The Middle East has experienced a series of major international events over the course of the past decade. But it is rare that they elicit as passionate, and sometimes as contradictory, of a reaction in the East as in the West, as the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani by the United States on Friday. Rare are the moments when the history of the East and that of the West echo each other to such a degree, when the stories intertwine and overlap to the point of revealing not only the at times strained ties between the two, but especially the fractures within. Reactions to the American raid against the Iranian general make a clear statement about the current perception of the region by local and Western populations. How to explain, for example, that in Idlib, the Syrian opposition celebrated the death of the commander with unbridled joy, while a few hundred miles away, in a suburb south of Beirut, portraits of the “martyr” were displayed pretty much everywhere? How to explain the people, those who are diametrically opposed to Donald Trump’s ideas and his vision for the Middle East, who applaud this decision? Finally, how to explain the part of the Western left that find themselves using the same arguments to denounce Uncle Sam’s operation as does the region’s leadership?
The death of the Iranian general reveals the degree of tension, and even intolerance of the opposing position, that exists today in the public debate on all questions relating to the situation in the Middle East. Of course, this is not new. But this time it has attained an intensity that is perhaps without precedent, notably due to the multiple identities of Qassem Soleimani. Did the United States kill the second most important man in the Iranian state or the one that was implicated in numerous attacks throughout the last decades? Terrorist and executioner for some, hero and symbol of Iranian pride for others, Qassem Soleimani can be associated with all the victories and, at the same time, all the horrors of the Islamic Republic. He is the man who, turbaned and well-groomed, walked proudly through the ruins of East Aleppo in December 2016, but he is also, in the eyes of half the Iranian population, the man who stopped Islamic State from spreading to Iran. Though this perception may well be far from the reality, the Iranian general having had only a minor role in the fight against the Islamic State group — he was instead focused on the elimination of Syrian rebels and on the formation of Iranian-funded militias throughout the Middle East — the fact remains that it is sincere and therefore cannot entirely be dismissed. The sacred unity that has asserted itself in Iran after the general’s death only a few weeks after the Pasdaran, of whom Soleimani was the most emblematic figure, suppressed protests with violence, says something about the importance of this perception.
The debates which have taken over social media about the legitimacy of the Iranian general’s assassination are quite meaningless; as legitimate as it is for Washington, it appears an injustice for the Iranian government and its allies.
In the West, the debate is perpetually polluted by the issue of American imperialism. This is particularly true for a part of the Western left which, in all or part, views it through the prism of America’s catastrophic 2003 intervention in Iraq. They are not concerned that the Russians have literally razed several cities in Syria, that the Iranians are considered an occupying force by a portion of local populations, or that the Syrian regime has killed more Palestinians in the past few years than Israel in the last 20. In response to these arguments, they evoke realpolitik, the “complexity of the situation” or the fight against terror, bringing to mind the propaganda of bloody and authoritarian regimes. The only thing that counts for this left is denouncing American imperialism even as the United States has almost never been less involved in the region. The most pertinent example is filmmaker Michael Moore, historically against the war in Iraq, who, this weekend, painted Donald Trump as a warmonger, failing to mention that the Iranian general who was just killed has been implicated in nearly all of the wars that the region has seen in the last 30 years.
While they should find the Western left to be their natural ally, local populations who are fighting for freedom and democracy find themselves friendly with the European Union, which has voluntarily given up its power, and with the false friend that is the U.S. Republican Party, whose only real interest in the Middle East is the defense of Israel.
Actually, more than American imperialism, it is the fight against the Zionist enemy that colors any position in this region. The Palestinian cause is so sacred that it surpasses all others. It matters little that Qassem Soleimani is the source of thousands of Syrian deaths because he “fights” the Hebrew state. The war of axes that grips the Middle East will not tolerate nonconformity. It is neither tolerated nor understood that it is possible to support the Palestinian cause and be opposed to the Iranian vision for the region, that one can at once denounce the Russian intervention in Syria and the Saudi intervention in Yemen, without supporting the most radical Syrian groups or the Houthis. It is neither tolerated nor understood that the death of Soleimani can be viewed as not such bad news for the region, and at the same time, have the worry that the region will be the first to pay the price.