How to create a martyr and incite violence: the Trumpian guide to targeted killing

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The biggest problem with eliminating Soleimani isn’t that he’s dead, it’s how he was killed

Morality and legality aside, targeted killings are delicate things which should be carried out in a way that ensures, to the greatest extent possible, plausible deniability. With the killing of General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Quds Force, President Trump proved that he is incapable of handling sensitive matters with anything other than the same arrogance and irresponsibility that he brings to all other aspects of his presidency. 

As per usual, Trump’s buffoonery has gotten in the way of him portraying himself as the strongman he would like to be. Even Vladimir Putin, who wholeheartedly embraces the unfortunate Russian tradition of poisoning enemies (the first dedicated laboratory for the manufacture of poisons — the Kamera — was established under Lenin in 1921), kills people relatively quietly, and Russian poisoning techniques are sophisticated enough that proving exactly how a victim met his or her demise can be challenging. We might know that Putin is behind the poisoning of a whole host of people, but we can’t prove it. 

In contrast, the Trump administration had Gen. Soleimani killed with a strike by an MQ-9 Reaper drone in Baghdad, Iraq and then proudly took credit for it. The professed reasons for eliminating the general are shifting — which, given Trump’s inability to stick with one statement for longer than 10 minutes, is unsurprising — but they mostly revolve around the Iranian’s alleged plans for future attacks. The legality of the killing is hotly debated, with some calling it a war crime and others calling it a legitimate elimination of an enemy.

While the idea that Trump would have someone killed to distract from his impeachment rings true, the professed reasons for “remov[ing] Qassem Soleimani from the battlefield,” as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put it, are at least semi-justifiable.

For starters, it’s one of the only times the President has kept his word. Tensions between Iran and the U.S. have been escalating since Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018. After the Iranian military shot down a U.S. drone in June 2019, Trump reportedly agreed that Soleimani could be a target, but only if Americans were killed. Pompeo also warned that any attack by Iran (or its proxies) resulting in the death of an American would elicit a military response.

Then, on Dec. 27, the Iranian-backed, Iraqi, Shi’ite militia, Kataeb Hezbollah fired rockets at an Iraqi base, killing American citizen and civilian contractor Nawres Hamid. On Jan. 3, both Gen. Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the commander of Kataeb Hezbollah, which has been designated as a terrorist organisation by the U.S. since 2009, were killed by an American drone strike.

Even without the death of Hamid, Gen. Soleimani was not someone that anyone who enjoys western democracy has any reason to mourn. As commander of the Quds Force — the branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that arms, funds, and trains a multitude of terrorist groups — the general was a terror leader and fomentor of violence in the Middle East long before Trump ever stuck his nose into politics. Gen. Soleimani is also considered the mastermind behind Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s response to the uprising of the Syrian people. The U.S. designated the Quds Force as a terrorist organisation in 2007, and Canada did the same in 2012 — in theory making Gen. Soleimani as valid a target as Osama Bin Laden or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

But the point isn’t whether or not Gen. Soleimani was an acceptable target, or even if his killing can be justified under international law. The point is that Trump had him killed in the worst possible way. Engulfing his car convoy in flames with a dramatic drone strike was entirely unnecessary when there were other far less inflammatory options. For example, the Israelis, who face Iranian-sponsored attacks from Hezbollah and Hamas (both of which are Iranian-backed) on a regular basis, would likely have been more than happy to quietly eliminate the commander of Iran’s external operations force. After all, Iran and its proxies seek the elimination of Israel. Gen. Soleimani himself, in a speech following the Israeli killing of a senior Hezbollah commander, stated that the punishment must be the “eradication” of Israel. 

Now, in death, Gen. Soleimani’s leadership and message are nearly as strong as they were in life. The blatant killing — one with no potential for being mistaken for natural causes, or even suspicious-but-unproven — has turned a powerful man into a powerful martyr. Iranian religious leaders are gifted at creating martyrs out of fallen heroes in order to inspire Shi’ite Iranians, and Gen. Soleimani, whose emotional funeral is reportedly outdone only by that of the first Supreme Leader, is now a symbol that the regime can exploit.

Trump’s braggadocious approach to eliminating an enemy showed complete disrespect for Iraqi sovereignty, severely damaging the status of the U.S. in the region. Killing Gen. Soleimani in Baghdad without the Iraqi government’s permission caused the Iraqi government to order the Americans — who have been in Iraq fighting the Islamic State (IS) and training Iraqi troops — out of the country, an instruction with which the U.S. has not complied. As of Jan. 15, joint counterterrorism operations have reportedly resumed. One can only hope that American troops remain in Iraq with the support of the Iraqi government, as animosity between the U.S. and Iraq is good for IS — Iraqi soldiers do most of the fighting against the extremists, but they rely on American logistics, and senior coalition military officials say that the Iraqi military would be handicapped without American “drone-based intelligence and air cover.”

But the most tragic result of the escalation in violence and tensions following Gen. Soleimani’s needlessly public execution is not rocket fire at American bases or potential IS plans for resurgence. The most tragic result is the downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, which was shot down over Tehran by Iranian missiles. One hundred seventy-six people on board the plane were killed. Sixty-three were Canadians. One, Roja Omidbakhsh, was a student at UVic. The IRGC has acknowledged its own mistake in firing at the plane, saying that the aircraft was misidentified as a cruise missile. However, the Iranian regime blames increased tensions caused by the U.S. for the disastrous error, and in that, Iran can be believed.

Plausible deniability. Achieve that, and there is no obvious enemy to retaliate against. The possibility of natural causes, and a terror leader may not become a martyr. A modicum of subtlety, and tensions don’t boil over. Perhaps, soldiers remain calm enough to differentiate between a cruise missile and a passenger plane. Perhaps, 176 people don’t fall out of the sky.