The assassination of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani, unlike what the Trump administration and the media expounded, is a logical extension to the heightening asymmetrical warfare between the US and Israel, on one side, and Iran and Hezbollah, on the other. Arguably, it is also the outcome of American and Israeli intelligence cooperation, whereupon the two countries deemed the assassination of Suleimani critical to their national security. Whereas some hailed the murder of Suleimani, along with his colleague a leader of the Iraqi Mobilization Forces Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, as a successful operation that thwarted potential terror attacks against U.S. national interests, some criticized the murder as hastening the march to war with Iran. To be sure, there is already a war and the prospects of terror attacks have increased. The killing of Suleimani has changed the dynamics of this ongoing asymmetrical war by expanding the theater of operations and substituting overt and covert operations for proxy warfare. This has increased the prospect of regional war, regardless of the attitude of concerned countries to rule out a war.
The asymmetrical warfare between Tehran and Washington began when Iranian revolutionaries held American hostages in the American Embassy in Tehran from November 1979 until January 1981. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the theocracy in Iran, who split the world between oppressors and oppressed, depicted the U.S. as the great Satan for being the great oppressor in the world. Before long, the tension between the two countries intensified. Whereas Washington supported Iraq in its war against Iran (1980-1988), Tehran called on its revolutionary proxies to kidnap Western hostages in Beirut. The botched Carter administration’s attempt to rescue the hostages led the incoming Reagan administration to pursue a multi-pronged policy vis-à-vis Iran. The administration pursued a covert deal with Iran, the Iran-Contra affair, according to which Israel, at the behest of the U.S., would supply Iran with missiles. In turn, Iran would release the hostages and pay cash for the missiles, which would be transferred to the Contras fighting the socialist Nicaraguan government. At the same time, the administration engaged President Hafiz al-Asad of Syria to help free the hostages since his troops controlled Lebanese territories, while maintaining its support of Iraq’s war efforts against Iran.
Meanwhile, Tehran sent its Islamist revolutionaries to Lebanon to indoctrinate the Shi’a community there and help wage a militant campaign against both Israel, which invaded Lebanon in 1982, and against American and Western troops, which were sent to Beirut as an international force to supervise the withdrawal of PLO fighters from the country. Iranian Islamist proxies, which later on amalgamated into Hezbollah, bombed the American Embassy (twice) and the U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut in which 241 marines were killed. No less significant, in November 1982, a young Shi’a Ahmad Qassir drove his explosive-laden Peugeot into Israel Defense Forces’s headquarters in Tyre. These terror attacks were devastating. Hundreds of American and Israeli soldiers and innocent civilians were killed.
Apparently, American and Israeli intelligence had failed to notice the emerging signs of militant Shi’ism whereby the cult of suicide bombing, historicized by Khomeini as a battle against injustice, spread to the Levant. Consequently, the U.S. and Israel’s intelligence agencies, the CIA and Mossad respectively, cooperated in Lebanon and established that Islamic Jihad, a precursor faction of Hezbollah was responsible and that Imad Mughniyah was behind the terror bombings.
Reportedly, this cooperation led to couple of retaliatory attempts. Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour, an Iranian considered a founder of Hezbollah, was targeted by a mailed booby-trapped Koran, whereupon he lost his right eye. And, in 1985, a car bomb attempt on the life of Hezbollah spiritual leader Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah resulted in 80 killed and scores injured in Beirut, including the brother of Mughniyah, Jihad. Reportedly, Lebanese Christian militia members and army officers and Saudi intelligence coordinated the attack.
Similarly, as Hezbollah increased its attacks on Israel Defense Forces (IDF) occupying southern Lebanon, Israel targeted two of the Islamist party’s leaders, Ragheb Harb and Abbas Moussawi. Apparently, Hezbollah retaliated by bombing both Israel’s Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina on March 17, 1992, murdering 29 people; and the AMIA Jewish Cultural Center in Buenos Aires on July 18, 1994, murdering 87 people.
