Backdrop & Reverberations of Soleimani’s Assassination (Part 2: Iraq, Syria, and Yemen)

[On 3 January 2020, the United States assassinated Major General Qassem Soleimani of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Corps Guard (IRGC). The event was an escalation by the Trump Administration in what many critical analysts consider a decades-long war waged by the United States against the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is a two-part roundtable convened by Arash Davari, Naveed Mansoori, and Ziad Abu-Rish on the regional backdrop and (admittedly short-term) fallout from the US assassination of Soleimani. In this part, Omar Sirri, Stacey Yadav Philbrick, and Samer Abboud reflect on the specific nature of Iranian policy in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria, respectively, and reactions therein to Soleimani’s assassination. Part 1 features scholars of Iran reflecting on the place of Soleimani and the IRGC in the political and institutional dynamics of the Iranian state.]

Question 1: What are the broad outlines of Iranian foreign policy in and their effects on the political, military, and economic status quo in your country of research prior to the US assassination of Qassem Soleimani?

Omar Sirri (on Iraq):
 Parastatal armed groups define Iraq’s political theatre. The public attention afforded these actors often stems from the Iranian support they receive—at least the most powerful ones, like the Badr Organization, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Kita’ib Hizballah, and others. Such groups have for years been implicated in violence against domestic and foreign foes alike, coercive practices that many suggest serve Iranian interests first. These Iraqi groups are key actors in the Iran-US conflict, as was most recently made clear with the US strike on Kita’ib Hizballah at the end of last year that killed at least twenty-five people.  

Iran’s economic interests in Iraq, by comparison, receive little attention. Iraq is a huge recipient of Iran’s non-oil exports. Mini-marts and supermarkets in Baghdad, Basra, Suleimaniya, and elsewhere are packed with Iranian imports—including dairy products, potato chips, and chocolates. Probably the best-known good that has flooded Iraqi streets in the last decade is the Saba, an inexpensive vehicle from Iranian automaker Saipa. It is particularly popular among young and aspiring taxi drivers facing few-to-no job prospects. The car is also infamous, gaining a “rotten reputation” for its inadequate air conditioning during sweltering summer months, and for the inexperienced (and “bad”) drivers who operate them. 

Such market penetration has helped to reshape social and economic life in Iraq—including the environment—in ways we have not fully appreciated or grappled with. Arguably, and ironically, the “free market” regime that Paul Bremer and the Bush Administration established in Iraq in 2003 most benefited Iranian exporters. A rudimentary understanding of macroeconomics suggests that such trade policies—which include incentivising cheap imports—make developing a productive and sustainable national economy practically impossible (let alone one crippled by decades of war and sanctions). These “free-market” policies are what helped decimate industry and agricultural production in Iraq after 2003.

This is why Iran’s support for parastatal armed actors also known as militias are not the only reason Iraq’s revolutionaries are calling for “Iran out.” It is not hard to find Iraqis who refuse to purchase Iranian goods out of principle—much like active supporters of Palestinian rights who never buy Sabra hummus. But today, such atomized resistance has found a collective outlet in the revolution, such as through grassroots “buy Iraqi” efforts being promoted by protesters in Tahrir Square and elsewhere.

Popular resistance to Iranian intervention in Iraq did not start with this revolution. For example, civil society activists have for years been organising against devastating Iranian (and Turkish) environmental policies, namely river water diversion and damming. While climate change is having catastrophic impacts on Iraq’s environment, Iranian policies are hastening these outcomes. Against minimal Iraqi government efforts to resist these hardly-neighbourly interventions, activists have sought to build a regional and international solidarity campaign to save the land of the two rivers from those whose interests are helping bring about its destruction.

