Updated: Mar 29, 2021
Policy brief submitted by Peter Hamilton
The following article contains a discussion of war scenes and death. This may be considered disturbing by some readers. We recommend that readers prepare themselves before continuing.
This article serves to break down the United States’ (US) assassination of Qassem Soleimani, an Iranian Major General, into a brief and simplified analysis of facts, stated justification, international legal considerations, and associated controversies with precision strikes (1).
On January 3, the US conducted a precision strike in Baghdad, Iraq, killing General Soleimani and five other people (2). The precision strike on Soleimani was carried out by a MQ-9 Reaper drone, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that is equipped with missiles and laser-guided bombs (3). International tensions immediately heightened following the strike, and five days later, the Iranian military, on heightened alert, mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet, killing 176 people, including 63 Canadians (4).
Soleimani was the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, the expeditionary arm of the organization that works closely with Iranian-aligned groups across the Middle East in pursuit of common interests (5). In this role, Soleimani was known to support al-Assad’s security forces in Syria and command Iranian-backed militias fighting against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq.
The US Department of Defense released a statement immediately after the strike stating that its purpose was to protect the lives of American diplomats and service members in the region (6). The statement also indicated that the strike serves to deter future Iranian acts of aggression.
During the two weeks leading up to the strike, tensions had been rising between the US and Iranian-back militias in Iraq. Although both parties had been fighting independently against IS, one of the Iranian-backed militias, Kataib Hezbollah, was responsible for a rocket attack that killed an American contractor (7).The US responded with airstrikes on three of their strongholds, with reports indicating that these strikes resulted in the deaths of 24 combatants and the wounding of over 50. Subsequently, the US embassy in Baghdad was stormed by protestors demanding the withdrawal of the US military from Iraq, and although there were no breaches to the compound and no deaths during the incident, the US deployed an additional 750 soldiers to reinforce its security (8). Three days later, Soleimani was killed in a drone strike after his arrival at Baghdad international airport.
Other recent strategic-level tensions between the US and Iran that also likely influenced the authorization of the strike on Soleimani were the ongoing deterioration of the Iranian nuclear deal, and non-fatal skirmishes between the two states in the Gulf of Oman and Strait of Hormuz (9). Furthermore, it is apparent that the personality of US President Donald Trump affected the decision, as the past two US presidents have reportedly avoided killing Soleimani, as they wished to avoid any escalation that could lead to an eruption of direct confrontation between the two nations (10).
International Legal Analysis
In the US, Democratic party representatives have condemned Trump’s decision to strike Soleimani, citing its disproportionality (11). Proportionality is a principle recognized under international humanitarian law in the 1949 Geneva Conventions that requires that a state’s use of force must be commensurate to the size of the threat, and it implies the necessity of defence against an armed attack (12). In this case, the precision strike used large-calibre munitions against a human target that did not serve to prevent an imminent attack (emphasis critical). So, from an objective standpoint, neither proportionality nor necessity was achieved.
Although the strike breaches international law, the effective constraining ability of international institutions are limited, and it is not uncommon for powerful states like the US, Russia or China to disregard them. However, the perpetuation of non-adherence and linguistic side-stepping of these institutions by international leaders is a reality that continues to erode their legitimacy and sets a poor precedent, encouraging other powers to similarly disregard them.
Controversies with Precision Strikes
Since 9/11, precision strikes have become a regularized counterterrorist method used in both combat and non-combat situations by the US to assassinate those determined to be a threat. Guided munitions from aircrafts and UAVs are capable of killing people from a distance while eliminating almost all threats to its personnel. However, the use of autonomous weapon systems is often criticized by academics and civil society for normalizing murder through a dehumanizing process that turns people into targets and diffuses the responsibility of execution by having numerous links in the chain (13).
