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Soleimani and the End of the Red Lines

Soleimani and the End of the Red Lines

Monday, 6 January, 2020 - 08:15
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

For the first time in decades, it is no exaggeration to say that the Middle East is standing on the edge of a volcano. It is evident through the calls for revenge that were launched from Tehran, Baghdad and Beirut. The unprecedented rhetoric calls for targeting the American presence in the region and the first battle of the war is that of forcing America out of Iraq.

The most brutal of confrontations are those in which both parties cannot back down. Those who know of General Qassem Soleimani’s pivotal role in the Iranian regime and its regional agenda know that this regime cannot fail to avenge the murder of the man who was closest to the supreme leader. This is why Ali Khamenei was quick to vow revenge. The Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq and secretary general of the Hezbollah party in Lebanon, Hassan Nasrallah, were quick to follow suit.

Iran cannot back down from avenging Soleimani. His assassination has struck at its core, especially since the man was the guardian of complicated threads that he patiently and stubbornly wove from Afghanistan to Lebanon, passing through Iraq, Syria, Yemen and other arenas. Sources from the regime in Iran say that news of Soleimani’s death was the worst Khamenei had ever received during his long years in power. The supreme leader himself had played a role in enlarging the exceptional halo that surrounded the general, whose actual privileges went much farther beyond his title.

Soleimani was the architect of Iran’s major push in the region. This is no exaggeration. No president could be elected and no government could be formed in Lebanon without his approval. The same applies to Iraq. No one could argue against him in Syria. It is enough to recall how he had carried maps of Syria to President Vladimir Putin to convince Russia to intervene in the country and save its regime. And that is what happened. It is through Soleimani’s missiles and drones that the Houthis in Yemen continue to play the role he tasked of them.

Iran cannot back down from seeking revenge. It is obvious that it is seeking revenge that clearly has its hallmarks. The revenge will not be carried out by proxies and it will hold the same gravity as the strike that eliminated its most important and popular general. Soleimani’s killing clearly had America’s fingerprints and so the retaliation is supposed to be against the American military itself.

On the other side of the pond, America does not appear capable of backing down. It has gone far and it may be forced to go even farther. This is also about America’s dignity and that of its military and security institutions and its image in the region and world. It is also about a president who is waging an electoral campaign.

By ordering Soleimani’s killing, Donald Trump had taken a much more difficult decision than when he ordered the elimination of the ISIS leader or when his predecessor Barack Obama sanctioned the elimination of the al-Qaeda leader. Soleimani’s killing is not only directed against Iran and its institutions, but to those “armies” that he helped raise inside several regional countries. This is why the scope of the confrontation will be much wider than originally believed.

Soleimani was the man of infiltrations and coups. He breached maps and organized the coup against present balances of power. He did that in Lebanon after the assassination of Rafik Hariri and during the 2006 war with Israel which he followed from within Lebanese territories. He prevented the formation of a stable Lebanese government that was friendly with the West. He also prevented post-Saddam Hussein Iraq from establishing stable institutions that were friendly with the West. He seized the opportunity in Iraq when ISIS emerged to transform the “jihad” called for by Ali al-Sistani into an opportunity to arm the Popular Mobilization Forces and turn it into an official and legitimate force. This in turn helped further limit American influence in Iraq.

With Putin, he helped change the course of the conflict in Syria, banking on his country’s ability to consolidate its presence in Syria – an ability it is much more adept at than Russia. He also sponsored the Houthi coup in Yemen that is until this very day witnessing severe resistance. He previously tried to infiltrate Bahrain, but failed.

Soleimani was the general of infiltrations and coups. He was the engineer of attempts to threaten several countries in the region with missile systems that were set up in neighboring countries in order to undermine their strategic abilities, influences their decisions and alliances. In recent months, his great dream almost came true when he opened the route from Tehran to Beirut and which passed through Baghdad and Damascus. During this push, which was facilitated by the American overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Soleimani sensed that the major obstacle in his agenda was the American thread that many countries in the region are counting on to deter the major Iranian offensive. His great dream was to cut this thread.

Provoking the “great Satan” is nothing new for Iran. After the Americans were turned into hostages in their own embassy in Tehran, it moved beyond its borders to provoke it in the region. Beirut was its favorite arena: The bombing of the US embassy and marine headquarters and hostage-taking.

For four decades, American presidents avoided responding to Iran in Iran. The trading of blows was limited and contained. Iran achieved a major success when it signed the nuclear deal that did not address its regional behavior. Soleimani, therefore, continued his policy of infiltrations and coups.

His killing coincided with a time when the Iranian economy is being crushed by Trump’s sanctions and when Iraq and Lebanon are witnessing popular protests that reveal some form of failure of the policies adopted in the countries of the Iranian crescent. This is why the supreme leader is unlikely to back down. Moreover, Soleimani’s killing in Baghdad holds its own significance. Soleimani started his rise to power during the Iraq-Iran war. There are some who say that he never forgave the US for preventing Iran from declaring victory in that war. When the battles swayed in Iran’s favor, satellite images of Iranian masses were sent to the American embassy in Cyprus and then to Baghdad, then Iraqi minister Hamed al-Jubbouri once told me.

It is most likely that Iran underestimated Trump’s ability to take difficult security decisions, especially after it appeared that he preferred economic sanctions over military strikes. Perhaps Soleimani believed that his safety was a red line that no one would dare to cross and risk war. Everyone was surprised by Soleimani’s death. We can say that the red lines died with him. It is the beginning of a new very hot chapter and new year in the terrible Middle East.

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