Soleimani’s vision

While in the US, Soleimani is perceived as a “rival-hero,” in Israel he is depicted as a “villain.” Both descriptions are legitimate but both practically empower and magnify the Iranian general.

Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Qassem Soleimani (left) stands on the frontlines during an offensive operation against Islamic State in the town of Tal Ksaiba, in Iraq, in 2015 (photo credit: STRINGER/ REUTERS)
Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Qassem Soleimani (left) stands on the frontlines during an offensive operation against Islamic State in the town of Tal Ksaiba, in Iraq, in 2015
(photo credit: STRINGER/ REUTERS)

The adoration of the Magi is an important motif in Christian traditions and especially in art. Based on the Gospel according to Matthew, the three Magi (or wise men) represented as kings followed a star and found Jesus. They laid before him gifts, including gold, and worshiped him.
There is a modern equivalent in US and Israeli security establishments. The subject of the adoration is Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Al Quds Force. Actually, it’s better to describe it in terms of a love-hate relationship.
But does Soleimani really deserve to be adored? Are his military skills really so impressive? And to what extent does the American-Israeli attitude serve him and Iran, magnify his myth and erode the national security of Israel and the US?
In January, the prestigious Foreign Policy magazine published an article titled “Iran’s Deadly Puppet Master.” It was written by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was forced to resign in 2010 from his distinguished military career following an article in the American magazine, The Rolling Stone.
The piece ridiculed then-President Barack Obama, who was also the Commander-in-Chief of the US armed forces, then-Vice President Joe Biden and their administration. McChrystal was suspected as a primary source behind the article. He apologized and left the military.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates described McChrystal as “perhaps the finest warrior and leader of men in combat I ever met.” The four-star general, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan during his long career, was, among other things, the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).
Recently, he published a book called Leaders: Myth and Reality, in which he tries to dissect and classify various types of leadership. In this context, he wrote the piece about Soleimani.
Though the Foreign Policy report tries to warn that the Iranian general is a dangerous man, McChrystal’s article is full of praise and superlatives about his “brilliance, effectiveness” and “successes in battlefields.”
The writer describes how on a January night in 2007, in his capacity as head of JSOC, he faced a particularly tricky decision: whether or not to attack a convoy that included Qassem Suleimani. “There was good reason to eliminate Suleimani. At the time, Iranian-made roadside bombs, built and deployed at his command, were claiming the lives of US troops across Iraq. But to avoid a firefight, and the contentious politics that would follow, I decided that we should monitor the caravan, not strike immediately. By the time the convoy had reached Erbil, Suleimani had slipped away into the darkness.”
A year later, the US once again declined an opportunity to kill Soleimani. According to foreign reports, the CIA and Mossad conspired to kill Imad Mughniyeh, the “defense minister” of the Iranian-sponsored Lebanese Hezbollah movement.
Soleimani practically ran and operated Mughniyeh, and the two – who met from time to time – were also good friends. On an evening in February 2008, the two met secretly in an apartment in a Damascus suburb to coordinate joint operations.
Unbeknown to them, they were under surveillance by both the Mossad and the CIA. A car bomb planted by the Mossad was parked next to Mughniyeh’s car.
When the two arrived for further talks near the car, the Mossad wanted to detonate the car and kill both of them. But the CIA representative in the Mossad war room who watched live online footage broadcasted by secret cameras on the scene had different instructions. Only when Soleimani and his bodyguard departed, the order “Act!” was given and Mughniyeh was killed.
“What would you have expected from a commander of special operations?” I was recently told by a senior former US intelligence operative, who was unhappy about McChrystal’s article. “By admiring his enemy, he praises himself.”
In Israel, seemingly, the attitude is different. While in the US, Soleimani is perceived as a “rival-hero,” in Israel he is depicted as a “villain.” Both descriptions are legitimate but both practically empower and magnify the Iranian general.
The last IDF chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, as well as the current head of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen, together with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have constantly briefed journalists, foreign intelligence chiefs and foreign leaders about Soleimani’s skills. Israeli military intelligence even coined the term, “Soleimani’s vision.”
It refers to his plan to enhance Iranian military presence and influence in Syria by deploying some 100,000 members of Shi’ite militias from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, commandeered by Iranian officers, and equipped with long-range ground-to-ground missiles, lethal drones and anti-aircraft batteries. According to the plan, this powerful force and weaponry will be directed primarily against Israel.
