The US assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC’s) Quds Force, came as a blessing for the Islamic State (IS), which is still reeling from the death of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in Syria last year. In a recent statement, IS has termed Soleimani’s death as a “divine intervention”, and suggested that the removal of their mortal enemy would now give them an opportunity to regroup and re-emerge.
So, how is Soleimani’s assassination linked with the IS? Soleimani was the head of Iran’s CIA equivalent. He dealt with everything outside of Iran and ensured its foreign intelligence interests. And it was Soleimani who masterminded the fight against IS in Iraq and kept them from reaching the border with Iran.
Beyond Iraq, Soleimani also played a key role in the downfall of IS in Syria, where he was fighting the cause of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In fact, in November 2017, it was Soleimani who officially declared the defeat of IS in Syria and Iraq through a letter to Iranian Supreme Leader, Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei.
In view of Qassem Soleimani’s role in the fall of IS in two of its major strongholds—Iraq and Syria—it is not surprising that IS would only heave a sigh of relief at his death. IS’ archnemesis is gone and it didn’t even have to lift a finger, thanks to US President Donald Trump who decided to kill a senior military official of a sovereign nation based on flimsy evidence of threat that the country has not yet been able to produce. This makes the legality of the assassination questionable, to say the least.
The murder of Soleimani has already unleashed a chain of events that has not only led to the deaths of 176 innocent people on board the Ukrainian jetliner Flight 752, which Iran mistakenly gunned down; his assassination has also opened a window of opportunity for the IS to regroup, along with other terrorist/militia outfits in the region. How? Let me explain.
First of all, the murder of Soleimani has shaken Iran—and of course, the Quds Force—to its core. It is natural that Esmail Qaani, the new head of the IRGC’s elite force, will need some time to cope with the changes and devise further plan of action in Iran’s fight against the IS. This, unfortunately, will give IS the breathing space it needs to revive itself.
Secondly, with the murder of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the second-in-command of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) that has been an essential partner of Iran in the fight against IS, the drive will witness a slowdown, again to the advantage of IS.
Third, in the aftermath of Soleimani’s assassination, the US and NATO announced that they were suspending their anti-IS initiatives in Iraq because they were concerned about the safety of their personnel, and they focused on countering retaliatory attacks, as they braced for reaction from the fallen general’s homeland. This interlude in the international forces’ activities against the IS, coupled with the distraction on the Iranian and PMF side, will aid the potential revival of the IS.
Fourth, Syria’s Assad is also reeling from the aftershocks of Soleimani’s assassination. As a result, the IS fragments still left in Syria might get the chance to regroup. And with Donald Trump leaving the Kurds in northeast Syria last year—who had played a key role in dismantling IS in the area—to the tender mercies of Turkey, the IS’ chance of re-emerging in Syria has only increased. With the Kurds cornered and Soleimani gone, it might not be very difficult for IS to realise their dream of a nightmarish return.
And one fears, with tensions and anti-US sentiments mounting in the region, desperate elements might view the IS as their answer to US aggression, and as a result, they might want to act as their patrons. This will be a very dangerous move. With Baghdadi gone, the IS might break down into various smaller factions with similar extremist ideologies spread all across the Middle East; or it might reappear as one single unit under a new leadership, equally dangerous to the world, if not worse. Both unwanted possibilities.
If anything, Soleimani’s assassination by the US might pave the way for the IS to reunite and reactivate itself. Looking at the potential repercussions of Soleimani’s murder, one wonders what Donald Trump was thinking when he gave this preposterous idea the go-ahead. If the US thinks that by eliminating Soleimani it has gotten rid of an existential enemy, it is wrong. By killing Qassem Soleimani, the US has killed an ally, one who was capable and pragmatic, and thanks to whose efforts in Iraq and Syria, the US’ fight against the IS had become easier. His murder is yet another spark in the tinderbox of the Middle East, and might come back to haunt the US and the world.
The US, NATO, Iran, Syria, Turkey, and regional and global partners now must get over their individual agendas in the region, and together focus on preventing the rise of the common enemy—IS. The world has seen enough deaths, enough bloodshed, enough violence and enough destruction. It is time for the regional and global powers to join hands and completely eliminate all and any possibility of the re-emergence of the IS. If this requires the US and Iran to swallow their ego, then swallow it they must, for the greater good of the region and the world.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star.
Her Twitter handle is: @TayebTasneem