I penned a series of tweets on the consultancy page offering my thoughts on the Soleimani assassination. I have decided to gather them together, add some more material, and edit them into a blogpost. Here it is.
The US drone strike in Baghdad that killed Iranian Quds force commander Gen Qassim Soleimeni, a leader of the Iran-backed Iraqi Shiia militia Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and others is an ominous portent of things to come. This is a major US escalation born of miscalculation because if nothing else, Iran must respond in kind. â€œIn kindâ€ does not mean some form of direct military response. What it means is that the response will be costly for the US and very likely lethal for some of its citizens (not all in uniform).
Iran has to do so or look weak both domestically and in front of regional adversaries. It has direct and indirect means of retaliation against US interests world wide, and it has US allies as potential targets as well. The issue for Tehran is whether it wants to respond in kind or lose face. It cannot afford to lose face.
This is how wars start. By error. Given that miscalculation is at the heart of what is known as the â€œsecurity dilemmaâ€ and a major cause of war, why would the US engage in such brinkmanship? Was it presidential hubris? Could it be a distraction from impeachment? Have all contingencies been gamed by the Pentagon and the costs accepted? What is the end game envisioned by the US? Because global costs in this case are certain, whereas the outcome is not.
Before continuing, let’s first dispense with the arguments about whether Soleimani’s killing was legal or justified. For all the talk about norms, rules and mores in international relations, states ultimately do what they perceive it is in their interests to do and their ability to do so is determined by their relative capabilities vis a vis other states. That includes targeted extra-judicial killings across international borders. But being able to do something, even if the doing is legal, does not mean that it is necessarily appropriate or beneficial. Soleimani may or may not have been a legitimate military target (as the US argues), but his death is a very serious provocation at a minimum and at worst a precipitant to war. It includes Iraq as well as Iran in the equation, and given the posturing by Israel and Saudi Arabia (two of the few states that welcomed the killing), it could involve them down the road as well.
Whatever the case, let’s also rebut the demonization of the Quds force commander and place his history in proper perspective.
Qasem Soleimani was the equivalent of a special forces general in Western military organizations. He commanded the Quds Force, the clandestine, unconventional warfare arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). He was not the only IRGC general but he was primus inter pares amongst them and a revered figure in Iran. Think George Patton, Douglas McArthur and Dwight Eisenhower rolled into one. Having risen through the ranks on the basis of intelligence and bravery in battle, his mission was to fight, via covert, irregular and indirect means, all enemies of the Islamic Republic. To that end he was a loyal servant of his faith and his country, just as many honoured Western military figures have been in their homelands.
Soleimani was tasked with fighting Iran’s enemies and defending its geopolitical interests. Iran’s enemies include the US, Israel and the Sunni Arab oligarchies that are the West’s â€œfriendsâ€ in the Middle East. Iran’s interests include consolidating its sphere of influence in places where Shiite populations are significant, to include the Levant (Lebanon and Syria), Afghanistan, Iraq and Gulf states. It has an interest in undermining Israel and the Sunni Arab oligarchies. It has an interest in confronting the US military presence in the Persian Gulf and rest of the Middle East. It aspires to reclaim its place as a major regional power in the face of these adversaries.
To that end Soleimani cultivated proxies across the world, including Hezbollah, Hamas, a number of Shiite militias in Iraq and Yemen, and off-shoots in such distant places as Venezuela and Paraguay. These proxies were tasked with a number of unconventional missions, including support for the Assad regime in Syria, attacks on Sunnis and occupying forces in post-invasion Iraq, and attacks on Israeli interests world-wide. He and his proxies were and are devoted adversaries of Sunni Wahhabist/Salafist al-Qaeda and ISIS, to the point that the US provided air cover for the Iran-backed Shiia militias in Iraq during the war against their common foe. Read that again: at one time the US cooperated in combat with Soleimani’s allies in Iraq in the fight against ISIS.
It is true that the Quds Force trains, equips, supplies, technically and tactically aids and funds irregular warfare actors that use terrorism as a tactic. It is true that Iran-backed Shiia Iraqi militias killed occupying US troops via ambushes and IED attacks in order to hasten their departure from that country. It is true that these militias have committed atrocities against civilians, including market bombings in Sunni dominant areas of Iraq and Syria. But it should be remembered that the Sunni Arab world is not above such things, and the US has a sorry history of aiding, equipping and funding rightwing death squads throughout Latin America and elsewhere (anyone remember the “Contras?” They were, after all, an irregular militia attacking the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua). It is also true that the US killed thousands of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan in its self-proclaimed â€œwar on terrorâ€ (sic).
