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Strategic blundering: Killing Soleimani



When US President Donald Trump suggested in a briefing at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida that an option on the table was the killing of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani, leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force, those in attendance were caught by surprise.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the US State Department on 7 January 2020. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)It seemed a slightly outlandish option; previous US presidents of both Republican and Democratic persuasion had seen targeting the Iranian general as foolish, potentially precipitating unforseen events. But the Trump administration has retained, from its inception, a number of Iran hawks. They had the numbers that day, and Trump needed a distraction from domestic ills.

Once it became clear that Trump was serious, US intelligence got busy. But it was hardly an impressive feat identifying Soleimani. The general had become more conspicuous and cavalier in visiting Iraq. It became clear that he would be arriving in Baghdad International Airport on 3 January at the invitation of the Iraqi government. This gave US forces the cue for a lethal drone strike.

The news came from the US Defence Department in a statement. 'General Suleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.' The strike 'was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans. The United States will continue to take all necessary action to protect our people and our interests wherever they are around the world.' Soleimani was singled out for a range of operations against US assets, including attacks on coalition forces in Iraq over the last several months and those on the US embassy in Baghdad on 31 December 2019.

The killing was also imprudent on another level. Keeping company with Soleimani in his charred vehicle was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a Shia militia deputy commander of Iraq's Popular Mobilisation Forces, or Hash a-Shaabi. Muhandis had form with the US. In 1983, he was accused of masterminding the bombing of the US and French embassies in Kuwait. In 2006 he became a prominent founding figure of the Kataib Hezbollah group in Iraq, making things difficult for US occupation forces through the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). For doing so, he was deemed a terrorist.

A theme emerged from various apologias as justifications for the attack. Trump insisted that the killings had taken place to avert, not encourage, conflict. This reasoning was highly idiosyncratic: killing a ranking general of a sovereign power is hardly suggestive of restraint.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted that 'the American people should know that the President's decision to remove Soleimani from the battlefield saved American lives'. Pompeo's expansive use of the term 'battlefield' is not accidental; US strategy has now made it clear that the commanders of sovereign powers in international geopolitics will be targets to be liquidated on a hunch.


"The question lingering on everyone's lips was whether there was any discernible strategy in this action."


The problem with such reasoning is that it works all ways. Iranians and Iraqis are perfectly entitled to assume that the US military and officials through Pompeo, the White House and US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper are planning attacks against them — a case proven in point. To then assume that these figures are fair game is a dangerous proposition indeed.

The immediate results suggest that the US had laid the basis for an advance, rather than a retardation, of Iranian influence in Iraq. Iraq's Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi demanded an emergency parliamentary session with the object of taking 'legislative steps and necessary provisions to safeguard Iraq's dignity, security and sovereignty'. On Sunday, the parliament passed a non-binding resolution demanding the revocation of the 2014 invitation to station US troops in the country. This move had irony written all over it, as removing US forces from Iraq remains high on the list of Teheran's priorities.

Not only has the attack served to unite Iran and Iraq's Shia communities, it has also given international law a bruising. The international law on the subject of what, on the surface, constitute extra-judicial killings by drone strikes, has always been contentious. It speaks of pre-emption, a highly problematic doctrine that is hard to quantify. When can it be truly said that an imminent threat justifies such action?

The views of Agnès Callamard, UN Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary and Arbitrary Executions, remain relevant. 'The targeted killings of Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Al-Humandis are most [likely] unlawful and violate international human rights law: Outside the context of active hostilities, the use of drones or other means for targeted killing is almost never likely to be legal.' To be deemed lawful, such targeting 'can only be used where strictly necessary to protect against an imminent threat to life'.

By killing such high ranking officials of sovereign powers, the US has signalled a redrawing of accepted lines in international combat and diplomacy. It was, as former US ambassador Chas Freeman suggested, the equivalent of slaying high ranking US national security advisers or members of the US Central Command. The justification was spurious, suggesting that assassination and combat deaths are not distinctions of any relevance. Perhaps most significantly of all, the killing of Soleimani will be a lightning rod for attacks this decision was meant to prevent even as it assists Iranian policy in expelling any vestige of US influence in Iraq and the broader Middle East.

The question lingering on the lips of everyone from members of Congress to the Israeli publication Haaretz was whether there was any discernible strategy in this action. An attempt by historian Elizabeth Cobbs and retired brigadier general Kimberly C. Field to identify a broader strategic purpose proved fruitless. 'America doesn't really have a grand strategy.' Not having one had led and would continue to lead to 'wasting lives and resources'.



Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Main image: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the US State Department on 7 January 2020. When questioned about the killing of Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, Pompeo said 'It was the right decision, we got it right.' (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Soleimani, Iran, Iraq, US, Donald Trump



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Existing comments

Thank you for the article. I see this current Middle East stratregy somewhat like a neighborhood. America has been mowing Iraq and Iran's nature strips for a long time from both good will and concern about maintenance of their own property value. The councils (NATO) should be maintaining the nature strips but know America will keep mowing if they don't. I am surprised you can write 1000 words on the action but not mention NATO at all. America have just sprayed weed killer to get the attention of the council to do their job. Trump-izing the strategy is a clever ruse to get a big slab of public sentiment to make it seem rash or "imprudent".

Ray | 09 January 2020  

One of the themes of recent protesters in Baghdad is that they had not just lost faith in the government and traditional ruling class, but also the formerly highly respected Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most senior Shi'ite cleric, who they accused of not speaking out earlier about the government's brutality to them. They wanted an end to sectarianism. Many Iraqis were very, very dubious of Iranian influence. They saw Soleimani as Iran's puppet master. Many were jubilant at his death. I think one of the main reason he was killed was the fact that Iranian funded and controlled militias had missiles in Lebanon and Syria pointed at Israel and capable of striking well into her territory. Iran was deadly serious about destroying Israel. If she proceeds with the attempt to build nuclear weapons I have little doubt that there will be a pre-emptive strike against her by either Israel or America or both. As you would know, Alan Dershowitz has written an article, published in the Australian, to justify Soleimani being killed. Politics in the Middle East is a ruthless winner-takes-all game. That is being played out.

Edward Fido | 09 January 2020  

Trump and his associates not only cant follow the logic of the path Binoy describes, but dont seem to care about its dire consequences, not just to themselves , but also to the world. And those consequences will long outlast its puffed up and impervious progenitor. Trump said it makes the world a safer and better place. Entirely the contrary ! Now we wait for the next step backward. Iraq and Iran , and all their factions have time and opportunity at their disposal. Even if Trump has finally sown the seeds of his electoral self banishment, doing it this way may well prove to have been far too costly a disposal for the rest of us.

jpb | 10 January 2020  

One factor that may warrant a lot more attention is that Soleimani arrived in Baghdad "at the invitation of the Iraqi government". It is well established tradition that a visitor, whether friend or foe, enjoys the protection of their host. Arabs take this tradition very seriously. In this instance the Iraqi government was honour-bound to protect Soleimani during his visit to Iraq. Iraqi's would view this killing as a potential humiliation of the Iraqi government. The USA action would be widely viewed as a villainous betrayal of the Iraqi people, both Sunni and Shia. It is in this context that the Iraqi parliament is taking 'legislative steps and necessary provisions to safeguard Iraq's dignity, security and sovereignty'. I wonder whether President Trump appreciated the consequences of his action when he ordered the killing.

Michael Taouk | 10 January 2020  

The fallout from the shooting down of the Ukrainian airline - carrying mainly Iranians and Canadians - by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard has gazumped the fallout from the killing of Soleimani. Iran has apologised profusely. The whole situation seems, temporarily, to have calmed down. I think everyone realises how volatile it is. President Trump has said he does not want regime change in Iran. Trump would be seen as bold and decisive, as well as ruthless, in the Middle East. These are qualities which are admired there. If the Iranians escalate things, Trump will win the next election. It is in everyone's interest to stay calm.

Edward Fido | 13 January 2020  

All authority is quite degrading. It degrades those who exercise it, and degrades those over whom it is exercised. Oscar Wilde

AO | 15 January 2020  

Thank you Binoy Kampmark for this very clear analysis of the US slating of Major General Qassem Soleimani using a killer drone., When this occurred followed by the Iranian response, I thought that there was going to be a war between Iran and the US. Thankfully, the swift response by protesting peace-loving Americans has seen Trump back off any further immediate military action against Iran for the time being. However, I am sure he is biding his time waiting for another opportunity to have his war with Iran just as George Bush Jr did with Iraq. The action to kill Soleimani was foolish because he was a key strategic player in the defeat of ISIS. Even if US leaders do not like Iranian leadership, how do they think that they can maintain any shred of credibility about their opposition to ISIS if they assassinate a key person who contributed greatly to its demise? The events in Iraq and Iran should be of concern to all Australians because of the US bases in this country make us a military target. The US base at Pine Gap has been used before to take actions against other countries. Responsible Australian politicians should be asking US leaders some hard questions about the use of Pine Gap and whether it was used to guide the killer drone that eliminated Soleimani. It is obvious that Scott Morrison is still smarting from the widespread criticism he has had to face because of his negligent and irresponsible leadership over the lack of effective planning to reduce climate change and to fight bush fires. Australians need to say very firmly that our leaders should not involve us in any US war against Iran to divert attention away from these issues. NO WAR WITH IRAN.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 29 February 2020  

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