The Death of the Master of Puppets: General Qassem Soleimani’s Assassination and Its Meaning for the Middle Eastern Proxy Wars



The Death of the Master of Puppets:

General Qassem Soleimani’s Assassination and Its Meaning for the Middle Eastern Proxy Wars

Dr. Can Kasapoglu, Security and Defense Studies Program Director

Emre Kursat Kaya, Research Fellow


What Happened?

  • On January 3, 2020, the US Air Force conducted a series of airstrikes near the Baghdad Airport in Iraq. General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Quds Forces, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the founder of the pro-Iranian Iraqi Kata’ib Hezbollah militia, are reportedly dead.


Tactical Background

  • The assassination of Soleimani marked the latest and the most critical incident in the escalating tensions in Iraq. On December 27, 2019, Iranian-backed groups attacked the  K-1 US military base in Kirkuk.
  • On December 29, the US forces targeted five Iran-backed militia bases in Iraq and Syria, killing 25 militants affiliated with Kata’ib Hezbollah.
  • On December 31, pro-Iran militants stormed the US embassy in Baghdad. Protesters branding Hezbollah flags forced the entries of the heavily fortified embassy compound and besieged the area for two days.
  • As the protesters withdrew from the diplomatic Green Zone in Baghdad on the order of Kata’ib Hezbollah, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei provocatively tweeted that the US could not do anything in response[1].


Strategic and Geopolitical Background

  • Tensions between the US-led bloc and Iran have spiraled into a new phase following the September 2019 Aramco attack. Through this provocative attack, Tehran intended to show the extent of its power along with the limits of the American security guarantees.
  • In a larger context, the Aramco attack was yet another attempt by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to manifest a new regional balance of power in the Middle East.
  • As the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the US administration fell short of proportionally retaliating to the Aramco attack, Iran has gained considerable confidence. Most notably, in his Friday sermon following the attack, the Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Hamaney hailed Tehran’s every proxy in the region as a part of Iran itself[2].


The US Motives

  • There are some strategic motives behind the targeted killing of General Soleimani:
    • After the Aramco attack, the US had to prove, not only to Iran but also to its Gulf allies, that the American military power and security guarantees will keep being firmly present in the region. Since the Aramco attack, several reports have already highlighted the desire of some GCC members to open talks with Iran or acquire more defense products from US adversaries[3]. In short, Washington had to either act decisively or accept a new balance of power in the Middle East which recognizes Iran’s upper hand.
    • Iran targeted Saudi Arabia from Yemen, established itself as the principal power in Iraq, transferred game-changer arms to its proxies, and increased its presence along the Golan Heights at Israel’s doorstep[4]. Through the 2018 agreement with the Assad rule, Iran has even obtained permanent basing rights in Syria.


Iran’s Options

  • De-escalation
    • The first option for Iran is to de-escalate the conflict. This means scaling down proxy activities, complying with the JCPOA, and ceasing arms transfers to non-state violent groups. Considering the importance of the assassination, this option is highly unlikely.
  • Retaliation
    • The assassination of Soleimani is likely to trigger a deep-rooted and widespread proxy war between the US and Iran. We foresee three ways that Tehran can pursue:
      • Iran can target GCC’s energy infrastructure. One can expect sensational strikes similar to the Aramco incident against all Gulf countries except for Qatar and Oman.
      • Tehran can harass, or even blockade, critical sea lines of communication at the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Aden. The IRGC could resort to targeting commercial shipping activity, and in particular, tanker fleets. Such an escalatory trend can lead to yet another chapter of the “Tanker Wars”.
      • The IRGC can boost the type and scale of tactical game-changer arms transfers to Tehran’s proxies across the greater Middle East. Especially, short-range ballistic missiles and drones could loom large in this respect.


Geopolitical Outcomes

  • The recent episode in the US – Iran bonanza remains yet another sign that the Obama legacy in the region has come to an end. The Obama Administration’s charm offensive has not provided the expected outcomes in taming Iran’s aspirations. Thus, inevitably, Washington is now flexing its muscles to adopt a more aggressive policy towards Iran.
  • European countries, being solid supporters of the JCPOA, will now face more difficulties in sustaining the nuclear deal.
  • The death of Soleimani will mark the definitive end of the Rouhani & Zarif-led moderate line in Iran. Already shaken by the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, the moderates will now face stronger back-leash from the hardliners within the regime. One can expect a vendetta pursued the IRGC hardliners against American targets.
  • Qassem Soleimani was not only a high-ranking general of the IRGC. Soleimani has his signature in each and every pro-Iran proxy activity in the Middle East in the last two decades. He was seen as the embodiment of the IRGC policies and the symbol of the Shiite Jihad. Thus, his death will have a major impact on the militant groups in the region.


What about Turkey?

  • Strategically, Turkey is likely to choose to stay out of the tension as much as possible. Yet, the ever-increasing militarization of the Middle Eastern affairs would push Ankara to take a clearer position. Thus, theoretically, Turkey can also use this escalation as a tool to address the ongoing Turkish – American crisis, including the CAATSA sanctions.
  • At the tactical level, the death of Soleimani can potentially have a direct impact on the Turkish presence in Syria. Regardless of its stance in the regional proxy war, being a NATO nation, Turkey can face increasing aggression from the Shiite militancy. Ankara always had complicated relations with Shiite groups in Syria. During the Operation Olive Branch, for example, while Russia opened the Syrian airspace to the Turkish Air Force, Turkish ground forces faced provocations by Iran-backed Shiite militants.
  • A new wave of militant sectarianism in Syria may jeopardize the Astana process and reconstruction efforts in the aftermath of the Syrian Civil War.


[1] Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Accessed on January 3, 2020,

[2] Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, video posted on Twitter September 22, 2019. Accessed on January 3, 2020, from

[3] The New Arab, November 10, 2019, UAE urges Iran talks with GCC, World Powers to de-escalate tensions. Accessed on January 3, 2020, from

[4] Stephanie Delory & Can Kasapoglu, January 12, 2017, Iran’s Rising Strategic Foothold in Syria, Fondation pour la Recherche Strategique.