The 62-year-old Iranian major-general acquired his basic military experience when he was a young and junior officer in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRCG), fighting in the bloody Iraq-Iran War, which lasted for eight years and ended in 1988. A decade later, he was appointed as head of the Al Quds Force.
Officially, Al Quds is part of the IRGC, and thus Soleimani is a subordinate to Maj.-Gen. Mohammad Ali Jaafari, the commander of the IRGC. But practically, Soleimani is independent and has a special status, due to his warm relations with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The Al Quds Force, which consists of around 15,000 servicemen, is an organization roughly analogous to a combination of the CIA and JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command). Under Soleimani, the force was expanded and Shi’ite militias in Iraq, Syria and Yemen are also reporting to him. Soleimani is also considered as the “operating officer” of Hezbollah, its leader Hassan Nasrallah and his military commanders.
Soleimani can be credited with Iran’s expansion strategy in the Middle East by its involvement in the wars in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and its previous presence in Sudan. The strategy is aimed to create both land and sea corridors, enabling Iran to have a military presence on the Mediterranean coasts of Syria and Lebanon and on the Red Sea.
But Soleimani’s moves and aspirations must be viewed by less admiring lenses and more with an impartial analysis. The first question to be asked is why he has partially achieved his goals.
The first reason is that until recently, he was not seriously challenged by any meaningful and determined opponent. He is both feared and welcome in Iraq. Saudi Arabia, with its failures in the Yemen war, is not a match for him and he has been celebrated by President Bashar Assad in Syria. The US and NATO, for several reasons, have refused to confront Soleimani and his Al Quds Force.
Only a year and half ago, mainly by using its air force to strike against Iranian and Hezbollah positions in Syria, Israel began to challenge Soleimani – who for the first time found himself challenged by a strong, determined and uncompromising rival.
It also must be stated that the Iranian general is not overseeing a large traditional army with tanks and an air force. He rather commands a small force, which consists of large irregular militia elements combined with a few special forces and intelligence operatives.
Last month, the former commander of the Israel Air Force (IAF), Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel revealed at a public gathering that Israel conducts “operational, intelligence and psychological warfare” in Syria.
There was nothing new in his references to the operational and intelligence aspects. But the usage of “psychological” warfare was a novelty.
Psychological warfare means to spread rumors, partial information – mostly inaccurate – and to smear opponents in order to influence the awareness, thinking and state of mind of the other side.
Many intelligence services in the world have special departments to carry out psychological and disinformation campaigns. One cannot rule out that Israel does too. All its espionage services – the Mossad, Shin Bet and Military Intelligence are involved in this field. Thus it can be assumed that as part of its comprehensive efforts to stop Iran’s military influence in Syria, some sort of psychological warfare is being aimed at Soleimani. One can reach this conclusion from the fact that Israeli military and political leaders emphasize, time and again, that Iran has invested $20 billion in the war in Syria as well as funding Hezbollah in Lebanon in the last five years. This huge amount, the Israeli argument goes, could have and should have been spent on health, education and housing to improve the welfare of the Iranian populace.
In other words, the Israeli psychological argument – if you wish, propaganda – is to accuse Soleimani, the architect of Iranian strategy in Syria, of bad judgment. Israel hopes that by using these claims it can smear Soleimani in the eyes of his domestic rivals – and he has many.
However, so far it seems that the Israeli psychological warfare is not succeeding. There are no signs that Soleimani’s position has been weakened. And there are no indications that Iran is deterred by IAF strikes. It was Eshel who emerged as the first member of the Israeli military establishment to admit publicly that the IAF alone would not uproot Iran from Syria.
Nevertheless, Israel should not be discouraged. It must continue showing determination in its efforts to stop Iran and force it to leave Syria. Israel can’t allow itself to be the first one to blink. But to achieve its goal, Israel needs to act with more sophistication and be more imaginative.
One shouldn’t dwarf one’s enemy and show disrespect. On the other hand, it is counterproductive to exaggerate his real power. It is wrong to turn the Israeli-Iranian confrontation into a Western-style duel, such as the “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.”
Gen. Soleimani is important and probably talented but he is just a cog who carries out orders from the Supreme Leader, who ultimately calls the shots. He is not the problem, just a symptom.