In the early hours of Friday morning, the world woke up to news that one of the most powerful men in the Middle East had been killed, along with several others, in a US airstrike near Baghdad. Qassem Suleimani had been heading Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force since 1998, an elite military branch that specialises in external operations. While his high-ranking position might have given him an aura of official stature, the true nature of his work was nothing less than the planning and execution of mass murder and brutal repression that plunged entire countries into chaos.
The Quds Force helped found Lebanon’s Hezbollah shortly after the country was invaded by Israel in 1982. Since then, the self-proclaimed resistance movement has long outlived its purpose. It is the only militia that has refused to lay down its arms after the civil war ended in 1990 and the group now serves as a proxy for Iran. On Suleimani’s orders, Hezbollah has also fought in Syria’s civil war alongside its president, Bashar Al Assad. Since the early days of the war, Suleimani has propped up Mr Al Assad’s brutal regime, dispatching units to the country and instructing pro-Iran militias from Lebanon, Iraq and even faraway Afghanistan and Pakistan to come to the aid of Damascus. By doing so, Iran helped fuel a war that has killed over half a million people and displaced more than one in four Syrians.
In Iraq Suleimani supported competing Shia militias, many of which killed their Iraqi compatriots in the early 2000s. Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, who also perished in Friday's airstrike, was the leader of one such militia named Kataib Hezbollah, which participated in kidnappings, assassinations and most recently the attack on the US embassy in Baghdad. These groups had helped defeat ISIS in Iraq but much like Hezbollah in Lebanon, they did not lay down their arms once they had accomplished that mission, rather they used that fight as a cover to expand their influence. And now, some of the same militias that helped to free Iraqi soil from extremists have killed, tortured and disappeared hundreds of protesters since an uprising broke out in October.
The Quds Force also propped up the Houthi rebels of Yemen, who have launched an insurgency against the legitimate government that morphed into an all-out war in 2015. Suleimani and the elite force he headed have only added to the woes of the very sect he claims to protect. He has backed groups that wreaked havoc in their countries, pitting Sunni and Shia Muslims against each other. This prompted several countries to designate the IRGC a terrorist organisation.
Suleimani was responsible for mass destruction; there can be no doubt about that. While his successor Esmail Qaani lacks his popularity and experience, Suleimani's killing will not likely change Iran's ways or curb its influence. He was part of an institution that was created with the sole purpose of meddling in the affairs of fragile nations where the Quds Force has propped up proxies in Iran's war against state structures in the region. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, has vowed revenge and it is likely that the first causalities of such reprisals will be innocent Iraqis, Syrians, Yemenis or Lebanese caught in the crossfire between Tehran and Washington.
Arab nations have responded to Mr Khamenei's threats by calling for much needed de-escalation, before it is too late. This crisis calls for a "rational approach", according to UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr Anwar Gargash, while the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs has issued a statement calling for self-restraint. Cool heads are needed to de-escalate the situation; more conflict and bloodshed should be avoided at all costs. More must be done to calm the situation, to look for political solutions and ways to stabilise countries of the region, rather than add fuel to the many fires around us. We must not allow for Arab nations to become a battleground for retaliation or conflict, especially at a time when the uprisings in Lebanon and Iraq have given millions of their citizens hope of a better tomorrow.