Immediately after news broke of the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, some left-wing circles in the West proclaimed with great confidence – yet again – that World War III was around the corner. Previously, these same warnings of global doom were evoked when US President Donald Trump ordered rather toothless strikes on empty military targets in Syria and escalated his rhetoric against North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
And just as a world war did not break out on these previous occasions, it will not break out now either.
Much of the left in the West (the same ones who describe themselves as progressives) also viciously attacked people in the Middle East who celebrated the deaths of Soleimani and al-Muhandis. While it is wrong to praise Trump’s decision to assassinate the two commanders as a “noble deed”, framing what happened within the old, tired left-wing narrative of US imperialism erases the regional context and the suffering of millions of people in the Middle East at the hands of other powers.
Indeed, it is important to expose Trump’s recklessness and political opportunism, but it is inexcusable to ignore the crimes of Soleimani and al-Muhandis and those whom they served.
With an upcoming impeachment trial in the Senate, more Americans disapproving than approving of his presidency, and an election coming up, Trump is trying to cement his position in US politics and play to his base. His term has been marked by no clear domestic or foreign policy agendas, frequent golfing trips that prompt ethical questions about how federal dollars are being spent, and Twitter meltdowns that often do not have anything to do with reality. In short, when Trump ordered the assassinations, his presidency would not necessarily be described as successful.
While it is clear the US president was motivated by domestic considerations, in the aftermath of the attack, he claimed that he ordered it in the name of fighting global “terrorism” and that Soleimani’s assassination meant his reign of “terror” was over.
This rhetoric might help him improve his ratings in advance of his re-election bid in November, but it is simply a lie that Soleimani’s assassination will make the world a safer place. In fact, none of Trump’s interventions in the Middle East has been of any consequence to the security of the region, contrary to what many on the right have claimed.
People in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere where Soleimani’s Quds Force has been active will continue to suffer the consequences of Iran’s foreign interference. Al-Muhandis’ death and the limited attacks the United States has carried out on the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMFs) will not disband the militia, which is heavily entrenched in Iraq.
Similarly, the killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the ISIL (ISIS) group did not make the region any safer from “terrorism”. ISIL attacks have continued, and Russia and the Syrian regime have also continued to use the excuse of “anti-terror operations” to step up their military campaigns against civilians opposed to Bashar al-Assad’s rule, killing hundreds and displacing hundreds of thousands.
Trump’s 2017 and 2018 air raids on Syrian regime targets did nothing to prevent the sustained campaign of extermination Damascus has led against its own population. They also did not result in World War III or war with Russia that some left-wing pundits were predicting on social media.
In fact, throughout his term, Trump has been playing both camps – the right-wing hawks and the left-wing “anti-war” crusaders – with his constant shift of rhetoric between withdrawal and disengagement from the Middle East and aggressive action.
He “pulled out” of Syria, but sent back troops to “guard the oil”. He promised tough action on Iran after attacks in the Gulf but did not retaliate the way his allies wanted.
It is about time that both sides admit Trump makes domestic and foreign policy decisions based on his ego and what suits him, not based on standing up for “our people” or some diabolic imperialistic plot.
Regional reactions in context
The assassinations of Soleimani and al-Muhandis gave some Middle East residents a sense of relief that they have finally been rid of two militia commanders who have brought much suffering to their communities.
But when Syrians, Iraqis, Yemenis and other Arabs posted celebratory comments on the assassinations of two commanders they perceive as war criminals, Iran’s defenders immediately criticised these people, resorting to insisting they didn’t know anything about their own countries, claiming they are pro-imperialism.
In so doing, these self-identified leftists and “anti-war” activists once again downplayed the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in the region. For them, the only civilian deaths that can be acknowledged are those caused by the military intervention of the US, Israel or their allies.
However, it is hard to cover up the crimes Iran and its regional proxies have committed over the past 10 years. Iran has backed and even advised on the brutal crackdown by the Syrian regime on opposition protests and later the mass killing of civilians through areal bombardment and merciless sieges; it has also sent Afghan refugee children to fight on its behalf in Syria. It has sent military equipment and personnel to the Houthis in Yemen, who just like their enemies, the Saudis and the Emiratis, have been accused of committing war crimes in the Yemeni conflict. In Iraq, they have supported and directed militias which have committed various crimes against Iraqi civilians.
In this sense, it is hardly surprising that Syrians who have gone through the trauma of losing friends and family in the siege of Aleppo and the insult of seeing images of Soleimani marching through their city (which they may never be able to return to) are celebrating his demise. It is also hardly surprising that Iraqi protesters, who have had to drag the bodies of friends shot in the head with Iranian military-grade gas grenades during attacks by Iranian-backed militias on their demonstrations, would now be cheering the demise of al-Muhandis who had been accused of directing the crackdown.
These same left-wing people who proclaim concern about foreign intervention, refuse to acknowledge the Iranian intervention in Syria, Yemen and Iraq when the people of those countries rebelled against authoritarianism, corruption, sectarianism, and socioeconomic collapse. When protests broke out in 2018 and 2019 in Iran against the Iranian authorities, they once again framed them in the foreign-sponsored regime-change narrative.
The constant need to defend the Iranian government, even against the protests of Iranian people who have suffered under this government, is an exercise in mental gymnastics. This is the same left-wing segment that equates criticism of Iran with being an ally of Israel, which is highly problematic given Iran and Israel are committing the same crimes in the Middle East.
Only US imperialism exists?
There has been much noise about US’s breach of Iraqi sovereignty, but there has been little said of Iranian and Russian actions violating sovereignty in the region. The constant presence of Soleimani in Iraq to issue orders to Iraqi officials and forces is just one of many signs of Iran’s lack of respect for Iraq’s sovereignty. By the admission of these same leftists, Soleimani was intervening in Iraq to “fight” US intervention.
In Syria, what these self-proclaimed anti-war activists see as Iranian and Russian deployment at the invitation of a legitimate president, Syrians see as an occupation allowed by a dictator who they never elected in free and fair elections.
The debate around Soleimani and al-Muhandis’ assassinations has served to illustrate, once again, the inconsistent perception by a segment of the “progressive” left of what constitutes “imperialism”. They readily brand US and Israeli actions as imperialist; yet aggression by others – whether Russia, China, Iran or their allies – which causes equal damage and civilian deaths, is ignored, downplayed, or wrapped in “anti-terror” narratives (rather similar to the ones the US and Israel use).
Thus, US and Israeli attacks on the Iranian forces or the Assad regime have been decried as acts of imperialism while the mass killings of Syrian civilians by occupying powers Iran and Russia have been ignored, questioned or presented as “terrorist” deaths.
Criticising the US and Israel while ignoring the crimes of others, however, does no good for the people on the ground bearing the brunt of geopolitical battles between these global and regional powers. Crying “World War III is coming” every time the US engages in aggression also ignores the fact that millions of people in the Middle East and elsewhere, where US, Israeli and also Iranian, Russian and Chinese intervention have stirred conflict, are already living the realities of such a war.
Being truly anti-war would mean opposing aggression by all and condemning all those accused of war crimes – whether Qassem Soleimani or Eddie Gallagher.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.