The key man in the Iranian’s influence in the Middle East, Kassem Soleimani was in charge of the Islamic Republic’s external operations, mainly in Syria and Iraq, although his influence in Lebanon was by no means negligible. Considered as the right hand of the Iranian supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, he was the regular link between the latter and Hassan Nasrallah who "considered him as (his) spiritual godfather", according to Fakhr el-Ayubi, the producer and director of a documentary on the life and journey of Kassem Soleimani, which should soon be broadcast on the Qatari channel Al-Jazeera.
“The two men had known each other for over twenty years, when Hassan Nasrallah was studying in Qom. Kassem Soleimani was in a way his teacher; not only in politics, but also on a personal level”, comments Mr. Ayoubi.
It was on the basis of this mutual trust and admiration that the bonds between the two men were built, giving rise to military coordination in the region, notably in Syria, a situation that they had been managing very closely since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in 2011.
His relationship with Imad Moghniyeh
Kassem Soleimani was also close to Imad Moghniyeh, another pillar of Hezbollah’s military apparatus, who was assassinated in Syria in February 2008. The two men had very close military ties.
During an interview that was broadcast on national Iranian television last September, Soleimani revealed that he had lived through the majority of the war between the Shiite party and Israel in July 2006 alongside Hezbollah. It was thanks to Imad Moghniyeh that he was able to gain access to Lebanon (through Syria) at the very beginning of the war. After Moghniyeh’s assassination, the al-Quds commander took his son, Jihad, under his wing and made frequent visits to the family in Lebanon before the son was also killed in the Golan Heights in 2015.
“Imad Moghniyeh and Kassem Soleimani supervised, side by side, the resistance front in the region. They were the ones who coordinated the field operations”, said analyst Kassem Kassir, a political specialist close to Hezbollah circles. Hence the frequent visits of Soleimani to Lebanon, which never stopped, even after Imad Moghniyeh’s assassination.
"Kassem Soleimani has never made public appearances in Lebanon, the way he used to do in Syria and Iraq. This would have embarrassed Hezbollah, which would have been forced to face the fierce opposition of a large segment of public opinion”, said Hilal Khashan, a professor at AUB and a Hezbollah specialist.
Before his assassination on Thursday to Friday night, , Kassem Soleimani was most probably in Lebanon, before heading back to Syria, then to Iraq where he was killed upon his arrival, as several media sources have relayed. While in Lebanon, the Iranian commander is said to have met with Hezbollah’s general secretary in order discuss the situation in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.
"Very active in the Syrian and Iraqi dossiers, two of which he controlled directly, Kassem Soleimani was less so in Lebanon, insofar as he totally delegated decision-making power to Hassan Nasrallah, in whom he had absolute faith", comments Mr. Ayoubi. "That did not prevent the leader of the Hezb from consulting him from time to time on Lebanese affairs,” he said.
Ever since the announcement of the assassination ordered by US President Donald Trump, the fear of an imminent escalation has been palpable, and questions have risen after calls for revenge by both Tehran and Hezbollah. "Bitter revenge awaits the criminals who stained their hands with his blood and that of other martyrs”, said Ayatollah Khamenei on his Twitter account. As for Hassan Nasrallah, who is due to speak on Sunday, in the southern suburbs of Beirut at a ceremony honoring Soleimani, he hinted that the response would most likely come from Iraq. "The esteemed Iraqi people and their resistance factions will show their great and sincere loyalty to these martyred commanders, as well as to all the martyrs and their noble objectives. They will not allow this pure blood to be shed in vain in such an unfair manner”, said Hassan Nasrallah, even though he emphasized that responsibility for the punishment shall rest with all “the resistance fighters and fighters around the world".
An ambiguous message that causes confusion about the involvement of the Shiite party in any possible retaliation, and the location where it would occur. For many analysts, if operations against American interests in the region are to be feared, and likely, it is more difficult to envision a flaring up of the Israeli/ Southern Lebanon front.
Lokman Slim, a proclaimed anti-Hezbollah Lebanese activist, does not expect a dramatic reaction as hinted at in the statements of Iran’s allies. According to Slim, the response "will be minimal", somewhat similar to the reaction to the Israeli drone which, last August, flew over the southern suburbs of Beirut. He believes that no strike against Israel should be expected, knowing full well that "Hezbollah’s popular base does not want any more wars". Hezbollah and Iran can no longer afford the expenses of their own political plans and strategies. The assassination of Soleimani has tested the limits of Iranian power and its deterrent force", he adds.
Reopening the military front against Israel is unlikely for the simple reason that Kassem Soleimani was killed by the Americans and not the Israelis, says Hilal Khashan. "Rather, I will expect the Iranians to attack American troops and interests in Iraq. For years, there was a tacit agreement between the United States and Iran to coexist in Iraq. Today this deal has been shattered. If Hezbollah were to intervene, it would likely do so away from Lebanon, through its dormant cells overseas", said the analyst.
Kassem Kassir also believes that it is in Iraq, where the direct confrontation between Tehran and Washington is currently taking place, that Iran and its allies will respond. According to him, it is extremely difficult to say, however, what impact will the assassination of Soleimani have on Lebanon in the near future. "It will depend on the sizes of both the American’s reaction and its response. No one wants a global war for the time being, but no one can predict whether the consequences of an Iranian reaction will be limited to one geographical location,” said the analyst.
One thing seems evident: the assassination of the Iranian general should accelerate the formation of the Lebanese government, the outline of which is probably ready. All the analysts agree on the following: more than ever, Hezbollah is in a hurry to see a new government in place, this being a preventive measure intended to close ranks and to cover its back after the great loss that it has just suffered.
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 4th of Januray)