Although many security experts claim that precision strikes like the one carried out on Soleimani are a necessary component of war that achieves force multiplication, their utility is often questioned, as aside from protecting soldiers in combat, they largely fail to address the foundational causes of terrorism, a subject that is itself divided by different schools of thought (14). Precision strikes become even more controversial when they are used in non-combat situations and result in the death of non-combatants, which is not an uncommon occurrence (15). This consequently inspires further retaliation and resistance from the affiliated organization, as they often adapt asymmetrically to deal with an enemy’s disproportionate military capabilities in order to win the war in the long-term, which can be seen in the strategic decision making of the Taliban in Afghanistan and IS in Iraq (16).
Whether or not the strike on Soleimani should have been authorized is open to subjective interpretation based on individual positionality. The decision to kill Soleimani may have temporarily disrupted Iranian-backed operations in the region, but the escalation was an overt act of war, and his death increases the precariousness of the regional situation, and is likely to further inspire national and international anti-American resistance over time (17).
Note: This policy brief is adapted from the author’s previous work.
(1) Peter Hamilton, “Necropolitics and the Assassination of Major General Qassem Soleimani,” PSCI 4606: American Foreign Policy, (Ottawa: Carleton University, Fall 2020).
(2) Bobby Allyn, “ U.S. Kills Top Iranian Military Leader in Airstrike,” NPR, 2 January 2020, Retrieved from: https://www.npr.org/2020/01/02/793208096/iraqi-tv-says-top-iranian-military- leader-killed-in-rocket-strikes-on-iraqi-airp
(3) Paul Scruton et al., “A Visual Guide to the US Airstrike that Killed Qassem Suleimani,” The
Guardian, 3 January 2020, Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/03/visual-guide-airstrike-that-killed-qassam suleimani-us-iran#:~:text=The%20strike%20was%20carried%20out,1%20 Predator%20in%20July%202017.
(4) Geoffrey York et al., “Iran admits ‘disastrous mistake’: Its military accidentally shot down Flight 752,” The Globe and Mail, 11 January 2020, Retrieved from: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/world/article-iran-rejects-missile-theory-calls-on-west-to-show-evidence/
(5) “Who was Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s IRGC’s Quds Force leader?” Aljazeera, 3 January 2020, Retrieved from: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/1/3/who-was-qassem-soleimani-irans-irgcs-quds-force-leader
(6) “Immediate Release: Statement by the Department of National Defense,” Department of Defense, 2 January 2020, Retrieved from: https://www.defense.gov/Newsroom/ Releases/Release/Article/2049534/statement-by-the-department-of-defense/
(7) Julian Barnes, “U.S. Launches Airstrikes on Iranian-Backed Forced in Iraq and Syria,” The New York Times, 29 December 2019, Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/29/world/middleeast/us-airstrikes-iran-iraq-syria.html
(8) “US deploys 750 troops to Middle East after Baghdad embassy attack,” Aljazeera, 1 January 2020, Retrieved from: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/1/1/us-deploys-750-troops-to-middle-east-after-baghdad-embassy-attack
(9) “US-Iran Relations: A Brief History,” BBC, 6 January 2020, Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-24316661
(10) Kathy Gilsinan, “It Wasn’t the Law that Stopped Other Presidents from Killing Soleimani,” The Atlantic, 4 January 2020, Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/01/why-kill-soleimani-now/604441/
(11) Bobby Allyn, “ U.S. Kills Top Iranian Military Leader in Airstrike.”
(12) John Currie, Public International Law, 2 nd ed., (Toronto: Irwin Law Incorporated, 2008), 510.
(13) Peter Asaro, “On Banning Autonomous Weapon Systems: Human Rights, Automation, and the Dehumanization of Lethal Decision-Making,” International Review of the Red Cross 94, no. 886 (June 2012).
(14) James Poland, Understanding Terrorism: Groups, Strategies and Responses, 3 rd ed., (Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, 2011), 2.
(15) Peter Bergen and Jennifer Rowland, “Drone Wars,” The Washington Quarterly 36, no 3 (1 August 2013), 15.
(16) Megan Specia, “The Evolution of ISIS: From Rogue State to Stateless Ideology,” The New York Times, 20 March 2019, Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/20/world/middleeast/isis-history-facts-islamic-state.html