Qassem Soleimani, the notorious commander of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force, died in a targeted U.S. drone strike on Jan. 3. In a video posted later on social media, the top cleric in the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad showered praise on Soleimani in front of journalists. The cleric, Grand Mufti Ahmad Hassoun, stated that Soleimani “never lifted his hand against any Muslim, he never lifted a weapon in the face of any Muslim.”
That is false. In fact, Soleimani spent his career waging war against Muslims of various sects, both in Iran and abroad.
Soleimani’s record of conflict with other Muslims traces back to the Iranian Revolution of 1979, when he joined the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. His first deployment was to northwestern Iran, where he took part in a counterinsurgency campaign against Kurdish groups that had been pushing for autonomy off and on since the end of World War I. While most Kurds are Sunni Muslim, a significant portion of the Kurds in Iran are Shia, the same sect as most of the Iranian population. By 1982, an estimated 10,000 Kurds in Iran had been killed and 200,000 displaced.
Soleimani later fought in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). While the majority of Iraqis are Muslim (both Sunni and Shia), that conflict was initiated by Iraq under the leadership of dictator Saddam Hussein and thus could be considered defensive. Later on, however, Soleimani waged war against Muslims and non-Muslims alike as he rose through the ranks to become head of the covert Quds Force, either in 1997 or 1998.
One of Soleimani’s most significant roles was in Syria, where he was credited with saving the Assad regime from collapse in 2012. As the regime used violence to quell demonstrations that began in the spring of 2011, soldiers and officers from the Syrian Arab Army began to defect to the protesters’ side. Apart from taking a personal role in several of the regime’s operations, Soleimani solved a severe manpower problem by involving the pro-Iranian Lebanese militant group Hezbollah in the conflict. He also organized the Syrian National Defense Force militias and supplemented the regime’s ranks with Shia militiamen recruited from Iraq and as far as Pakistan and Afghanistan. The so-called Fatemiyoun Division is a force composed largely of men and boys from Afghanistan’s Hazara ethnic group, many of whom ended up in Iran as refugees. Marginalized and often without legal status in Iran, an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 took part in the fighting in Syria to prop up the Assad regime.
While most of the rebels fighting against the Assad regime are Sunni Muslim, Syrians of all sects have suffered at the hands of the regime. Having taken a personal role in defending the regime as well as coordinating several specific military operations, Soleimani can certainly be said to have raised a weapon against Muslims.
A minority of those Soleimani helped fight against in Syria were extremists aligned with groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Many of the Syrian government’s successful battles against insurgents after Iran and Soleimani became involved in the conflict involved what locals termed “surrender or starve” sieges, in which entire cities were surrounded and indiscriminately bombarded by artillery and air strikes that killed not only extremist fighters but also moderates and ordinary civilians.
When he was killed on Jan. 3, Soleimani was in a car with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, leader of the Popular Mobilization Committee, an umbrella group of mostly Shia Iraqi militias with ties to Iran’s Quds force. Although these militias were initially formed in reaction to the reemergence of Islamic State in 2014, they have been accused of committing sectarian atrocities against civilians in areas retaken from the terrorist group.
In recent years, Soleimani, like other military commanders from dozens of nations, played a role in the fight against Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq. In Iraq, Quds Force-trained Shia militias fought in an uneasy de facto alliance with the U.S. military, which provided air support for ground forces.
During his long career, Qassem Soleimani fought against many different nationalities of different religions. While he did oppose extremists such as al-Qaeda, Islamic State and the Taliban, he also waged war on many ordinary Muslims, including Shia Kurds in his own country and Sunni Arabs in Syria and Iraq.