Harith Hasan | Nonresident senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, focusing on Iraq
Suleimani’s death might not result automatically in a substantial reduction of Iranian influence in Iraq, but it will certainly change the quality and modes of how this influence is exerted. There were two ways in which Suleimani had been exceptional: First, he enjoyed the trust of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah ‘Ali Khamenei, and had been granted a broad mandate to act autonomously, unrestricted by the bureaucratic process; and second, he had strong personal connections with Iraqi political and paramilitary leaders, whom he cultivated throughout his direct, decades-long involvement in political crises and field operations.
Suleimani had carefully crafted an exaggerated image as an indispensable man, and this image shaped the perceptions and expectations of local actors. He was not just an operative in the machine of Iranian influence, he was a constitutive part of this machine. The vacuum he is leaving will be difficult to fill, especially as the man closest and most similar to him, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was also killed in the same attack. This situation could generate further competition between Iranian institutions involved in Iraq, especially the Quds Force and the Ministry of Intelligence (which had been critical of Suleimani’s approach), as well as an intensification of the rivalry between various militias allied with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps seeking to profit from any potential reset in Tehran’s machine of influence in Iraq.
Zaha Hassan | Visiting fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
New revelations that Israel provided the intelligence that helped the United States target the second most powerful political figure in Iran, Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani, ups the pressure on Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both proxies of Iran, to retaliate by attacking Israeli targets. Condolence calls and mourning tents like those set up in Gaza after Suleimani’s killing will not be enough.
This presents a problem for Hamas. The organization is looking to conclude an Egyptian-brokered long-term truce with Israel so that it may widen its fishing zone, trade as it once did, and begin construction of a gas pipeline and other needed infrastructure projects. If Hamas takes up the Iranian call for revenge, it will mean another lopsided military confrontation with Israel, which would make Gaza even more uninhabitable than it has already become.
It isn’t just because it was Suleimani who was killed that makes it hard for Hamas not to respond. It is also how he died. The U.S.-made Hellfire missile that killed Suleimani is a weapon Israel has been using in the occupied territories for years. In 2014, during the Israeli bombardment of Gaza dubbed Operation Protective Edge, Israeli forces fired Hellfires at a United Nations school providing refuge to around 3,000 Palestinians. This resulted in the death of 20 civilians and a rare rebuke from the Obama administration, which temporarily suspended new deliveries to Israel. That strike is now part of an International Criminal Court case.
Hamas, which has criticized the Palestinian Authority for its commitment to security cooperation with Israel and faulted its ruling party, Fatah, for laying down its arms, cannot afford to appear to be tempering its response to Suleimani’s killing to preserve the possibility of a truce with Israel.
Following a massive Israeli bombardment of Iranian targets in Syria a year ago, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council promised that the Islamic Republic would use its proxies to unleash upon Israel its own “hellfire.” Like it or not, it may be time for Hamas to finally make good on that promise.
Ahmed Nagi | Nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, focusing on Yemen
Despite the fact that the death of Qassem Suleimani was a serious blow for Iran and its involvement in the Middle East, the incident allowed Tehran and its allies to sideline to an extent the demands of popular movements demanding change in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen. They used his killing to turn the public mood against “the external enemy,” weakening appeals for reform at home.
As a part of the Iranian axis, Yemen’s Houthi movement called for revenge after Suleimani’s killing, according to one of its leaders, Mohammed al-Houthi. “The direct and quick response against the military positions [of the United States] in the region is the appropriate solution,” he declared, before organizing a big demonstration in San‘a to condemn the incident. Furthermore, the death of Suleimani underlined how deep were the ties between the Houthis and Iran.
Consequently, the ongoing negotiations between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis might be affected, as Iran may request that the Houthis pursue their conflict with the kingdom in order to be able to put military pressure on it—knowing that a recent United Nations investigation disclosed that the Aramco oil facility attack last September was not launched from Yemen, despite the Houthis’ claim that they were responsible. However, if talks continue with the Saudis, the Houthis might use the Suleimani incident to raise their conditions and seek a better deal.
Kheder Khaddour | Nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, focusing on Syria
From 2012 onward, as Syria became a front line for regional conflict and power struggles, Qassem Suleimani and his colleagues worked with Syria’s Republican Guard to build up the country’s paramilitary forces. Through these groups, the Assad regime was able to find a working formula for confronting opposition forces. These paramilitary forces regained key areas from rebel fighters, including eastern Aleppo in 2016, southern Syria in 2018, and various parts of eastern Syria. Suleimani was thus a central figure during the peak years of conflict from 2012 to 2018. Although he did not directly command militias, he was a main architect of their rise. Acting as the direct envoy of Iran’s supreme leader, ‘Ali Khamenei, Suleimani also had direct access to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Despite Suleimani’s central role in engineering the regime’s strategy, his death is unlikely to significantly impact immediate strategic calculations. The militias he helped build are no longer as relevant in areas where the regime has consolidated its control, although they do remain quite active in eastern Syria. In addition, few if any of these militias were directly loyal to Suleimani. Rather, they were loyal to Assad, Iran’s regional project in general, and various local leaders. Suleimani was a powerful figure in helping the Assad regime survive the civil war, and while the future course of events may be affected by the personality, talent, and strategic vision of his successor, for now the system that the deceased commander helped put in place is positioned to survive well after his death.
Mohanad Hage Ali | Director of communications and fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, author of Nationalism, Transnationalism, and Political Islam: Hizbullah’s Institutional Identity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018)
The killing of Qassem Suleimani will have an impact on Iran’s and Hezbollah’s regional standing and role, as well as on growing Russian and Turkish influence in the region. Suleimani’s experience, network, and image constituted a lever of Iranian influence in the Middle East. Even if one assumes that Suleimani institutionalized the relationship with much of the Iranian regional network, his killing will have a profound psychological impact on the whole structure. Following his death, Na‘im Qassem, Hezbollah’s deputy secretary general, stated in Tehran that the killing would mean more responsibilities for Hezbollah. This will most probably translate into a wider regional role for the party in the next phase. Suleimani’s killing will also give Moscow more leeway in the Russian-Iranian competition over Syria. Russia will most probably seek to further rein in on what remains of Iran’s militias and influence in the country.