Following Hezbollah’s constant attacks on the IDF in southern Lebanon, Israel withdrew from Lebanon in May 2000. From late 1990s to 2006, Israel maintained espionage cells in Lebanon whose contributions were at best mixed. The inconclusive 2006 Summer War between Israel and Hezbollah betrayed the failure of United States and Israel’s intelligence to gauge the power of Hezbollah. General Qassem Suleimani, head of al-Quds Force in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), supported by Mughniyah, oversaw Hezbollah’s military operations against Israel’s offensive in Lebanon.
Consequently, Washington and Jerusalem harnessed their collaborative efforts to curb the power of Hezbollah. After so many years on the run, in February 2008, the head of Hezbollah’s jihad apparatus Mughniyah was killed in Damascus. As it turned out, the assassination operation was the product of close cooperation between the CIA and the Mossad. In response, Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah declared an Open War against Israel, focusing on enhancing the global militant reach of Hezbollah. This marked a new stage in the asymmetrical warfare.
Unflustered by Hezbollah’s threat, and committed to curb the power of Hezbollah and its patron Iran, including disrupting Tehran’s nuclear program, on August 1, 2008, a daring team of Israel’s commandos swam the Mediterranean waters towards the vicinity of Tartus and killed Syrian Brigadier General Muhammad Suleiman, a top aide of Syrian president Bashar al-Asad and the liaison officer in charge of the military Syria-Hezbollah-Iran relationship. Concurrently, couples of IRGC Generals were murdered under hazy circumstances in various locations.
At this juncture, cyberwarfare entered the fray of proxy war between Iran and its proxy allies, on one side, and United States and Israel, on the other. In 2009, Stuxnet, a malicious computer program considered then as the most sophisticated cyber weapon ever deployed, sent Iran’s nuclear centrifuges wildly out of control. Reportedly, it wiped out roughly a fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges.
Concurrently, the Mossad reportedly pursued a wide-ranging operational policy to eliminate Iranian nuclear scientists, physicists, computer and cyber scientists involved in the country’s nuclear program, cyber program, and missile development.
In January 2010, a prominent nuclear physicist Masoud Ali Mohammadi was killed by a remotely detonated bomb fitted on a motorcycle next to his car. In November 2010, Majid Shahriari, a professor of nuclear physics, who specialized in the relevant bomb making neutron transport, was assassinated while driving his car. Two motorcyclists attached to his car a bomb and sped away. On the same day on November 29, professor of nuclear physics and reportedly a member of the IRGC Fereidoun Abbasi narrowly survived an assassination attempt in Tehran by jumping out of his car when he noticed a speeding motorcyclist affixing a bomb to his car. He was subsequently appointed as the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (2011-2013). In July 2011, scientist Darioush Rezaei was shot in the throat in front of his daughter’s kindergarten in east Tehran by gunmen on motorcycles.
Similarly, on November 17, 2011, bombs exploded at the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Shahab-missile base in Bidganeh, about 25 miles from Tehran. General Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam, a leading figure in Iran’s efforts to construct long-range missiles, along with 16 fellow members of the IRGC, was killed in the explosions.
In October 2013, the head of Iran’s cyber warfare program, Mojtaba Ahmadi, was found in a wooded area north-west of the capital shot dead. In January 2014, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, a chemist who worked in the uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, was killed when his car exploded. By the end of 2014, five Iranian nuclear scientists, the head of the country’s ballistic missile program, and the head of Iran’s cyber warfare program had been killed. The Iranian regime accused the Mossad of carrying out these assassinations, with support from American intelligence.
In the meantime, Hezbollah worked hard to reconstruct Shiite areas damaged by Israel in the 2006 war. Most importantly, Hezbollah put a great and systematic effort to rebuild and enhance its military capabilities, especially its missile arsenal. By February 2010, thanks to General Suleimani’s military support, Nasrallah redrew the parameters of its conflict with Israel. In a speech commemorating Hezbollah’s “martyrs” on February 16, 2010, Nasrallah drew the qualifying framework for any future confrontation with Israel. He introduced the deterrent-by terror equation where Hezbollah would retaliate proportionally to any Israeli aggression: “Tel Aviv for Beirut, and Ben Gurion international airport for Beirut international airport”. This marked another advanced stage of the asymmetrical warfare whereby Hezbollah sought to achieve a strategic terror parity with Israel. It’s noteworthy that a similar strategic parity policy, heavily reliant on missiles, had been pursued by late President Hafiz al-Asad of Syria to contain Israel.
