The assassination of the commander of’s , Major General , by the United States on January 3, along with his right-hand man in Iraq, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was a surprising move for many. Soleimani’s assassination increased pressure on President in Washington and has already intensified concerns about a new war between the US and , which would be a disaster for the region.
On January 8,carried out a ballistic missile attack on air bases hosting US forces in Iraq in retaliation for Soleimani’s death. So far there are no reports of American casualties, but claims it killed at least 84 US soldiers. This has not been independently confirmed.
Was Qassem Soleimani a Bad Guy or a Martyr?
In Soleimani,lost a well-known strategist. Soleimani was the mastermind of ’s asymmetric warfare in the region, comparable perhaps to someone like , director-general of ‘s (ISI) between 1979 and 1987. Rahman was the architect of the jihad movement against the Soviets in in the 1980s when supported, organized and trained the Afghan mujahedeen.
This strategy is known as “death by a thousand cuts.” As head of— the external branch of the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) — for more than 20 years, Soleimani made it his mission to force the United States from the region.
Inside considered a “pillar of the itself” and has been portrayed as ’s most powerful man after Supreme Leader Ayatollah . Outside , he became a charismatic leader for many of Tehran’s allies like Hezbollah in Lebanon, Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq and other -backed militant groups in Syria and Yamen. He was also considered as a mastermind of ’s strategy in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria. After the defeat of IS, continued putting pressure on the US through proxies., Soleimani was
The Middle East has been squished into the spectrum of radical securitization and open hostility between aligned actors for a long time. Four decades of confrontation with the US and the–Iraq War in the 1980s pushed Tehran to adopt an asymmetric strategy to fight threats beyond its borders. US presence in the region has been perceived as the primary threat by Tehran since 2002, when President George W. Bush included as part of the “axis of evil.”
’s concerns intensified after the US-led in 2003. Since then, one option for was to increase the cost of the US presence in the region. Maintaining its regional influence and fighting real or perceived threats beyond its borders has been a key goal for Tehran, especially following the breakout of the civil war in Syria.
Potential for Escalation
Based on what has happened between the US andin the few last days, we can draw some conclusions. First, proxy warfare has the potential to transform into a full-blown war. On December 27, a US contractor was killed and four other Americans wounded when more than 30 rockets were fired on the Iraqi military base near Kirkuk. Washington accused Kataib Hezbollah, an -backed militia, for the attack. Two days later, the US launched airstrikes and killed at least 25 militia fighters, wounding 55.
The attack sparked violent protests by supporters of the-backed militia groups, targeted at the US Embassy in Baghdad. The protests brought back unwelcome memories of the 2012 attack on the US Embassy in Benghazi, Libya, that took the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador John Christopher Stevens. The embassy attack also brought up the specter of ’s hostage crisis of 1979. All these events have pushed the US and a step closer to a full escalation.
Second, responses to proxy warfare are not the same. For example, Soleimani’s assassination raises the question about US reluctance to take similar action against ’s generals who are supporting the proxy war in . On May 2, 2011, the Haqqani Network — a military branch of the Taliban based in Miramshah, — launched an attack against the US Embassy in Kabul.
The US accused told the US Senate that “the Haqqani network, for one, acts as a veritable arm of ’s ,” and that “with support, Haqqani operatives planned and conducted that truck bomb attack, as well as the assault on our embassy.”of supporting the attack. Admiral Mike Mullen, then chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff,
Since 2001, more than 2,400 Americans troops have died in combat with the Pakistan-backed Taliban in double game” that enables it to have both a relationship with the US while pursuing its regional strategy by providing sanctuaries for the Taliban.. has been denying its support for the Taliban and keeps insisting on its position as a “key ally” of the US in the war on terror. strategy is a “
However, the US treatsdifferently because their relationship is based on a combination of diplomatic interaction and tactical engagement. Also, pursues its regional strategy without insisting on political and ideological differences to fuel confrontation with Washington.
Washington justified the attack on Reuters, IRGC provided more sophisticated weapons to the pro- Shia militia in recent months. These weapons included Katyusha rockets and shoulder-fired missiles that could bring down helicopters. Despite these concerns, many were surprised by the unilateral decision to assassinate high-profile officials, with experts questioning US evidence suggesting an imminent attack on American targets as “razor thin.”as “preemptive action” to avoid further attacks against the US in the region. In April last year, the US designated the IRGC as a terrorist organization. According to
The Right Temperature
Third, countries have different proxy war strategies. In comparison, instructed the ISI that “the water in must boil at the right temperature.” He was worried about a full Soviet escalation againstconducts its proxy warfare differently to . In the 1980s, in the context of the Cold War, General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, the Pakistani president at the time,
However, it is hard to know what is the right temperature for avoiding direct confrontation. Perhaps Leaked archives of Iranian intelligence cables show that Iranian agents privately expressed concern about ’s brutal tactics in Iraq and their consequences.raised the heat too high by its bold involvement in Iraq and Syria. played a vital role in helping the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, mobilized tens of thousands of Shia militia from Iraq to Lebanon, and provided them with arms and military advisers. This level of involvement intensified the concerns in Washington about its future in the region.
Fourth, the US does not have a good record of fighting proxy wars in the region, but this should not create a false sense of confidence. After 2001, the US fought insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq, which had required a different military doctrine known as counter-insurgency strategy (COIN). However, the COIN doctrine resulted in no substantial achievement in either theaters.
In Afghanistan, the US ultimately started negotiations with the Taliban to withdraw its forces. This happened after 18 years of war that cost an estimated $2 trillion and tens of thousands of Afghan lives. appears to have won the proxy against the US to bring back the Taliban and undermine the Afghan government. The US failure in the region gave more confidence for Soleimani to play the game with confidence. For example, he kept promoting himself by taking photos on battlefields across Iraq and Syria, not unlike a rock star.
Fifth, severe revenge” for Soleimani’s death, but its conventional forces are no match for the US military machine in a direct confrontation. Therefore, will not fight a conventional war with the US.’s real revenge will come through the continued proxy warfare to force the US from the region. After Soleimani’s death, will pursue cautious methods without changing its main strategy in the region. has vowed to take “
After a ballistic missile attack on the US bases in Iraq, President Hassan Rouhani said: “Our final answer to his [Soleimani’s] assassination will be to kick all US forces out of the region.” already pulled out of the nuclear deal, and Iraq’s parliament has passed legislation calling for the US forces to leave the country. If it happens, the US will likely end its presence in Syria as well because the US bases in Iraq are critical for the support of US forces in Syria.
After Soleimani’s death, the situation is extremely unpredictable. Proxy warfare can provoke an all-out war whether with the US or regional actors. From Tehran’s point of view, the US is not the only threat in the region, with enemies such as Saudi Arabia, Israel and anti-Sunni groups such as IS and al-Qaeda to be considered.
Even if the US leaves the Middle East, the existing pattern of the amity/enmity between state and non-state actors in the region will remain stubborn for the foreseeable future. Therefore, it seems thatwill not gamble its whole capability on a full escalation with the US. However, any miscalculation can push the US and toward further escalation. If retaliation happens as tit for tat on a spiraling trajectory, a full-blown war could not be far away. This is how wars begin.
*[Updated at 20:40 EST on January 9, 2020]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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