The year 2020 and the new decade has commenced with a fresh emerging crisis in the Middle East. On Friday, Major General Qasem Soleimani, the Commander of Iran’s Quds Force which is a part of the elite Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), was killed in a US air strike near the Baghdad airport.
A top Iraqi militia commander, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an adviser to Soleimani, was also killed. Commonly, Soleimani’s name may not be too well known unless you were focused on conflicts in the region over the last seven or eight years.
His importance was his ability to foster a special force to look after Iran’s external security interests, in the regional context. The Quds Force which has no equivalent anywhere has been described by a US magazine as “analogous to a combined CIA and Special Forces”; a kind of an external intelligence service tasked to execute military operations on its own intelligence.
Iran has chosen to extend its influence in the regional domain especially in areas where some Shia presence exists and Soleimani’s Quds Force has often engaged in proxy control of local forces to fight for the overall Shia interest. The strategic Levant region from Iran’s western border to Lebanon, the virtual bridge to Europe has come under Iran’s influence primarily because of the strategy followed by the Quds Force under Soleimani.
His linkage with the Lebanese Hezbollah and Hamas has placed Israel on the back foot. And Bashir Assad’s existence has been contingent upon the strategy followed by Soleimani in league with the Russians. He may well have been the moving force behind the attack on the Aramco oil facility two months ago, which put Saudi Arabia’s oil production down by fifty per cent for a short duration.
The immediate context of his killing is the series of events in Iraq over the last days of 2019. US military facilities in Kirkuk were attacked on December 27 in which a US contractor was killed. The US responded with airstrikes on December 29 in which 25 militants were killed, an action viewed in Iraq as a violation of the country’s sovereignty.
It sparked a retaliatory attack on a US military base in Taji, near Baghdad, followed by a mob attack on the US Embassy compound on December 31. Some US troops from Kuwait were immediately redeployed to Baghdad and replacements for those sent from the US.
The US obviously was tracking Qasem Soleimani through its multiple intelligence means and President Trump apparently ordered the targeting considering it an opportunity.
There are mixed responses to the event with the US officially expressing its satisfaction at the elimination of what it perceives as the perpetrator of the killing of many US servicemen in the Middle East over a period of time.
The fallout was well explained by former Vice President Joe Biden when he said that “the US Administration’s statement says that its goal is to deter further attacks by Iran but this action will most certainly have the opposite effect. President Trump just tossed a dynamite stick into a tinderbox, and he owes the American people an explanation of the strategy and plan to keep our troops and our embassy personnel safe, and our people and interests, both here at home and abroad, and our partners throughout the region and beyond”.
The ethics of targeting a rival military commander in an undeclared war situation is something debatable. Within the US, no one will shed a tear for Qasem Soleimani but many are questioning the prudence of an action which clearly appears without a strategy and without an aim.
There is no doubt that the US intent should be to deter asymmetric actions that Iran undertakes to retain its relevance. However, it is certain that Soleimani’s killing is likely to lead to greater escalation with some form of out of the ordinary asymmetric action by Iran’s proxy forces.
Where, when, in what intensity and at what target is not possible to determine at this stage. This event will add to the ongoing debates on the prudence of President Trump’s Iran strategy. Neither Iran nor the US is in mood for war which both sides know would be unwinnable.
By targeting the Quds Force Commander, the US is also not anywhere near regime change which is its stated intent regarding Iran. Soleimani’s replacement may turn out to be even more competent as a military commander or even more vicious in his attitude towards the US.
There can be no comparison of this situation with the hunt for Osama bin Laden after 9/11; that was a strategic but equally emotional necessity for the US and his death did lead to the withering of Al Qaida. Soleimani’s killing is likely to create greater solidarity in Iran and not ease out the situation for the US. That is the mistake here which is being justified by Trump’s supporters as an opportunity exploited.
Many commentators are stating that the proxy war in the Middle East has now moved on to direct confrontation with the US targeting Iran’s resources, including a senior military commander. Much will depend on Iran’s response which could be directly at US facilities or of any of its regional partners such as Israel.
Iran has demonstrated its capability with the drone attack at the Saudi Aramco oil processing facility. Its scope for asymmetric action is not limited by any consideration and in fact is enhanced by the earlier clear US messaging of its reluctance to involve itself in another full scale unwinnable war.
How does this affect India? Any major strategic event in the Middle East has a direct effect on the price of energy and an escalation of three per cent is already indicated even without the full impact being realized yet.
With the Indian economy not doing too well and 80 per cent energy import necessary for India, it is one of the countries adversely affected. A subsequent Iranian response may increase this even more besides the turbulence that it may cause within the Gulf region where a large Indian diaspora of 8 million exists. Iran may not wish to respond in Iraq where it stands to lose influence as a result. The scene of response could move to Saudi Arabia. An ensuing Saudi-Iran standoff could worsen both the energy situation and the presence of expatriates.
Most former US military commanders believe that the US is not prepared for the turmoil resulting from the consequences of its act and that is what Iran will exploit in its own time. They ascribe this to President Trump’s proclivity for personal triumphalism.
Almost all political leaders and presidential hopefuls in the US are balancing their statements by describing Soleimani as a devious and evil enemy but equally call the act of his targeting as something insufficiently thought through and likely to place US troops and personnel at greater risk.
That is a prudent stand because escalation in the Middle East stands to no one’s advantage. In fact it would divert attention from the more important aspect of the overseeing of the final extermination of the ISIS from the Middle East.
To his credit Qasem Soleimani was one personality very largely responsible for the defeat of the ISIS. That was another time and another situation. Now his death threatens an escalation which could go beyond control. Hopefully prudence is what both Iran and the US will follow.
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