Simultaneously, Hezbollah, acting on its Open War threat against Israel, tried to attack Israeli national interests overseas, while at the same time continuing to enhance its military capabilities. In February 2012, a bomb was found and defused at Israel’s Embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia. In the same month also an Israeli diplomat’s car was bombed in the vicinity of the Israeli Embassy in New Delhi, India. In late March 2012, Azerbaijan arrested two dozen terrorists trained in Iran, who had been planning attacks on Israeli and U.S. Embassies in Baku. In July 2012, a Hezbollah suicide bomber carried out a terror attack on a bus in Burgas, Bulgaria, carrying Israeli tourists. Five Israelis and the bus driver were killed. This marked a significant escalation in the ongoing Hezbollah (and Iran)-Israel warfare. In October 2012, Israel shot down a Hezbollah drone near the country’s Dimona nuclear plant in the Negev. In 2013, Thai and Cypriot authorities pursued and arrested Hezbollah operatives charged with tracking Israeli tourists.
Clearly, both Israel and Hezbollah expanded their overseas operations, which were comparatively better executed by the Mossad. In fact, Hezbollah’s operations, excluding those anonymously foiled by Israel, would have been devastating had it not been for Jerusalem’s intelligence. The Mossad has been able not only to improve their human intelligence gathering (HUMINT) but also to penetrate Hezbollah’s inner Jihadi circle, which analysts thought as impregnable. By 2012, notwithstanding Israel flooding Lebanon with technical intelligence gathering capabilities (SIGINT, IMINT, MASINT), approximately 100 Lebanese spying for Israel had been arrested by Hezbollah and central authorities. Some of those arrested included senior army and intelligence officials such as a) Haitham al-Sahmarani, a Shi’a Internal Security officer who provided the IDF with coordinates of Hezbollah leaders’ houses, places of meetings, and addresses of social and religious gatherings; b) General Mansour Habib Diab, a Christian and Director of School of Special Operations, who delivered to the IDF highly sensitive information on the army and Hezbollah-Army relations; and c) Colonel Gouzwan Eid Chahine, who the Mossad gave him sophisticated equipment to photograph and eavesdrop on army officers close to Hezbollah leaders. Colonel Chahine’s arrest led to a number of arrests in the Ministry of Communications and private communications companies.
In the meantime, Hezbollah became militarily involved in the Syrian civil war on the side of the Asad regime, which heightened Israeli concerns about the Islamist party acquiring both military experience and sophisticated weapons. Before long, on December 4, 2013, the Mossad reportedly assassinated Hezbollah’s senior commander Hassan al-Laqis in Beirut, who had played a key role in enhancing the group’s extensive telecommunications network. In February 2014, Israel carried out air attacks on Hezbollah’s positions along Lebanon-Syria border, reportedly destroying a drone base and killing senior party members.
Clearly, Israel had an intelligence advantage over Hezbollah’s plans and plots in the ongoing tug-of-war. As it turned out, the Mossad had scored big with the recruitment of the head of Hezbollah’s Jihad External Operations unit 910, Muhammad Shawraba , charged with overseas operations against Jerusalem. This constituted a serious breach of Hezbollah’s security that almost brought the Mossad to the deadly reach of Secretary General Nasrallah, let alone feeding the Mossad important information that foiled a number of assassination attempts abroad.
Reports circulated that it was none other than General Suleimani who scurried to Lebanon upon the discovery of Israel’s mole within the higher echelons of Hezbollah’s military leadership. Suleimani handled the dismantling of unit 910 and the organizing of a new secret unit in its stead.
