Qassem Soleimani: America’s double-edged sword?

The story goes that when General David Petraeus - perhaps the most able American serving officer of his generation - was appointed CIA director, he decided that it was imperative that he personally embark on a fact-finding mission to Iraq. His first priority was to get his head around who was really running the place, who was pulling the strings that made the Shiite-chauvinist government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki dance.

He did not have long to wait for an answer. During a meeting with Jalal Talabani, the ceremonial president of Iraq, the Kurdish leader conveyed to Petraeus a text message that answered all his questions. It read: “Dear General Petraeus, you should know that I, Qassem Soleimani, control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and Afghanistan.”

There is no doubt that Soleimani has real panache, but beneath this lies a good number of genuine policy achievements. As commander of the Quds Force, the elite branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Soleimani heads an organization that conducts special operations outside Iran.

Achievements

He is credited with building up Iran’s ally Hezbollah in Lebanon, saving the regime of President Bashar al-Assad from destruction in Syria, and preserving the Iraqi government following the lightning advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the summer of 2014.

While Soleimani has bolstered the U.S. gambit to preserve Iraq from ISIS control, from here on he becomes a liability

In the latter case, Soleimani marshalled Iraqi Shiite militias - subsidized and largely controlled from Tehran - and personally led the counter-attack that pushed back ISIS militants from a key route leading from Samarra to Baghdad. In essence, given the pathetic state of Iraq’s national army, Iran and Soleimani led the defense of the capital after ISIS seized Mosul in the north, Iraq’s second city.

What has followed has been a strange, if tacit, tactical alliance in Iraq between the United States and Iran. Tehran - seeing the compliant, if thuggish and inept Iraqi regime in peril - sided with the Americans in skilfully nudging out Maliki in favor of Haidar al-Abadi.

While ISIS sits uncontested in the center of Iraq, with the United States de-facto operating as the air force for the Kurds in the north and Shiite militias in the south, its advance has been stemmed. Now at last, Baghdad’s forces have begun to creep north in an effort to regain the Sunni heartlands, with Tikrit being the strategic target. If this goes well, an all-out assault on the ISIS stronghold of Mosul would be next.

From an American perspective up until now, even if they cannot say it for all kinds of political reasons, working with Soleimani has been a blessing. Professional, decisive, astute and able, he has provided the boots on the ground that - coupled with American air power - have stopped ISIS from wholly overrunning the country.

Obstacles

But here the good news for Washington ends, because in my opinion from now on Soleimani will be a double-edged sword. By his very military success, he impedes more important political success in Iraq as a whole.

Military operations are only ever the handmaidens of political initiatives. Force is only successful if it advances specific political goals. While Soleimani has bolstered the U.S. gambit to preserve Iraq from ISIS control, from here on he becomes a liability.

There are hard political realities that lie submerged beneath the daily headlines in Iraq about the fortunes of war there. The key strategic question relates to how hard it will be for the Iraqi government to retake and hold Sunni territories conquered by ISIS if a centralized state is maintained.

Only a new confederal and inclusive arrangement with Baghdad will entice the Kurds in the north and the Sunnis in the center of the country to remain part of an intact Iraq. If the political facts on the ground do not match the diverse nature of Iraq itself, there will never be an upsurge of local Sunni support for a centralizing, Shiite-dominated Baghdad.

In this case, the country will either remain restive and ungovernable, or will actually splinter, even if (and it is a big if) ISIS can somehow be dealt with. Here, Soleimani is part of the problem, not part of the solution. His dominant role as head of the armed resistance to ISIS, his reliance on Shiite militias that have continued to abuse the local Sunni population, and his obvious fidelity to Tehran, all make wooing Sunni tribal leaders infinitely harder.

As much as they despise ISIS, they certainly do not wish to be dominated by Iran. Until now Soleimani seems to have helped Washington with the military crisis in Iraq. However, he now stands firmly in the way of creating the sort of political solution that could end that crisis.

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Dr John C Hulsman is the president and co-founder of John C Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a successful global political risk consulting firm. An eminent foreign policy expert, Hulsman is the senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. He is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of all or part of 11 books.
 

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:45 - GMT 06:45
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