On January 3rd, the United States launched
a drone strike near the Baghdad International airport in Iraq. It killed several Iraqi and Iranian military
officials, including Iran’s top commander named Qassem Soleimani. Moments later, Iran’s Supreme leader declared
Soleimani a martyr and threatened “severe revenge” against the US. Over the next few days, hundreds of thousands of Iranians came out to mourn Soleimani’s death. But Iran wasn’t the only place where people
took to the streets… There were demonstrations in Iraq. Syria. Lebanon. And Yemen. These are some of the countries where Soleimani
commanded a network of powerful militias; which gave him and Iran extraordinary influence
across the region. This network made him one of the most important
people in Iran. It’s also what got him killed. So how did Soleimani expand Iran’s influence? And what happens to these militias after his death? It all began with Iran’s Islamic revolution. In 1979, a cleric named Ayatollah Khomeini
led a popular movement that toppled Iran’s monarch and established the Islamic Republic
of Iran. This new regime wanted to export their revolution
and that threatened countries all over the Middle East. Iran was also the first Shia government that
billed itself as the preeminent leader of the Muslim world. That especially threatened Iran’s sunni-dominated
neighbors The first one to act was Iraq. In 1980, dictator Saddam Hussein sent his
army to invade Iran. Other countries that felt threatened by Iran supported him. The US sent some weapons to Iran, but mainly supported Iraq throughout the war, hoping to keep Iran’s ambitions in check. The war carried on for 8 years and nearly
a million died. During that time, Iran was devastated and
surrounded by enemies. So, it devised a strategy to spread its ideology
and fight its enemies covertly at the same time. But first it needed a security force to find
groups to partner with outside of Iran’s borders. So in the 80s, it put together an elite unit
of soldiers and spies, called the Quds Force. They became a part of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary
Guard Corps, a branch of the military that answered directly to Iran’s Supreme Leader. Next, it needed an opportunity to unleash
this force … and it found one in Lebanon. In the 1970s a civil war was raging in Lebanon. The US had sent troops as peacekeepers but
violence was spilling over into Israel. So in 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon. Several Lebanese militias fought back. Some of these militias were led by Shia clerics,
who had ideological ties to Iran. So Iran sent forces, millions of dollars,
and tons of weapons to back their fight. They eventually merged into one powerful Shia militia called Hezbollah. They attacked Israeli soldiers in Lebanon
and launched rockets over the border into Israel. Hezbollah even bombed the US embassy and barracks
killing 304 people. Eventually, Hezbollah succeeded. The US troops left Lebanon in 1984 and Israel
pulled out in 2000. Iran’s dual strategy had worked. It turned Hezbollah into a reliable proxy
that could fight Israel and even the US on its behalf, without inciting conflict on
its own borders. Iran had also found an effective way to export its ideology in Lebanon. So Iran’s Quds Force started supporting
proxy militias in Palestine and Iraq. As it built the foundation for a network,
a charismatic soldier worked his way up the ranks… In 1998, Qassem Soleimani took command of
the Quds Force and within a few years he had an opportunity to firmly establish Iran’s
influence in Iraq. In 2003, the US invaded and toppled Saddam
Hussein and his Sunni-dominated regime. This created a power vacuum in Iraq which
was quickly filled by Shias. Solemani used this opportunity to continue
to back Shia militias here; growing his network into a powerful force that fought against
the US and other Iraqis. It became one of the most violent periods
in Iraq’s troubled history. Thousands of civilians died, many at the hands
of Soleimani’s Iraqi militias. But eventually, a Shia-dominated government
took control of Iraq. Soleimani had managed to solidify Iran’s
influence in Iraq when another opportunity arose, this time, in Syria. in Syria
In 2011, protests in Syria turned into a civil war, which threatened to overthrow dictator
Bashar al-Assad. Suleimani orchestrated a network of proxies
to work together to defend Assad. He called in Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon,
Shia-militias from Iraq, and even soldiers from Iran. He also created two new militias with Afghan
and Pakistani fighters. All these groups fought alongside the Syrian
Army to keep Assad in power. This intensified a war that eventually killed
more than 500,000 people, mostly civilians and displaced more than 11 million. But Assad survived. Soleimani was successfully exploiting conflicts
to advance Iran’s interests across the region. And it was making him a very popular figure in Iran. He became arguably the second most important
person in the country. More conflicts gave Iran more opportunities. When ISIS sparked another war in Iraq, Suleimani
again called on his network to defend Iraq and keep ISIS away from Iran. By now, he had unprecedented influence and
continued to command the Shia militias in Iraq directly even after they were officially
folded into Iraq’s military. When a civil war erupted in Yemen, Iran threw
its support behind a rebel group. Now instead of being surrounded by enemies,
Iran had them surrounded. Suleimani empowered a vast array of militias
across the Middle East… Many of them are excessively violent, and
have killed thousands. Many are designated terrorist organizations
by the US and EU. And many are corrupt. Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iraqi shia militias,
for instance, are the targets of mass protests in those countries. And they’re putting down the protests with
more violence. But to Iran and its supporters, Suleimani’s
a hero. He helped build a web of militias that not
only keeps Iran’s enemies in check… But also provides a pipeline for the Islamic
ideology that Iran wanted to see in the far corners of the Middle East. It’s why Iran’s Supreme Leader immediately
called Soleimani a martyr and also declared that his efforts and path won’t be stopped
after his killing. Even though its commander is gone, the
network remains intact.