It is therefore a bit precious of the Trump administration to talk of Soleimani as if he was Hitler’s twin. He was ruthless, to be sure. But in that regard he was no different than most any other professional special operator, especially when the proxies that he helped organize and equip had and have considerable degrees of operational autonomy in the areas in which they are located (because tactical flexibility is a key to guerrilla warfare success).
Mention here of the sins of others is not about â€œwhataboutism.â€ It is about the reality of Soleimani’s profession. So let us return to the circumstances and consequences of his death.
The Pentagon statement that Soleimani was killed “at the president’s direction” implies a desire to distance the military from the decision to strike. Also, Trump falsely claimed that Soleimani was responsible for terrorist attacks “from London to New Delhi.” That is a distortion of the truth.
The vast majority of Islam-inspired attacks over the last three decades were committed by Sunni extremists, not Shiites. Although Iran was behind the bombing of the Israeli Embassy and Jewish Community Centre in Buenos Aires in the 1990s, attempted a revenge attack in San Diego on the captain of the US destroyer that downed an Iranian airliner that same decade and targeted Israelis in places like Thailand in the years that followed, it has been very careful in its operational focus, concentrating primarily on the region in which it is located. In contrast, terrorist attacks in Bali, Spain, London, France, Russia, India, Pakistan and the Philippines, to say nothing of the US, have all been the work of Sunni extremists supported by governments that are ostensibly friends and allies of the West. Given the silence that is directed towards these governments by the likes of the US, the claims that Soleimani and Iran are the greatest sponsors of terrorism in the world is a classic case of selection bias (at best) or rank hypocrisy (at worst).
In any event, there was something odd about how the US revealed how Soleimani was killed. The Pentagon normally does not refer to POTUS when describing extrajudicial assassinations, even though the president must authorize all strikes against high value targets (an Obama-era order that remains in place). It also does not go into long elaborations justifying why the targeted person was killed. Taken together, this suggests that the move was made out of impulse, not reason. In fact, it seems that the president acted against command advice and that the US military followed orders in spite of reservations, and now the spin is on justifying the strike.
The real test comes when the Iranians respond, which will likely be unconventional, irregular, asymmetrical and prolonged. This is not going be a quick conventional war, as the Iranians understand that the way to defeat the US is to not go toe-to-toe in a conventional force-on-force confrontation. Instead, the best strategy is to employ a â€œdeath by a thousand cutsâ€ global low intensity blood-letting campaign that saps not only the resources of the US military but also the will of the US people to support yet another seemingly endless war without victory.
Perhaps Trump’s advisors thought that a decapitation strike on Soleimani would paralyze the Quds Force and IRGC and intimidate Iran into submission. But a public signature strike rather than a covert operation removes plausible deniability and forces Iranian retaliation if it is not intimidated. Iran does not appear to be intimidated.
It is said that resort to war demonstrates the failure of diplomacy. The US “termination” of Gen. Soleimani may be a case of leadership incompetence leading to miscalculation and then war. There were options other than targeted killing by drone strike. There are overt and more subtle kinetic options if really necessary (the imminent threat argument trotted out by the White House and Pentagon is already crumbling under scrutiny). There are indirect means of demonstrating to the Iranians the folly of pursuing any particular course of action. But instead, a blunt instrument was used.
It is now clear that the US was tracking Soleimani for a while and was well aware of his movements and routine, to include trips to Syria and elsewhere. His planes were monitored. His convoys were tracked. His temporary quarters while traveling where known. His communications appear to have been monitored. There has been plenty of occasion to kill him and plenty of other places and means in which to do so without having to resort to a public display of force in the middle of Baghdad. He could have even received blunt warning–say by thermal gun sight imagery of his vehicle or abode–that he was in cross hairs. If it came to that, any attack on him that was not immediately attributable to the US would provide plausible deniability and tactical cover even if Iranians knew who did it, therefore making it harder for them to retaliate even if the message–whatever it is supposed to be–was received. Now, regardless of message, the Iranians know precisely who to blame.
