The Iranian general Qassem Suleimani is dead, and tensions with Iran appear to be simmering down. But the landscape he helped build is still very much a problem for the United States.
Since his killing in a U.S. drone strike last week, experts have been rushing to explain just why Soleimani mattered so much to Iran’s ambitions—and what consequences his death really holds for the region. One simple way to think about it: He was the one man who had mastered the new landscape of the Middle East.
Soleimani’s particular skill was in controlling what’s known as “nonstate actors”—a dry name that, in the Middle East, covers the fractious group of militias, religious groups and tribal forces that actually wield power in much of the region. These groups have grown vastly in importance in the past 20 years, confounding traditional diplomats and statecraft, and Soleimani not only exploited but empowered them in Iran’s interests. His absence might help the U.S. in the short term, but it also shows just how deep a challenge the region will pose in the near future—and why our adversaries, whether Iran or Russia, still enjoy a significant and unpredictable advantage in exerting power.
For people who normally think of foreign relations in terms of governments and heads of state—Iran versus the U.S., or Vladimir Putin vs. Xi Jinping—it can be hard to grasp just how little governments sometimes matter in parts of the Middle East. Over the past four decades, nearly every institution in the region has been transformed in ways that weaken the traditional system of state power.
In the 1980s, Islam in both its Shiite and Sunni variations fractured along traditional and revolutionary lines. The 1979 revolution in Iran galvanized Islamists across the region; civil wars in Lebanon and Syria, as well as the Islamist insurgency against the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, strengthened the hand of armed groups outside government control. These historical and ideological trends accelerated after the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq broke down governing structures there in 2001 and 2003, respectively; and they were also fueled by the popular uprisings that swept the region in 2011, which brought down or weakened governments.
The growth in these new difficult-to-control forces has been staggering: Today, the total number of Sunni Islamist militants is estimated to be nearly four times what it was on September 11, 2001; there are 50,000 to 85,000 militants in Syria and Iraq alone. And that figure doesn’t count the significant number of Shia, Kurdish and other groups that dominate sectors of Iraq and Syria.
As a result, the modern Middle East is a constantly shifting balance between the formal regimes in capitals like Tehran, Damascus and Riyadh, and the militia groups and local forces that actually control much of the land. At times, Hezbollah—the Iranian-allied Lebanese militia—has been more influential than the notional government in Lebanon. ISIS at times has claimed, and even collected taxes in, chunks of Syria and Iraq; and the Kurds run a largely autonomous region of northern Iraq and Syria.
To a traditional diplomat or strategist, this complex landscape can look chaotic and unmanageable. To Soleimani, it was an opportunity.
Through his leadership of the powerful unconventional-warfare unit known as the Quds Force, and his connections with a network of militia leaders, Soleimani became the most successful person in the region at managing the complex mix of state and nonstate powers that governs the Middle East today. His strength meant that Iran was succeeding where its regional and overseas rivals failed.
Before his rise to the scene as the head of the Quds Force in the late 1990s, Iran’s preeminence in terms of proxy warfare was first born out of necessity. The Iran-Iraq War pushed the new regime in Tehran to create an arm to oversee its foreign operations. By the 1990s, Iran had expansive resources and networks in the region, and a “proof of concept” in the form of Hezbollah, the Iranian-allied Shiite militant movement that had arisen during the Lebanese civil war. All Soleimani needed to do was to replicate the Hezbollah model on a regional scale, but skills and patience were not enough to achieve that. He needed an opportunity, which he would have in 2003.
The Iraq War, in toppling Saddam Hussein, removed a tyrant from power—but in dismantling his institutions of control, also provided space for militant groups and parties to slowly take over. Many of the groups that rose up were headed by Shiite Islamists with ties to Iran forged during the Iran-Iraq war; their followings gave Iran ground-level influence, and their leaders held official or quasi-official power in the Iraqi government. The Ministry of Interior became a fortress for Hadi al-Ameri’s Badr Organization; Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis led the Popular Mobilization of Forces, a body established after the rise of the Islamic State to organize all of Iraq’s armed groups under one command that later formally became part of the armed forces. There’s no question how closely Soleimani worked with these leaders: Al-Muhandis was one of the people killed alongside Soleimani at the Baghdad airport last Friday.