It goes without saying that Israel’s intelligence edge over that of Hezbollah did not parry the party’s attempts at developing its military capabilities and extending its militant reach. Following a meeting in December 2014 with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdadov, who handled the Syrian file, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah asserted that in a “future war with Israel, Hezbollah will fight in Galilee and Israel will be surprised by the party’s missiles.” Before long, on January 18, 2015, Israel attacked an Iranian-Hezbollah military convoy apparently reconnoitering the Syrian Golan Heights. Six senior Hezbollah members and six senior IRGC members were killed, including the son of slain jihadi commander Imad Mughniyah and IRGC General Mohammad Ali Allah Dadi. This marked a new phase in the asymmetrical warfare reflected by Hezbollah’s plan to build a military infrastructure in Syria, thereby extending its front with Israel along the Lebanon-Syria border.
In response to Israel’s attack, Hezbollah leader Nasrallah delivered a speech entitled “En Route to Jerusalem” in which he asserted: “We will no longer observe the rules of engagement and will strike anywhere and at any time.” Soon enough, on January 28, Hezbollah launched six anti-tank missiles towards an Israeli convoy en route to Ghajar, a village saddling the Lebanon-Israel border, instantly killing Captain Yohai Kalangel, 25, and Sergeant Dor Nini, 20.
Undaunted by Israel, Hezbollah continued its attempt to expand its activities to the Golan Heights and southern Syria, including the enlistment of Druze fighters into a joint Hezbollah-Syrian regime force. Samir Kuntar and Wiam Wahab led the enlistment efforts. Whereas Wahab, a Druze and former Lebanese cabinet member, focused his efforts on persuading Druze leaders to support Asad and cooperate with Hezbollah, Kuntar, also a Druze, was charged with organizing Hezbollah’s military and intelligence operations in Southern Syria. It’s noteworthy that Israel had captured Kuntar in 1979 following the brutal murder of four Israelis in Nahariya. He was subsequently released in a prisoner exchange with Hezbollah in 2008.
Consequently, in December 2015, Israel assassinated Kuntar in an air raid on his residence in Jaramana, southeast of Damascus. At the same time, Israel increased its intelligence activities in Syria, and pursued a systematic policy of air raiding Iranian and Hezbollah members and bases to prevent smuggling game-changing sophisticated missiles to Lebanon and pre-positioning of precision-guided missiles in Syria.
Although Russia entered the fray of Syria’s civil war in support of the Asad regime and came to control Syria’s airspace by deploying its most sophisticated S-400 Surface-to-Air (SAM) missile batteries in the country, Israel continued its air strikes. Obviously, Israel reached a broad understanding with Russia that allowed Jerusalem to strike at its enemies if they posed a threat to its national security, so long as Israel’s actions did not destabilize the Syrian regime. On the margins of the UN Climate Change Summit on November 30, 2015, Russian leader Vladimir Putin said to Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:
We are satisfied with the way our bilateral relations are developing. I note that the coordination mechanism between our militaries that we established on your initiative in response to the escalating situation in the region is functioning, and functioning well.
Despite its coordination with Russia, Israel steadily grew concerned about Hezbollah and Iran’s growing military cooperation with the Syrian regime and Russia. It was no surprise that Hezbollah in fighting the Syrian opposition, including Salafi-jihadis, came to acquire military experience and a large arsenal of weapons, especially missiles. This became doubly concerning for Israel when the Islamic State established a so-called Caliphate in both Iraq and Syria, which led United States to create an international alliance to defeat the Islamic State. With the international focus shifting towards fighting the Islamic State, Tehran, Damascus, and Baghdad, which coordinated closely with Washington, established a formal and informal close military strategic partnership, headed by Suleimani, to fight IS. This close partnership birthed a strong Iranian proxy alliance comprising the IRGC, Hezbollah and the Iraqi Mobilization Forces (MPF), which included various pro-Iranian Islamist militias. Israeli fears of Iran forging an overland military route connecting Tehran to Beirut became all but confirmed.
