Qassem Suleimani has been called the single most powerful operative in the Middle East today. Take a look at his resume and it's no surprise why.
As the commander of Iran’s Quds Force — the foreign branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards best described as a cross between the CIA and Special Forces — Suleimani has emerged as Iran’s leading foreign strategist. Suleimani has fomented unrest in Iraq, lead, supplied, and trained Bashar al-Assad's army in Syria, and maintained a vast network of contacts and operatives throughout the world.
Due to the nature of his position, Suleimani’s operations have usually been clandestine. It’s often impossible to know for sure whether Suleimani and his Quds Force have been involved. But after one look at the circumstantial evidence, patterns begin to emerge.
Here’s a few of the operations that Suleimani has been tied to over the last twenty years.
1. Guiding the Iraqi insurgency throughout the Iraq War (2003-2011)
Since the beginning of the Iraq War, Suleimani has sent Qods Force agents and officers into Iraq to train, fund, and lead Shiite militias against Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist party. Once that was eliminated, Suleimani trained his attention on Coalition forces. Senior Qods Force officers, including the third highest-ranking officer in the Force, have turned up in Iraq. At one point, it was estimated that as many as 30,000 Iranian operatives were in Iraq.
Initially, Iranian involvement amounted to training and arming the country's militias. After the U.S. caught wind of Iran’s strategy and began capturing Iranian officers, Suleimani and Iranian forces began directly attacking Coalition forces through their proxies. In addition, Iran helped create "secret cells," groups of 20-60 Iraqis that have been trained and armed in Iran to attack Coalition forces and undermine the Iraqi government.
The Qods Force is responsible for importing the roadside bombs, IEDs, and explosively-formed projectiles, that inflicted a massive amount of casualties on Coalition troops.
It’s estimated that around 20% of American combat deaths in Iraq came directly or indirectly from Iran and the Quds Force.
2. The 2005 Assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri
(Photo by Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images)
On February 14th, 2005, Rafic Hariri, a former prime minister of Lebanon and of the leaders of the country's Sunni community, was assasinated when more than 2,000 pounds of TNT detonated by his motorcade in Beirut, killing him and 21 others.
Shortly after the assassination, the United Nations began investigating the bombing and convened its Special Tribunal for Lebanon in 2006. The Tribunal, which is still investigating the attack, charged four Hezbollah members in 2011, all of whom have since disappeared — although one has resurfaced in Syria, fighting for Assad).
Many in the Tribunal believe that Hezbollah carried out the attack with the approval and support of both Syria and Iran. Syrian officials and Hezbollah have conversely accused Israel and the Mossad of carrying out the assassination, although there is no evidence to support these claims.
Investigators reportedly found that one of the disposable cell phones used by the killers made at least a dozen calls to Iran before and after the assassination. In addition, Iranian operatives were overheard minutes before the assassination, directing the attack.
“If indeed Iran was involved, Suleimani was undoubtedly at the center of this,” Robert Baer, a former senior C.I.A. official, told Dexter Filkins of the New Yorker in 2013.
The assassination triggered the Cedar Revolution, a series of demonstrations that led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. If Iran did carry out the assassination, the expulsion of Syrian troops doesn’t seem like the intended result. But that almost didn't matter: Hezbollah ended up wrecking the country's post-Revolution coalition government, and nearly triggered a civil war in 2008.
3. 2006 Hezbollah Cross border raid on Israel
(AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
After years of increased tensions between Hezbollah and Israel, Hezbollah fighters crossed the border into Israel and attacked two Humvees on July 12th, 2006, killing three soldiers and abducting two. The sophisticated attack included other Hezbollah contingents that opened fire on seven Israeli army posts at the same time, knocking out surveillance and communications.
The incident set off the 2006 Lebanon War. The 34-day conflict included Israel airstrikes on both Hezbollah military targets and Lebanese civilian infrastructure, a naval blockade, and a ground invasion of southern Lebanon.
The conflict has been considered by many to be the opening round of an Israeli-Iranian proxy war. Iranian Revolutionary Guards reportedly assisted Hezbollah fighters in firing rockets on Israel, and helped operate Hezbollah outposts during the war. Iran has long been involved with Hezbollah, helping to form, train, and finance the group since its inception.
According to some Middle Eastern security officials, the original cross-border raid was enacted with Suleimani’s guidance, though he did not expect such an intense reaction from Lebanon's southern neighbor.
