“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
— Percy Bysshe Shelley
On an early evening last year, a friend with extensive contacts in Iraq’s security apparatus phoned to tell me, frantically, that Qassem Soleimani was killed in an attack near Baghdad International Airport. My reply was simple: “Impossible.” I was neither shocked nor disbelieving, but rather calm and confident of the news’ falsehood. I followed by suggesting it might have been a lower-level militia leader who was killed in retaliation for attacking Iraq’s Asad airbase, home to a U.S. garrison, in the continuing tit-for-tat missile exchanges between Iran and America.
“It was Soleimani,” my friend insisted. “I heard it was a jet. But he is dead.” My reaction was unchanged. Soleimani could not die because in many ways he was beyond the reach of such a military death. An hour later when the news was confirmed, I was still in denial, unable to comprehend what had happened. The feeling took me back some 17 years earlier to the surreal scenes of American tanks in Firdos Square in Baghdad bringing down the statue of Saddam Hussein.
Despite the differences between Saddam and Soleimani, the commonalities were striking. Both men had caused enormous suffering for hundreds of thousands of people. Both were charismatic in their own ways, defiant, and simply too large to die. Yet both were easily taken out by American force. I shared my feelings on social media and the feedback ranged in its characteristic banality from “interesting” to “makes no sense.” But most responses included condescending mockery even from experts which suggested I was perhaps too fond of the leader of Iran’s expeditionary Quds Force, or angry commentary from the anti-Iran Iraqi diaspora.
Others, however, shared that feeling. Last week Al Jazeera English published an article on the biggest events in Iraq last year and it mentioned how Iraqis were comparing the death of Soleimani to the fall of Saddam, and how the former was thought to be invincible. While this feeling is perhaps common in Iraq, those with no personal experience living at the mercy of tyranny struggle to comprehend the perception of invincibility that some leaders create in the minds of those over whom they rule. The disbelief over the death of tyrants is unrelated to our personal feelings towards them. It isn’t a form of political Stockholm Syndrome; it stems from a perception of almightiness built by those who dictate every aspect of our lives. Their actions decide the fate of millions and the outcome, however brutal, does not harm their authority.
Soleimani saved a collapsing Syrian regime, prolonging the war, giving sectarian succor to ISIS’s genocidal propaganda, and corralling the wretched of the earth, from Afghan children to Syria’s Alawite poor, into fighting on behalf of his expansionist project. The term “foreign fighter” has, through the cliche of media narrative, come to refer only to the multiethnic and multinational composition of ISIS, but it applies just as much to Soleimani’s machinery of proxy warfare.
In Iraq, he deliberately rivaled the state’s official security apparatus by creating the Popular Mobilization Units, an umbrella of militias which answered mainly to him and bypassed whatever semblance of authority emanated from Baghdad. Thus, seizing the crisis of Sunni jihadism, Soleimani rallied its Shiite counterpart wedded to Khomeinist ideology. This “shadow commander” in fact spent the last few years of his life working in plain sight, establishing “facts on the ground” (these cliches eventually become unavoidable) that would shift the centuries-old balance of religious influence between the major Marjaiyas (clerical authorities) in Najaf and Qom.
Between Iraq and Syria, tens of thousands of civilians have died because of this grim project. Over a longer period, Saddam, too, waged preventable wars against Iran and Kuwait, the latter causing a rift between Arab states. The Baathists executed dissidents in the tens of thousands and cobbled together the latticework of a totalitarian regime that mirrored those of Stalin and Mussolini. Such tampering with lives without remorse or hesitation brings to mind what the King of Nimrod, who ruled today’s Iraq, said to Abraham’s calls to follow God: “I can bring death and life to whom I wish.”
The ancient Kings and Pharaohs believed in, and lived by, their own immortality, which permitted them to rule by unmitigated savagery, free from even lip service to humane rules of war. Modern-day tyrannies count on three things. First, the inaction and indifference of an international community that has mastered the phrase “gravely concerned” and shown an unwillingness to do much else. Second, a rising Western consensus which holds that dictators must be coddled and appeased lest their downfall produce unintended consequences. Third, deception: the transformation of their own atrocities into heroic military victories. (Note how easily Soleimani was able to co-opt the grammar of the war on terror — and not just among Iranian loyalists, but any number of useful idiots in the West — to justify his war of terror.)
One may argue that all politicians and officials bear the responsibility of fateful decisions. The Iraq War, for one, shook the entire region and altered the semi-established balance of Sunni dominance. The invasion of Iraq was premised on inaccurate information and resulted in heinous war crimes that went unpunished. Would the passing of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, or Donald Rumsfeld ignite a similar reaction? My own guess would be no. Partially because they no longer hold authority or involve themselves with politics and war. One driving force of this perception is the impossibility of defeat or surrender. Had Saddam accepted the UN request to abdicate, or had he displayed humility during his 23 years as president, perhaps his invincibility would have ended there. If Soleimani had withdrawn from one of the many fronts he was commanding and recognized defeat, the perception of his immortality might have faded. The steadfastness of standing until nations burn — and men, women and children along with them — creates a culture of fatalism or defeatism. Because this is the way now, it will always be the way. What made the myth of Soleimani more unique was the short period in which he achieved it.
On the anniversary of his assassination, as we witness yet another showdown between American airpower and Iranian militias, Soleimani’s victims continue to receive less consideration and empathy. Iraqis and Syrians, whose lives are as far removed from normal as possible and may never be normal again, are still ignored — as if it’s their fault they’re civilians caught up in a geopolitical wrangle. The death of Soleimani did not stop the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) aggression or rein in his rogue militias, which uphold his legacy beyond his death. Nor did the removal of Saddam automatically bring democracy to Iraq.
Nonetheless, suggesting “nothing has changed” is wrong. Men like Soleimani have to be removed before the agony and destruction they’ve caused can ever be righted. And this holds true even if the speed of moral and historical reckonings remains too slow for those who have only ever known freedom. In the meantime, the impure justice of Saddam’s fall and Soleimani’s assassination serves as a reminder that they were indeed vincible.