It was only yesterday when the Arab states were mired in the prospects of a possible conflict with Turkey, as the motion to send troops to Libya was passed in the National Assembly in Ankara. But one mustn’t forget that this is literally a region where tensions and conflicts can skyrocket overnight. An American drone strike on Baghdad Airport last night has turned the region and the world on its axis, as it caused the death of Qasem Soleimani, the General of the Iranian Quds Force and one of the major figureheads and military strategists of the regime. And just like that, the attention of the world shifted away from Libya and Turkey, while Iran and its allies were once again placed under the microscope of scrutiny and speculation. Soleimani was not the only person to meet his demise as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandes, the deputy chairman of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), was also killed. Ever since Spring of last year, Iran and the US have been mired in a seemingly endless tug of war which consisted of tanker seizures, attacks on allies, sanctions and even hacking of weapons systems, but this latest event has marked an entirely new chapter in the tensions and now more than ever both states seem to be on the brink of an armed conflict.
SOLEIMANI’S INFLUENCE ON MIDDLE EASTERN CONFLICTS
General Soleimani has widely been regarded as the defacto second-in-command in Iran, with only Ayatollah Khomeini having more authority than him. Ever since the Iraq war in 2003, Soleimani has played an instrumental role in the conflicts of Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria and has ensured that the Iranian regime does not lose its interests in those countries. Most recently, he has been advising the military forces of the Assad regime and other militias loyal to the regime, thereby helping him maintain power. Under Soleimani’s command, the Quds force has only been advising and funding other terrorist groups in the region such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Islamic Jihad in Palestine. For the past twenty years, Solieimani has survived several assassination attempts, but Trump’s drone strike order finally put an end to the strongman’s impact and authority in the region.
WHY NOW AND WHY THE RISK?
Tensions between Washington and Tehran were reaching new boiling points last year; nevertheless, Trump has been cautious in his responses to the regime’s escalations. President Trump’s preferred acts of retaliation were economic sanctions, and while that managed to squeeze the Iranian economy, the regime remained steadfast and resistant. Moreover, Iran was also careful not to push the US beyond its boiling point, throughout the past year it hid behind attacks conducted by its regional allies and proxy forces. Furthermore, it often attacked US regional allies rather than the US directly. The fact that both states were walking on this cautionary tight rope ensured that neither one of them would be forced to have a direct conflict, something the Trump wanted to avoid, much to the disappointment of neo-con figures in the administration such as former National Security Advisor John Bolton.
The drone strike followed a series of tit for tat attacks that Iran and the US were participating in during late December/early January. On December 27, Kataib Hizbullah, Iranian-backed militia in Iraq, launched missiles aimed at a US military base in Kirkuk killing an American contractor. The US responded with airstrikes that killed 25 Kataib Hizbullah militiamen. Things came to head on New Year’s Day when Kataib Hizbullah supporters and soldiers stormed the heavily fortified American embassy in Baghdad, though no one was murdered. The direct murder of an American citizen proved to be the straw the broke the camel’s back since the Trump administration decided to take the bold move of directly attacking an Iranian general, who happens to be the second most powerful man within the regime no less. While the incident has come as a shock to the world, the fact that the Trump administration decided to take such a drastic measure shouldn’t be a surprise. Essentially, Iran has spent the last year playing with fire and it should have expected that sooner or later it would get its fingers burned. In other words, the assassination of Soliemani was the result of the culmination of the regime’s retaliatory actions against the US and its allies in the region. Moreover, the US Defense Department noted that Soliemani was planning more attacks on American diplomats and servicemen in Iraq, as such the assassination was a security measure meant to protect them.
There is, of course, another major factor that should not be ignored. Just days ago, the world welcomed 2020; a year that the US will have one of its most anticipated presidential elections in the past 20 years. The phenomenon of “rallying around the flag” is widely recognized in the American sociopolitical landscape. Essentially, when during times of measure conflicts, war or attacks against the US, the American president gains a surge of popularity from the American public. A recent example of this was George W. Bush’s increase in popularity after the September 11 attacks. It is possible that Trump hopes that this heavy response to Iranian-backed attacks on American servicemen will bolster his popularity into the election campaign and eventually help him gain re-election in November. The fact that shortly after the Pentagon announced Soleimani’s death, Trump only tweeted a large image of an American flag supports this theory.
DEMOCRATS CRITICIZE TRUMP AND IRAN VOWS TO AVENGE SOLEIMANI
Shortly after the Pentagon’s announcement, leading nominees for the Democratic National Committee (DNC) voiced their concerns over Trump’s action. Senator Bernie Sanders cited the ghosts of the Iraq war which still haunt the US today and how Soleimani’s assassination could bring the country into another major conflict in the region, a contravention of Trump’s campaign promise to end US involvement in the “endless wars”. Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren cited that Soleimani’s track record of killing thousands of regional civilians and soldiers, as well as hundreds of American troops. They nevertheless warned that Trump might have dangerously escalated matters with Iran and that this might be the catalyst that brings the US into direct conflict with the Islamic Republic.
Naturally, major Iranian and Iran-backed figures voiced their anger against the Trump administration and even gone as far as to vow to avenge their fallen comrade. In a statement issued by state media, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei stated that “the cruelest people in the world” killed an “honorable commander. He also said that a “harsh retaliation” is waiting for the US. Iran Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif tweeted that Soleimani’s assassination was an “act of international terrorism” and that the US is responsible for the consequences it would face. Leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah hailed Soleimani as a “master of resistance” and also said that “To continue on General Soleimani’s path, we’ll raise his flag in all battlefields.” Such calls for vengeance have not been taken lightly since the US called on all American civilians in Iraq to exit the country immediately and by any means necessary.
SOLEIMANI’S SUCCESSOR IS NAMED
Less than 12 hours after the US drone strike, Khamenei appointed General Esmail Qaani as Soleimani’s successor. Qaani has served under Soleimani for the past two decades as his second in command of the Quds Force, and now he has taken the helm of the group’s operations. Like most leaders within the Iranian regime, he holds extreme hardline views, furthermore having worked closely with Soleimani he is likely to pick up right where he left off.
The new year usually brings feelings of hope and optimismfor the future, however, the escalations in Libya and Iraq have presented the region’s inhabitants with more reasons to be anxious and worried. While it is still unclear what consequences this incident will cause, Iran and its allies will surely grow more resistant and hardline. Furthermore, Iran will likely be more emboldened to carry out destabilizing attacks in the region, especially against states that are allied with the US. Thus far, this new year is a continuation and an amplification of the conflicts that mired the Middle East into a state of uncertainty last year.