How Russia is reading the killing of Qasem Soleimaini

Moscow weighs the implications of the elimination of one of the Middle East's most powerful men.

al-monitor A demonstrator holds a picture of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei with Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani during protest against the assassination of Soleimani, Tehran, Iran, Jan. 3, 2020.  Photo by WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Nazanin Tabatabaee via REUTERS.

Jan 3, 2020

The assassination of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, by a US airstrike at the airport in Baghdad sent shock waves across the region. In Moscow, the news raised eyebrows of policymakers and diplomats as Russia has been fighting for more than four years now in Syria alongside Iran and the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad.

Condemning what it called “an adventurist act,” a Foreign Ministry statement said, "The move by Washington is fraught with grave consequences for regional peace and stability. We regard such actions as detrimental to finding solutions to complex problems of the Middle East and rather contributing to escalation in violence." 

Later, the ministry also said, “Soleimani devotedly served the national interests of Iran.” 

Russian Senate Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Konstantin Kosachev wrote on Facebook about what the assassination might mean for President Donald Trump, the United States and the region. “The killing of Gen. Soleimani in Baghdad in no way contributes to the improvement of the situation in Iraq and the entire Middle East. Its negative implications, however, are already obvious,” Kosachev said.

He added, "First, retaliation by Iran will inevitably follow. I wouldn’t want to prophesize but American citizens may get killed. No wonder the Congress is concerned and [House] Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi demands Trump report why the strikes were not authorized by the Congress. Second, this means Trump falls short of solving his domestic issues — should the escalation result in [American] casualties, his ratings will go down. Third, US allies in the region are concerned — Israel is already discussing the implications of the operation for itself. Finally, the bleak hopes that still existed for the JCPOA have now been bombed altogether. Iran may now boost its production of nuclear weapons even if it didn’t have such plans before.” The JCPOA is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran nuclear deal Trump withdrew from in 2018.

In late July 2015, Soleimani arrived in Moscow for a confidential visit with a critical mission to get Russia involved militarily in the Syrian crisis. By that point, the Syrian army was seemingly on its last legs. The Quds Force, Lebanese Hezbollah and other Iran-aided Shiite militias were aiding Damascus, but they all lacked the air power to bring about a decisive shift on the ground.

Soleimani's trip is seen as a milestone for Russia’s pro-active involvement in the region.

Soleimani would make at least one more trip to Moscow, in February 2017. This reportedly was to discuss Russia’s bilateral cooperation with Sunni monarchies of the Persian Gulf. His meetings with the top Russian military intelligence leadership gained him a reputation in Moscow of being a shrewd strategic thinker and doer.

The two primary takeaways for Moscow from the killing of Soleimani so far are whether Tehran is able to find an adequate replacement for him and who will now steer a dozen militia groups operating in Syria.

Konstantin Bogdanov, a fellow at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Al-Monitor, “Soleimani was in charge of Iranian military and clandestine operations across the Middle East. But one of his prime tasks was to coordinate and manage rather loose and diverse groups of Iranian militias fighting in Syria on the side of President Assad. Soleimani made a name for himself as an effective and a reliable leader with whom the Russian military could solve practical issues on the ground.” 

Bogdanov added, “It should be noted that a cumulative number of fighters in pro-Iranian militias almost equals the Syrian Arab Army and in their combat qualities, perhaps, even excels the SAA. The presence of these militias complicates issues of Syrian sovereignty and the freedom of movement for Damascus. But at least for some time it [the loss of Soleimani] is likely to complicate Iran’s own ability to influence Assad. In these circumstances, Russia, perhaps, should take a more pro-active stance by establishing itself as the leading mediator in the Syrian settlement and a sponsor of agreements between the warring parties.” 

Retired Col. Viktor Mukrakhovsky, editor of the military journal Arsenal Otechestva (National Arsenal), said Trump's decision to kill Soleimani opens a new chapter in the confrontation between Iran and the United States. “A statesman is killed, an official representative of his country that is a member of the UN and with which the US is not officially in a state of war. He was killed on the territory of a third country. This is not an undercover struggle of intelligence services. The US has thus openly committed an act of vengeance and is taking pride in this 'achievement.' It is testing the reaction of the international community in general and Iranian leadership in particular. Following failures in Venezuela, Syria and over talks with North Korea, after losing control of the situation in Afghanistan and ceding Iraq to Iranian militias, the US leadership has moved to raise the stakes,” Mukrakhovsky said.

Maxim Shepovalenko, deputy director at the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, told Al-Monitor, “What the United States failed to understand, at its own peril and risk, is the fact that the late Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani was neither a warlord nor a chieftain, but rather a sovereign-empowered man. Whether it disliked him or not.” 

Shepovalenko added, “Iranians are smart enough to understand that 'revenge is a dish best served cold.'” 

Russia is calculating the possible fallout for both its regional presence and its own confrontation with the United States in possible future conflicts.

Kosachev made reference to US confrontations over the years with strongmen in various countries such as Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic, Ukraine's Viktor Yanukovych and Libya's Col. Moammar Gadhafi in writing about the killing of Soleimani. “This is a big mistake stemming out of a typical American habit of personalizing any problem. Saddam (Milosevic, Yanukovych, Gadhafi …) should be removed and things will settle down. But this is a logic of a show, not that of politics. It doesn’t work in the long run but may boomerang against the directors of the 'show,'” Kosachev concluded.

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