This led Israel to increase its air strikes against Iranian and Hezbollah bases and convoys suspected of smuggling weapons to Lebanon. This became a high priority for Israel as Iran doubled its efforts to enhance and entrench its military presence in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq in response to President Donald Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” against Iran following his withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear agreement. In essence, Suleimani tried to establish a network of powerful proxy forces not only to deter but also to contain Israel.
In addition to increasing the frequency and reach of its air strikes, Israel concluded an agreement with Russia whereby the latter would not allow Iran to establish any military bases in southern Syria all the way up to 80 KM from the Golan Heights. Nevertheless, despite incurring heavy losses in men and material in Syria, Hezbollah’s attitude grew bolder. In a speech on February 17, 2017 Nasrallah warned Israel: “I call upon Israel not only to evacuate the Ammonia tank from Haifa, but also to dismantle Dimona nuclear facility.” And he added that “the Israeli nuclear weapon that represents a threat to the entire region, we will turn it into a threat to Israel.” This audacious warning to target Dimona’s nuclear facility reflected both Hezbollah’s growing arsenal of missiles and boldness in underscoring its deterrent-by terror strategy against Israel.
Conversely, Israel beefed up its military drills focusing not only on Hezbollah’s northern front but also on Syria’s eastern front, assuming that a potential conflagration with Hezbollah would extend to Syria’s Golan Heights. Its drills included the scenario of destroying the complete infrastructure of Lebanon and invading southern Lebanon. It also improved the effectiveness of its Iron Dome anti-missile batteries. Yet, Israel has remained concerned about Hezbollah acquiring precision-guided missiles and about Hezbollah simultaneously firing a large number of missiles at Israel that could overwhelm the Iron Dome. Prime Minister Netanyahu consistently emphasized the danger of Hezbollah acquiring precision-guided missiles and members of his government implicitly and explicitly threatened to take Lebanon back to the stone age in a future conflagration.
Undaunted by Israel’s warning, Nasrallah, in an exclusive interview with al-Manar TV station in July 2019, warned Israeli officials not to brag about “returning Lebanon to stone age.” He asserted that “Hezbollah at minimum is capable of inflicting huge destruction upon the Zionist entity,” and added that although a war with Israel is ruled out, “such a war will put Israelis on the verge of vanishing.”
Acting on its threat not to allow Hezbollah to acquire precision-guided missiles, Israel launched in August 2019 a drone attack on a Hezbollah facility in West Beirut housing what Israel’s media called a “planetary mixer,” a large industrial machine critical to making missiles. Nasrallah responded by confirming that although Hezbollah does not have factories to produce missiles, the party “has enough precision-guided missiles in Lebanon for any confrontation with Israel.”
It was against this background that both Washington and Jerusalem apparently began to single out Suleimani as the Iranian official who uniquely created a militant Shi’a regional axis, providing Iran with strategic depth. One could safely argue that the authors of Washington’s “Maximum Pressure” policy shared Israel’s concerns about Iran not only entrenching its presence in Lebanon and Syria but also in Iraq. Israeli fears of Iran’s apparent strategy to acquire strategic depth grounded in deterring and containing Jerusalem were all but confirmed. Soon enough, reports circulated that Israel on multiple occasions struck weapons depots in Iraq, controlled by the pro-Iranian Iraqi Mobilization Forces. Israel has been concerned about Iran moving precision-guided missiles to Iraq, whence some of which would be smuggled to Syria and Lebanon. US officials confirmed Israel’s latest air strike on weapons storage facilities in Iraq in August 2019. In an interview with a Russian-language TV station, Netanyahu implied that Israel carried out the strikes in Iraq. He remarked that “I don’t give Iran immunity anywhere,” accusing the Iranians of trying to establish bases “against us everywhere,” including Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq.
PMF officials harshly criticized and threatened the U.S. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy Chairman of the PMF, accused the U.S. of allowing four Israeli drones into Iraq (via Azerbaijan) to target Iraqi military headquarters and declared that “the first and last responsible for what happened are the American forces.”
