Over the past few months, US President Donald Trump has been able to hit two high-profile targets in the Middle East. In October, the US forces surrounded a hideout of the Islamic State chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria’s Idlib province, forcing him to detonate a suicide vest. And on early Friday morning, the chief of Iranian Revolutionary Guard, General Qasem Soleimani, was killed in an American drone attack as he was being driven out of the Baghdad airport.
There are some vital similarities between the two strikes, but their denouement could be completely different.
Before he died, al-Baghdadi had almost been neutered and his empire blown into pieces. The assassination of the Isis chief was more of a moral victory than a strategic conquest. More so because the potential for retribution was contained by destroying and disbanding the Isis militias. The Iranian, however, was at the peak of his powers, and the potential for a blowback is immense.
Soleimani, like al-Baghdadi, was a very powerful man, perhaps even more than the Iranian president. He was, in his own words, the lord and the master of the Iranian policy in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan with deep and dangerous assets in the entire region.
Several years ago, in a missive to the US, he had underlined his own importance by saying “he is the sole authority for all Iranian action in the region.” He had also warned Trump, saying: “We are near you, where you can’t even imagine. We are ready. We are the man of this arena.”
Soleimani’s importance was based on his 15-years of counter-US operations in the region. As head of the Iranian Quds force — a shadowy organisation that operated through militias — he had started operating in Iraq in 2003, sensing an opportunity to build Iranian assets in the chaos following the US invasion. Since then, he had become an important figure in the fight for control over Iraq between the US, the al-Qaeda, the Nusra Front and its later avatar Isis, and Iran.
As a US defence expert told the New York Times, for 23 years Soleimani was the equivalent of the US Joint Special Operations Command commander, the CIA director and Iran’s real foreign minister. Many believe he was to be Iran’s next president.
Obviously, taking out such an important man in a drone attack is a big, big escalatory move by the US. It is fraught with possibilities of severe retaliation not just in Iraq but also in Syria, Yemen and Israel, regions where the Quds-backed militia have a large footprint. In this context, it would be worthwhile to recall what Soleimani had told the US a year before his death: “Mr Trump, the gambler, I’m telling you, know that we are close to you in that place you don’t think we are in. You will start this war but we will end it.”
The big question, of course, is why has Trump escalated tensions with Iran? The most cynical answer would be that he is trying to fight his way out of domestic troubles and setting the agenda for his next election campaign. The past few months have been a bit rough for Trump — he’s facing impeachment proceedings and his credibility has been hit by several scandals. Going to war with Iran may be a good and timely distraction.
The more charitable explanation could be that Soleimani was on the US hit-list for many years. For many years, the US and Israeli intelligence were trying to track him down. So, on Friday, when he was picked up by them, Trump ordered a hit. The pre-emptive strike may also be a message to Iran that the US was not averse to escalation and inflicting heavy damage on the Iranians for their role in the Middle East.
Be that as it may, Iran would now find it difficult to sit quietly, especially after vowing revenge for Soleimani’s death. One of the prime targets would be the US forces in the region and tourist towns that see a large influx of people from the West and Israel.
In all likelihood, a new cycle of revenge and retribution is about to unfold in the Middle East. The game is afoot.