Stacey Philbrick Yadav (on Yemen): Yemen’s political, military, and economic status quo is defined by a punishing civil war. The collective effects of five years of intense military conflict, diplomatic paralysis, and international indifference have left the country politically and socially fragmented with an economy in ruins as millions of civilians struggle to meet their most basic needs. Iran neither created this war, nor will Iranian policy end it (alone). Yet Iran’s alliance with the Houthi movement (Ansar Allah, as they prefer to be called today) and the former’s adversarial relationship to several of Yemen’s Gulf neighbors jointly shape the conflict dynamics that have caused so much suffering over the past five years of war. As noted in the second question, this idea—that the Houthis find an ally in Iran—differs from the proxy framing in that it recognizes that the Houthi insurgency predates substantial Iranian involvement. It has existed as an armed movement since 2004, and developed out of a broader populist movement during the 1990s. President Ali Abdullah Saleh (r. 1990–2012) alleged an outsized role for Iran throughout the 2000s in order to generate security assistance and create political cover for some of his domestic policies. (This worked, even though US officials knew Saleh’s claims were exaggerated.)

Iran’s support for the Houthi movement accelerated substantially when the movement was excluded from the externally-brokered power-sharing agreement that followed Saleh’s 2012 resignation. By the end of the 2012-14 “transitional process”—according to a framework designed by the GCC to limit the power of both the Houthi movement and Southern secessionists (al-Hirak al-Janubi)—other militias aligned with the movement already held a good deal of territory in North Yemen.

During the war itself, Iranian involvement in Yemen has been most pronounced in areas under Houthi control and has extended from military support toward governance functions. Some of the reported policies of the Houthis are not direct extensions of Iranian policies. For example, Iran’s representative institutions have not been replicated, nor are Yemeni women experiencing the kind of (circumscribed but sanctioned) mobility to which Iranian women are entitled. Houthi rule in the north appears to combine elements of martial law, practices modified from Iranian models, and some conservative social practices familiar to North Yemenis of different religious backgrounds. 

Iranian policy thus appears to be less about making an Islamic Republic of Yemen in Sana’a than about adopting the low-cost strategy of supporting a winning ally as it attempts to govern. It may seem odd to describe the Houthi movement as “winners,” given that their militias have been stalled along largely stable battle lines for several years. But to the extent that they have survived a deeply asymmetric war for five years, hardened by almost a decade of insurgent war against the Yemeni state, the Houthi movement should be seen as a formidable ally. Moreover, since both military and diplomatic dynamics suggest that the Houthis do not aspire to govern the whole of Yemen but rather seek considerable regional autonomy and a part in power-sharing, any negotiated settlement that includes the Houthis would leave Iran with some path to continued political influence on the Arabian Peninsula—all with minimal direct military engagement.

Indeed, Iranian military engagement is outmatched by that of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both of which have played a much more substantial military role in the conflict, though it is far less common to see their relationships to Yemeni actors described in the same language of proxies. Certainly, the Gulf Cooperation Council’s desire to limit the power of the Houthi movement during Yemen’s transitional period (2012–14) had something to do with its member states’ concerns about Iranian influence on the Arabian Peninsula. Yet it was also inflected by the anti-Shi‘ism of Gulf regimes and by the domestic political preferences of some of the Gulf states’ own Yemeni allies. The Islah Party, in particular, was a significant beneficiary of the transitional process, even its relationship to the Muslim Brotherhood made this politically challenging to some Gulf allies. To treat any foreign policy—whether Iranian, Saudi, Emirati, or US—as existing outside of the pull of domestic constituencies is indefensibly statist.