Clearly, Washington was at one with Israel in trying to curb Iranian power in Iraq, downplaying the fact that the PMF are integral part of Iraq’s armed forces. Moreover, attacking the PMF headquarters and weapons facilities did not entail dealing with Russia which did not control Iraq’s airspace like that of Syria. Following an attack on an Iraqi military base in Kirkuk that housed American soldiers, in which an American contractor was killed, American jets struck PMF headquarters in al-Qaim. In response, on December 31, protesters stormed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. On January 3, 2020, President Trump ordered the assassination of General Suleimani and his companions at Baghdad International Airport.
The assassination, unlike what the media and the Trump administration reported, bore the hallmark of American-Israeli cooperation involving the assassination of Mughniyah in Damascus. It was carried out against the background of intensified asymmetrical warfare between Iran and Hezbollah, on one side, and Israel and U.S., on the other. Both Washington and Jerusalem unmistakably frowned upon General Suleimani’s strategy that provided Iran with strategic depth. He managed not only to enhance the deadly firepower of Iran’s proxies but also to harness their power into a militant regional network with the potential of deterring and containing Israel. Neither Jerusalem, which has faced thousands of missiles near and far from its borders, nor Washington, which has seen its maximum pressure policy falter due to Iranian gradual military escalation, could have afforded General Suleimani’s stewardship of Iranian military defiance. His elimination was essential to disrupt, even temporarily, Iran’s regional enhancement and realignment of its proxy forces and by extension Iran’s strategic depth.
Logistically, one could argue that his assassination was the outcome of the U.S.-Israel intelligence cooperation. Immediately following his arrival to Damascus International Airport on the morning of January 2, Suleimani was driven to Beirut where he met Hezbollah leader Nasrallah. Hezbollah intelligence provided his security. Reportedly, the two discussed how to confront Washington and Jerusalem’s plan to disrupt Iran’s design of strategic depth by striking at Iran’s power bases across the region. Later that evening, Suleimani, accompanied again by Hezbollah security, returned to Damascus where he boarded a regular passenger Cham Wings flight to Baghdad. The scheduled flight departure was delayed from 20:20 to 22:28. It was clearly there that Israeli and/or American intelligence knew about his whereabouts and destination. Had they known about his itinerary to Beirut, Suleimani and Nasrallah would have been primary targets. Arguably, American and Israeli intelligence cooperated to assassinate Suleimani in the same manner they did when they assassinated Mughniyah in Damascus. Both have intelligence presence in Damascus and both shared the strategic threat posed by Suleimani’s plans, and if the past and present cooperation between the two are a guide, Washington and Jerusalem definitely shared intelligence and cooperated to bring down what they deemed an essential target. Armed with credible intelligence, American drones were ready to eliminate Suleimani and his trusted companion al-Muhandis in Baghdad.
No doubt, the assassination was successful on the tactical level by removing the strategic puppeteer’s hand that moved the proxy strings of Iran; but it was a failure on the strategic level by rallying enough Iraqi forces to call for the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and rally enough Iranians behind the regime. Though largely symbolical, Iranian retaliatory attack on al-Asad Iraqi military base that housed American forces was carried out directly and not by proxy. This not only expanded the theater of operations of but also transformed the asymmetrical warfare into a vicious cycle of overt and covert operations, one of which whether or not by design could lead to a regional war. This warfare that initially originated in Lebanon has steadily spread across borders and led the involved parties to steadily increase their fire power potentially spelling disaster, regardless of the victor, for a region already suffering social, economic and political tribulations.
At the time of this writing, whereas Washington and Jerusalem seek to curb the power of Iran (and its proxies) and prevent it from developing a nuclear weapon, Tehran (and its proxies) seeks the eviction of Washington from the region while deepening Tehran’s regional deterrent-by-terror strategy. These new dynamics of the transformed context of this warfare are prone to provoke a conflagration despite all the parties’ desire to avoid a regional war. Put simply, unless all parties prioritize military restraint and sober diplomatic engagement a regional war is inevitable.
*Robert G. Rabil is a professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University. He can be followed @robertgrabil.