4. Arranging the 2006 deal that made Nouri al-Maliki Prime Minister of Iraq
(via Wikimedia Commons)
When Nouri al-Maliki was selected to be the Prime Minister of Iraq in 2006, the U.S. actually saw it as a great victory for their troubled policy in the country. After the first post-war prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, fell from favor, the U.S. went to great lengths to vet potential replacements, partly out of concern over their relationship to Iran. Maliki was seen as someone who was “independent of Iran” Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq said, at the time.
More recently, it has been reported that Maliki is far more of a puppet for Iran than U.S. policymakers had thought or expected during the American presence in the country. In Filkins' New Yorker exposè, he reports that Suleimani arranged the deal that put Maliki in power, extracting promises of support from the Shiite and Kurdish leaders that eventually put Maliki in power. Suleimani supposedly offered benefits to those that agreed to back Maliki, including an agreement to build a lucrative oil pipeline to Syria.
It now appears that Maliki has been helping Iran evade Western economic sanctions via the Iraqi banking industry. He's provided Suleimani with proceeds from 200,000 barrels of Iraqi oil a day. If all that is true, then it isn't such a stretch to assert that Suleimani is the most powerful man in the Arab League's fourth most-populous country.
5. 2007 Raid on the Karabala provincial headquarters in Iraq
(AP Photos/U.S. Army)
On January 20th, 2007, a team of twelve men disguised as U.S. soldiers arrived at the Karbala Provincial Joint Coordination Center in Iraq, where U.S. soldiers were conducting meetings with local officials. Once in the compound, the team headed straight for the one building with American soldiers, capturing and eventually killing five U.S. troops.
After an investigation, American military officials concluded that the Quds Force knew of, supported, and helped plan the Karabala attack. Many believe that the attack was in retaliation to U.S. forces detaining five Iranian officials accused of helping Iraqis kill American soldiers.
The U.S. successfully killed the attack's leader, a member of the Iranian-backed group Asaib al Haq, and ended up capturing several of it's planners and participants — one of whom confirmed that the attack was ordered by Iranian officals.
Suleimani supposedly messaged the American ambassador in Iraq, denying responsibility for the attack. Few Americans believe him.
6. 2011 plot to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador in Washington, D.C.
In October 2011, the United States arrested Iranian-American used car-salesman Mansour J. Arbabsiar and Gholam Shakuri, a known member of the Quds Force, for plotting to murder the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the U.S. in Washington, D.C.
The plan involved Arbabsiar hiring assassins from the Los Zetas drug cartel for $1.5 million to bomb a restaurant that the ambassador often visited, and included bombings at the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Washington. The plot never got off the ground because the Los Zetas representative that Arbabsiar was negotiating with was actually a DEA informant.
Numerous U.S. officials believe that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader, and Suleimani at least knew of the plot. An FBI investigation found that money from a Quds Force bank account had been wired to Arbabsiar and that he was able to identify Quds Force officers from a photo array while in custody. In addition, law enforcement had Arbabsiar make calls to Shakuri in Iran, during which Shakuri urged Arbabsiar to carry out the plot.
Nonetheless, many Middle East and Iran analysts found it hard to believe that Iran would carry out an attack on U.S. soil, using a non-Muslim proxy in such a haphazard manner. If Iran did order the attack, it could mark a worrying shift in strategy.
7. Providing Bashar al Assad with billions of dollars in arms, support, strategic training, and troops in Syria
While Iran and Syria have always been close allies, Suleimani has gone a step further by taking care of the job that dictator Bashar al-Assad and his generals couldn't: turning the tide of the country's brutal civil war, which has killed over 150,000 people over the past three years.
According to American officials, Suleimani travels to Damascus frequently, where he operates out of a heavily fortified command post, directing the Syrian military, Hezbollah commanders, and Iraqi Shiite militias.
Suleimani has used his connections with the Iraqi government to arrange access to Iraqi airspace, allowing him him to fly operatives and arms to Damascus. This supply route has been integral to the maintenance and perhaps even the survival of the Assad regime.
In addition, Suleimani reportedly planned and orchestrated the Battle of al-Qusayr, a key confrontation that made the Assad regime's victory over the rebels not only possible, but likely. The momentum of the two-week battle was shifted with the help of Iranian and Hezbollah officers, who encircled the town.
According to John Maguire, a former C.I.A. officer in Iraq, Suleimani orchestrated the Battle of al-Qusayr, which was a "great victory for him" — another strategic masterstroke from one of the most important and shadowy figures in the Middle East.
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