be concluded that General Qassem Soleimani ended his final game as a loser, and Donald Trump as the winner of his first serious game – if we don’t take tweeting into account.

But is everything exactly as it seems at first glance?

For years, on the eve of each of his dangerous and secret missions - to Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen – Qassem Soleimani went to his favorite Mosque, Amir al-Momenin, in northeastern Tehran, and prayed that, along the way, he would "drink the sweet juice of martyrdom." This bizarre detail did not affect the quality of the counterintelligence preparations his team undertook - very professional - but it tells us a lot about his personal attitude towards death. It contained more than contempt: death in a fight with infidels, for him, did not mean defeat but victory.

In 2009, he wrote, using a metaphor that is an obvious paraphrase of John Milton:

"War is the lost paradise of humanity. One type of paradise is described for man through fresh streams, beautiful nymphs, and green foliage. But there is another kind of paradise. The front is a lost paradise of human beings.”

If he could - from the imaginary world he entered at the end of the first hour on January 3 - observe the real world, just a few weeks later, Soleimani would probably have no reason to be dissatisfied: the Iranian theocratic state to which he dedicated his life and death, emerged further strengthened by his martyrdom; Iraq, an American colony since 2003, is on the brink of civil war; anti-American allies of Shiite Muslims - from Lebanon, through Syria to Yemen - have been further radicalized; the Iranian arch-enemy, America, is further divided within itself; its allies remain divided, and its relations with key European allies in the NATO pact are becoming more complicated than would otherwise be the case; finally, America's position in the Middle East itself has become much more difficult than before that January 3, 2020. Pretty good score for one death?

On the other hand, Donald Trump proved to be an immature, almost infantile politician, who was drawn into a completely unnecessary, multiple risky and - above all - morally deeply compromising move by the bizarre conspiracy of the Israeli secret services, courts in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi and the plutocratic elite of America. For serious analysts of today's America - Chinese, Russian, German, and even Turkish - Donald Trump has become a factor that will henceforth be studied as a destabilizing factor, the biggest security threat, above all, for the country he heads.

In that sense, what was conceived as one small game became, very quickly, much more than just a game.

Because, if Qassem Soleimani started his - undoubtedly controversial - military and political career as a murderer, he ended it as a martyr. For Shiite Muslims, but also for the wider orbs of today's anti-American world, he is the first serious icon in the twenty-first century: by the very act of his own murder, he was forever forgiven for all the sins he committed during his life.

The legend about him, made while he was still alive, has now received that final, artistic touch, necessary for every successful myth - the seal of a martyr. What for Jeanne D’Arc was a bonfire in the town square in Rouen, for Che Guevara the school hall in the Bolivian village of La Iguera, and for Salvador Allende the office of the Moneda presidential palace in Santiago - for Qassem Soleimani was the exit from Baghdad airport: a place for rendezvous with history.

In contrast, Donald Trump, who began his career as an obscure businessman and continued as a controversial president, now ends it not only in the way Soleimani started his own - as a murderer. To a greater or lesser extent, and depending on historical time and circumstances, every American president sometimes had to be a murderer - just as every Roman emperor had. However, with the assassination of Soleimani, Trump went down in history as something much worse than a murderer: naive, narcissistic, exhibitionist and a cheap instrument of manipulation of the Israeli secret services, the Saudi court, suspicious intermediaries, and his own deep state.

*Author is an international lawyer and blogger from Belgrade, Serbia.