The Islamic State’s takeover of one third of Iraq in 2014 created a further opportunity for Soleimani to help Iran’s proxies consolidate control throughout Iraq, including in Kurdish and Sunni areas. In Syria, he used the conflict in 2011 and Iran’s close relationship with the regime to mobilize a legion of foreign fighters within Syrian borders creating militias that played a critical role in defending the Assad regime from a massive rebellion. That process may have been disrupted by his death, and it remains to be seen whether his successor will be able to entrench the presence of Iranian proxies in Syria.
As Iran built its influence through nonstate groups, other countries struggled to match its success. For perspective, Turkey, a much more powerful country on paper, arguably had the same chance in Syria in 2011 that Iran had in Iraq in 2003—to fill the void left by its neighbor’s chaotic civil war—but failed to produce similar results. Turkey is a neighbor of Syria that has immense military and economic resources, and enjoyed the support of most of its regional and international allies in the weakening of the Alawite regime in Damascus. Turkey backed hundreds of militias across Sunni-majority Syria, but with minor exceptions it failed to create durable power on the ground, or forge deep nonstate alliances. In 2016, Turkey essentially abandoned the effort, aligning itself with Moscow in Syria, indirectly in favor of the regime.
Saudi Arabia, too, has failed to produce similar results precisely because it did not have the necessary strategists or tacticians to patiently cultivate relationships to compete against Iran. Iran had a highly sophisticated intelligence operation geared toward producing and maintaining proxies. The Saudis backed Salafists and jihadists in the 1980s but lacked the tradecraft to build long-term relationships with nonstate actors.
Among America’s allies, the only close analogy to Iran in this regard is Qatar, which has sought to cultivate ties with nonstate actors from a wide range of political and religious inclinations across the region, as part of its stated policy to appeal to expanding grassroots and localized movements. But even in this example, Doha seems to be interested in influence and “soft power” rather than active proxy warfare. Other allies are out of picture: Egypt has been inward-looking since the pro-democracy uprising in 2011, and Israel is widely seen as an enemy in its neighborhood, with no potential nonstate allies outside its borders.
So in the growing and lucrative market of nonstate actors, Iran has been a shrewd entrepreneur with no real competitors. Soleimani’s death deprives the Iranian regime of a savvy operative who was able to seize historical opportunities and trends. His death is surely a blow to Tehran’s ambitions to further entrench itself in the region, at least for the near future. But Iran still enjoys a longstanding preeminence in this area, and the potential still exists for Iran to exploit it, especially in the absence of competitors.
With central governments still struggling, nonstate actors are expected to remain a salient feature of the regional landscape into the distant future, and in some countries could well dominate power politics for some time—especially countries that have gone through political transformations, such as Libya, Afghanistan and Yemen.
For the U.S., no amount of military and economic support will stabilize the region without first acknowledging the lessons of Soleimani’s rise. In a sense, American policy decisions and Soleimani’s savvy built this world together: Washington created the voids, and Soleimani had the resources to fill them. There’s still a space for the U.S. to improve the situation and cement a more positive form of influence, though. Despite criticism, the U.S. has dedicated more than enough resources to rebuild states in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. What it lacks is the ability to navigate the way Soleimani did: to speak the language of insurgents while holding the purse strings of a national treasury.
For the U.S. and others vested in the security of the region, the trends should be clear. The way forward is to prop up stable and legitimate governments, and gradually build institutions in broken countries that could ultimately be integrated into those governments after stabilization. Rather than paying bad guys to fight other bad guys, a constructive role would be to strengthen more moderate local actors to fill the growing void in large parts of the Middle East.
One problem for the U.S. is that its adversaries have every incentive to keep the instability alive; rival powers, like Iran and Russia, are deeply invested in the disruptive local militias that give them leverage. Another problem for the U.S. is more self-inflicted: Washington’s policies tend to overlook the underlying trends that could help them achieve their goals. In October, for instance, Trump pulled the rug from under the Kurdish groups that expelled ISIS from one third of Syria, by announcing abrupt American withdrawal from Syria and allowing Turkey to take over. Even though he reversed his decision later, the message reduced America’s credibility as a stabilizing ally. Helping solve the problem is going to require not just investment and foresight, but consistency.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the relationship of the Popular Mobilization of Forces to the Iraqi government.