Samer Abboud (on Syria): Iranian policy toward Syria has been principally focused on the battlefield and ensuring the survival of the Syrian regime. Any alternative to the current regime, especially one molded in the vision of US, Saudi, or Turkish interests, would have been strategically catastrophic for Iran. Iran has pursued a policy of regime survival through two modes. The first is military support and coordination with a whole range of military actors operating on the Syrian battlefield. There is obviously a deep connection with Hizballah and the Syrian and Russian militaries. Beyond this, Iran has supported and financed a number of militia groups composed of Syrians and non-Syrians who operated in specific Syrian locales. The Syrian regime-organized National Defense Forces (NDF) was also partially funded by Iran and some of its leaders were believed to have gone to Iran for military training. The second is a combination of indeterminable financial support, trade and barter deals, and the funneling of Iranian private sector investment into Syria. In other words, the effort to preserve the regime has been total. Since early 2017, Iran, Russia, and Turkey have been involved in a series of “talks,” commonly referred to as the Astana Process, that have the veneer of peace negotiations but are really about the management of the Syrian battlefield and in ensuring tripartite consensus over key issues of regional contention in Syria. For example, both the major Russian-led offensive in Idlib governorate that began in April 2019 and the Turkish intervention into northeastern Syria in October 2019, were military moves discussed and approved within this tripartite mechanism. This process is mostly issue- or time-specific; the parties meet to discuss specific “problems” and agree on a strategy moving forward, thus minimizing tripartite conflict and laying the basis for a Syrian future under tripartite suzerainty as the mechanism has no foreseeable termination. No major decisions about the Syrian battlefield are occurring outside of the Astana process. As such, Iranian, Russia, or Turkish capacity to act unilaterally is limited. Parallel to this, there are efforts toward some form of political transition. The best example of this is the United Nations-led Syrian Constitutional Committee (SCC), founded in 2019. But this is a mostly cosmetic process that is lower on the Iranian policy radar.

There is no serious reason to believe that these dynamics of Iranian intervention in Syria will change at all after the assassination of Qassem Soleimani. He was neither the sole architect or visionary of Iran’s role. The status quo is not seriously threatened by Soleimani’s assassination.     

Question 2: Much of the discussion about Iranian-allied groups in regional states is framed within the model of proxies. What is your assessment of the utility of this model in understanding the relationship between specific power brokers and/or other groups and the Iranian regime?

Omar Sirri (on Iraq):
 The term “proxy” gives the sense that a local actor is solely doing the bidding of an external actor. At least this is how it is used in popular representations and mainstream media. But Iraqi political actors (armed groups among them) that are allied with and/or and backed by Iran cannot be exclusively characterized as such. This is because Iraq’s domestic political actors— Iranian-supported or otherwise—have embedded their own private interests into the everyday sources of power in the country. They derive a great deal of their private political dominance not merely from external actors, but from the ways in which they control ostensibly public resources and institutions. These micro sources of power are brought about and then reinforced through largely domestic capital accumulation and coercion—from financial profit and the exercise of violence. I try to capture the ways in which this occurs in Iraq in this POMEPS piece (the entire collection of essays on Iraq is fantastic), and in this ongoing LSE project.

Another reason why the “proxy” label is unfulfilling relates to political Islam. The power of al-Marja‘iyya in Najaf cannot be over-emphasized. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s insistence that his followers mobilize to help rout Da‘ish from Iraq did more to form al-Hashd al-Sha‘bi than Iran’s intervention. These religious actors espouse and promote particular versions of Iraqi nationalism that, while Shi‘a-centric, ultimately reject Iranian dominance. The political actors who receive support from Iran have to contend with these political-religious conditions that suggest popular legitimacy, power, and relevance come from Iraqi religious actors more than from Iranian ones.

This is to say nothing of Muqtada al-Sadr. There are few figures in Iraq who can “move the street” like he can—or at least a significant segment of it. In addition, a great deal of his popular support is derived from lower classes in and out of Baghdad. Some of those same people make up a portion of the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square demanding an end to Iranian (and US) interference in Iraq’s affairs. These intersections are kind of incredible. But they also mean that at the moment “proxy” is doing more to occlude critical details rather than illuminate them. 

Stacey Philbrick Yadav (on Yemen): At a public lecture about a decade ago, I was asked why I decided to study “small and insignificant places like Yemen and Lebanon instead of important ones like Iran or Saudi Arabia.” Whenever people ask me about proxy dynamics in Yemen, I think back on that question because I find the discussion of proxies to be underwritten by a similar logic. To describe Yemeni actors as Iran’s proxies seems built on the idea that some countries (i.e., those that have proxies) “matter” more and others become significant only by association. So I have always tried to resist that moral economy, since it does not correspond to my view of what makes something—let alone someone—significant. But that is an affective response.

