Assassination of Soleimani will not fundamentally change al-Quds Force
“Inshallah, God Almighty rewards him with happiness in life and martyrdom as his destiny. Of course, not now. The Islamic Republic has work for him for years to come but let it end with martyrdom,” Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said as he rewarded Major-General Qassem Soleimani with the Order of Zolfaqhar, the highest military order in Iran, last March 11.
The United States clearly had a different time frame in mind than Khamenei and, on January 3, Soleimani, the commander of the extraterritorial operations al-Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), was killed in a targeted US drone air strike in Baghdad. The US Department of Defence said the killing took place at the direction of US President Donald Trump.
In a written statement, Khamenei praised Soleimani as “the great and honourable commander of Islam,” who “fought Satan.” Khamenei depicted Soleimani’s “martyrdom” as a “divine reward” for that struggle and promised to avenge the killing.
What was Soleimani’s significance? How does his death affect al-Quds Force and how is Tehran likely to react?
When Soleimani was appointed commander of al-Quds Force sometime between September 10, 1997, and March 21, 1998, he inherited an extremely well-functioning organisation, which had streamlined its operations.
Immediately after the Islamic Revolution, there were two and perhaps three parallel organisations under the umbrella of the IRGC, all of which were engaged in extraterritorial operations. The line of command of the groups was not always clear and they devoted significant energy and resources fighting each other.
However, by the mid-1980s, the IRGC had executed the heads of the unruly parallel organisations and all extraterritorial activities were concentrated in what today is known as al-Quds Force.
The IRGC leadership chose Soleimani as the head of the reformed al-Quds Force because of the dominant threat perception in Tehran at the time. The Afghan Taliban posed a significant threat to Iran’s eastern borders and Soleimani, who had engaged in guerrilla warfare against the Taliban both from Iran and from Tajikistan, was an obvious candidate.
Once Soleimani took over the leadership of the organisation, he redirected the IRGC’s resources from the former Yugoslavia, where it failed to gain a foothold in Europe because of the US military intervention.
After the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the collapse of the Ba’ath regime and American failure to establish a viable successor government, Soleimani directed most of his resources to Iraq and, later, to Syria.
Apart from Soleimani’s ability to take advantage of opportunities presented to him by US military adventures in the Middle East, he had a few contributions of his own and changed the nature of al-Quds Force in a significant way: Soleimani became the public face of a once-secret organisation.
In doing so, he exposed himself to considerable danger, which led to his death, but he served as a role model and a “hero” who mobilised the masses for a cause he considered sacred.
Apart from this, the war in Syria, more than Soleimani in person, transformed the IRGC in its entirety into a large al-Quds Force. Because of the high fatality rate among al-Quds Force members in Syria, the IRGC began deploying members of the regular force in that country, which removed the barriers between the two otherwise separate and compartmentalised branches of the IRGC.
Soleimani’s death is not likely to significantly change the nature and operations of al-Quds Force, as those changes are more shaped by external circumstances and systemic structure of al-Quds Force and the IRGC. Where and when Iran strikes back against the United States is not known but the Islamic Republic has another “martyr” to avenge.