Whatever the more nuanced options, Trump needed a showcase for his hubris, so a drone strike it was. In fact, this appears to be yet another act of bully-boy intimidation rather than a measured response grounded in a larger strategy. Even if the US had warned Iran about not having its proxies storm US diplomatic installations, specifically referencing the US embassy seizure in Tehran in 1979 and the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya before the storming of the US embassy in Baghdad last week, there were other ways of getting the message across without running the risk of escalation into war.
There is irony to the immediate sequels of the attack on the Quds Force commander. Follow-up US airstrikes on PMF militias may be designed to degrade their capabilities but are too little and late. The PMF is well-established and in fact is a para-military arm of the Iraqi government. Yes, you read that right. The PMF, which is mostly Shiia in composition but which includes some Sunni elements, acts as an armed agent of the Iraqi state. It is comparable to the colectivos in Venezuela and Turbas Divinas in Nicaragua– armed mobs that are used for domestic repression as much as for sectarian or anti-foreign violence. The signature drone strike was therefore an attack on an Iraqi government ally on Iraqi soil without its consent (or even forewarning, for obvious reasons). All of which is to say: If the Iraqi government now orders US out of Iraq in the wake of Soleimani’s murder because it violated the Status of Forces (SOF) agreement between the two countries, then the drone strike backfired.
That is because Iran then has an open field in which to exercise its influence in Iraq without a US counter-presence. Or, the US will be forced into another armed quagmire in a country where it is hated by Sunni and Shiia alike. It is therefore time for someone in Washington to get real about the consequences beyond Iranian retaliation.
As for Iranian retaliation, Trump threatens to have 52 pre-selected targets in Iran, including “cultural sites,” ready to be struck if Tehran does anything that results in US deaths (striking at cultural sites with no military significance is a violation of the laws of war and a possible war crime). But what if Iran strikes at allies? What if Russia sends troops to safeguard some of those target sites (Russia is a military ally of Iran and Russian troops fight alongside IRGC troops in Syria)? What if China (a supplier of weapons to Iran that has a base and warships in the region) also sides with Iran in the events things escalate? What happens if non-attributed but seemingly related attacks happen in the US but cannot be directly linked to Iran? The range of possible sequels makes all bluster about follow up strikes on Iran both reckless and hollow. Unless, of course, Trump has finally lost all sense of reason and no one in his entourage or the US security community has the courage to stop continuing his madness.
That brings up the calculus, such as it is, behind Trump’s order to kill. Perhaps he thinks that this will stave off the impeachment hearings while Congress argues about whether he should invoke the Wars Powers Act (WPA). He does not have to immediately request a WPA resolution but already Democrats have obliged him by arguing about not being consulted before the strike and about how he needs to justify it in order to get congressional approval. There is bound to be some dickering over the legal status of the drone strike but ultimately what is done is done and no post-facto amount of arguing will change the facts on the ground. Be that as it may, the impeachment process might be delayed but will proceed.
Trump undoubtably feels that this action will make him look decisive, bold and tough and that it will will shore up his MAGA base while attracting patriotic citizens to his war-mongering cause in an election year. The trouble is that the elections are 10 months away and the US military is exhausted from two decades of endless wars. Sending more ground troops to the Middle East only depletes them further. The US public is also disenchanted with wars with no resolution, much less victory, in places that are far away and which are not seen as the threat Washington makes them out to be.
If the US could orchestrate an air-sea battle with Iran that settled their differences, that would be another story. But that is not going to happen and is why the US is already sending land forces into theatre. This will be a multi-tiered low intensity conflict without defined borders or rules of engagement.
Iran knows all of this and will play an indirect long game. It will look to fight a war of attrition in which the will of the US public will be targeted more so than the capability of its military. It will endeavour to exact a death by a thousand cuts on the American psyche and its desire for war.
That makes Trumps bully boy assassination strike a triple miscalculation: a) it will not necessarily save him from the impeachment process and further adverse legal proceedings; b) it will not guarantee his re-election; and c) it will escalate the confrontation with Iran in unforeseen directions, with unexpected but surely negative consequences for US interests in general and for himself personally. The law of unintended consequences will prevail.
Perhaps there is a silver lining after all.