Conceptually, even though the idea of proxy war recognizes the central significance of sub-state actors (i.e., proxies), it simultaneously reinforces the (misplaced) centrality of states as the core units of analysis in international relations. A conflict is only described as a proxy war when another state or states is involved. In the case of Yemen, the Houthi movement matters to policy analysts (and to a surprising number of political scientists) insofar as it functions as an instrument of the Iranian state. I see several reasons to object to this. First, proxy framing underestimates the actors and forms of agency that shape relationships between allies. It directs us away from the domestic politics of both Yemen and Iran and the way each shapes alliance choices and practices. Second, scholars and policy analysts rarely use the same language to describe relationships between other states and the substate Yemeni factions with which they are aligned. For example, it’s rare to hear the Southern Transitional Council described as an Emirati proxy, even though it depends heavily on the material and political support of the United Arab Emirates. The Islah party and militias aligned with it are more often described as allies of Saudi Arabia, not Saudi proxies. We would be asking better questions if we approached allsuch relationships between external and Yemeni actors as alliances and sought to better understand what each party does and does not expect from its allies, how these alliances relate to domestic politics on both sides, and how competing interests are managed. The relationship between Iran and the Houthi movement does not strike me as so exceptional as to warrant different language and different analytical treatment.  

Finally, this special focus on Iran’s relationship to the Houthi movement has contributed to a very lopsided approach to understanding the conflict in binary terms—a framing concretized by the UN Security Council resolution that authorized the Saudi-led coalition’s campaign in 2015. Whereas there is ample evidence that the war is being fought along several different axes simultaneously. I do not find it farfetched to say that reduction of the war in Yemen to a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran has substantively delayed a negotiated settlement to the war and prolonged the suffering of Yemeni civilians.

Samer Abboud (on Syria): The proxy argument assumes a hegemony and hierarchy between Iran and allied groups in the region that I simply do not think exists. To accept the proxy argument, we need to remove all motivations and capacities of the groups we are referring to, assuming that they simply do what Iranian leadership tell them. However, this removes any agency on the part of the so-called proxies and does not allow us to take seriously questions of negotiation, compromise, and disagreement between parties, which I think exists. A more appropriate analytic may be that of “alignment.” It allows us to understand both the coherency and tensions within the interrelationships that constitute the network of states and armed actors broadly supportive of the Syrian regime. These interrelationships are what we are trying to understand and explain. I see no good reason why we need to elevate the proxy argument whenever we see an overlap of interests and strategies. 

Thinking in terms of alignment rather than proxies allows for some nuance in how we see different actors in Syria. Consider, for example, the fourth and fifth military divisions of the Syrian Army. They have been reincarnated with different names and leaderships in recent years. It is nevertheless well known that the fifth division coordinates operations with Iranian officials and receives support and training from them, while the fourth was virtually under the command of the Russian military presence in Syria. How can we account for such fissures within the Syrian army? Are these divisions merely proxies of either state? Or are they competing centers of power that are malleable to battlefield and political conditions? The proxy argument has ready-made answers to questions of power, competition, strategy, and coordination that shift our attention away from how the interrelationships between actors are constituted. 

Question 3: What has been the reaction to and/or effect of Soleimani’s death in different sectors of your research country? Has this reaction reaffirmed and/or challenges certain assumptions (and if so how)?

Omar Sirri (on Iraq):
 Overwhelming fear. Many were right to assume after Soleimani’s assassination that Iraq would become the battlefield on which US and Iranian forces would fight and kill (if it is not already). This meant Iraqis would continue to suffer the most. Had the conflict escalated, some of the worst predictions about the ramifications of his assassination were probably the right ones—just as they were about the US- and UK-led invasion in 2003. Also understandable were the reactions of activists and civil society actors who refused to shed a tear for Soleimani’s demise. He symbolized Iranian intrusions in Iraqi political affairs precisely because he coordinated and supervised them. This is where the earlier proxy argument stems from: Iran’s support for parastatal armed actors in Iraq is real. Most citizens blame these groups for some of Iraq’s worst civil violence, in Baghdad and elsewhere. Iran’s support helped fuel that violence, hence the popular loathing directed at it.

Lost in the media mayhem around Soleimani’s killing was that of Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis. As the deputy head of al-Hashd al-Sha‘bi, his assassination is stunning in its own right. Al-Hashd al-Sha‘bi became an official state institution in 2016 and al-Muhandis is a key power broker and centralising force among the discrete, competing groups that make up the organization. It is still unclear what his killing will mean for al-Hashd al-Sha‘bi, its component groups, and their respective political-economic interests for which they all scrape.

As the geopolitical tensions ratchet down, I wonder how useful it is to suggest that these events are the “death knell” for Iraq’s revolutionary moment. The structural economic conditions that brought about this revolution persist. The political-economic elite certainly benefit from persistent “instability” and precarity; Iraq’s last decade and a half prove this. But the last three months in Iraq also suggest something entirely new and powerful has occurred and been nurtured by Iraqis of various classes and generations. The longevity of this popular mobilization indicates that a radically different political agency is here to stay—one in which its participants have withstood some of the most rank and vicious political violence carried out by Iraq’s ruling class. This is not a prediction but a reflection: The stubborn failure of Iraq’s politicians to address people’s grievances likely means those airing them are not going anywhere.

Stacey Philbrick Yadav (on Yemen): In the context of a protracted civil war, reactions to Soleimani’s death have been characteristically divided. On the one hand, some prominent Yemenis (and Yemeni Americans) explicitly celebratedhis killing—which initially surprised me. Many of the same people have been deeply critical of US drone strikes conducted in Yemen. On the other hand, thousands of people turned out for official mourning proceedings in Sana’a. Some observers said this was required by Houthi authorities; it is hard to actually assess these claims from afar, but I can say that some Yemeni friends who have associations with the United States chose to leave the capital for a while to avoid the perceived risk of retaliation.

The most depressing reaction—though not unexpected—has been the policing of independent voices online. Yemenis who have tried to challenge the “celebrators” by pointing to the damage that unchecked US air strikes and drone attacks have caused in Yemen have been shouted down as Houthi “sympathizers.”  In other words, it remains very difficult for Yemenis (and non-Yemenis, frankly) to speak about the war, about Iran, about almost anything having to do with the conflict without it being interpreted in a Manichean, deeply polarized way. The independent center—never an easy place for Yemeni activists or analysts—is shrinking still.

Samer Abboud (on Syria): I think it is reasonable to assume that Soleimani’s assassination will not have a significant impact on Iranian policy in Syria more generally, or the battlefield in particular. Soleimani was indeed an important figure in Syria but he was not active merely as an individual—but as a representative of a state. Nor did he command any specific allegiances in Syria that may disrupt the network of regime-aligned groups. Nevertheless, he was a very public and polarizing figure in Syria as his presence on the battlefield was regularly documented and shared online. Soleimani thus came to personify Iran’s intervention into Syria. As such, like everything related to Syria, the range of responses to Soleimani’s assassination were polarizing and ran the gamut from celebration to mourning. 

The more consequential impact of Soleimani’s assassination will be in the long-term as we see how, if at all, Hizballah’s declared strategy of ridding the region of US occupation plays out. In Syria, Russian military officials have been successful in striking a confounding balance between different forces and interests on the ground. For example, they permit regular Israeli air strikes and the presence of US military bases while maintaining alignment with Iran, other armed groups, and the Syrian regime. Should there be a shift in the strategies of Hizballah and other armed groups toward direct engagement with the US military presence in Syria, then this delicate balance will not hold and we could see the emergence of a very different conflict.

Posted on Jadaliyya January 20, 2020

[Click here to read Part 1 of this roundtable, featuring scholars of Iran reflecting on the place of Soleimani and the IRGC in the political and institutional dynamics of the Iranian state.]

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