General Qassem Soleimani’s killing and the regional implications

On the night of 2 to 3 January 2020, the US performed an airstrike on Baghdad airport against a convoy of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) escorting an Iranian delegation. At least 5 PMF members were killed, including Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, leader of the pro-Iranian Kata’ib Hezbollah militia, and, more importantly, three Iranians, including General Qassem Soleimani.

Figure 1 – General Qassem Soleimani attending a State funeral.

Among the most powerful and influential personalities not only in Iran but in the Middle East in general, Soleimani was the commander of the al-Quds Force, the special forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in charge of overseas operations, and, as such, engaged in the management of the various pro-Iranian proxy actors in the region.

In the official statement released by the US Department of Defense immediately after the airstrike, General Soleimani is held responsible for numerous attacks which cost the lives of hundreds of American citizens in Iraq. As early as 8 April 2019, Washington announced it had included the Iranian IRGC in the list of foreign terrorist organisations that threaten the security of US citizens and the country’s national security. Washington’s decision created quite a stir as it was the first case in which a government-related entity had been included in a list of terrorist groups.

Figure 2 – U.S. Department of Defense statement after the aistrike of the night of 2 – 3 January 2020.

The killing of General Soleimani was the culmination of an escalation that began on 27 December 2019 with the killing of an American contractor in a rocket attack on the Iraqi K1 military base in Kirkuk, where US troops were hosted. The US administration blamed the unclaimed attack on Shiite fighters from the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), and in particular from the Kata’ib Hezbollah group. On 29 December, the United States responded to the attack on the K1 base with a series of airstrikes on the border between Iraq (especially in the al-Qaim area) and Syria against Iraqi Hezbollah targets, killing at least 24 militants. On 31 December, supporters of the Iraqi Shiite group demonstrated inside the International Zone of Baghdad, breaking into the US embassy complex and setting fire to the outer watchtowers; the US security forces used tear gas to disperse the demonstrators.

Figure 3 – Protests inside the US embassy complex in the Baghdad International Zone, 31 December 2019.

The 3 January US airstrike could pave the way for a dangerous escalation, as part of the confrontation between Washington and Tehran following the US withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – JCPOA) in May 2018. In 2019, tensions between the two actors periodically peaked, resulting in violent actions (violent ones too) especially affecting the Iraqi territory, the maritime area between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, and Saudi Arabia.

The decision to directly target one of the most powerful and influential representatives of the Iranian political and military environment could suggest a change of strategy by the Washington administration. Although there have been numerous unclaimed asymmetric attacks on US interests in Iraq that Washington blames on pro-Iranian proxy actors, in no case had the Trump administration’s response consisted in a military action targeting such a high-profile member of the Iranian establishment.

In addition to serving the purposes of US domestic policy (currently conditioned by a process to impeach the President), this change of strategy is also part of a Middle Eastern context currently marked by major protests in Shiite countries (Lebanon and Iraq) and Iran itself.

In the past few months, the population has taken to the streets in both Beirut and Baghdad to protest the ruling elite, faith-based divisions and, last but not least, the Iranian influence in the domestic life of both countries. The partial disaffection shown by the Iraqi and Lebanese population with the Shiite leaders and groups directly linked to Tehran in the past few weeks has probably prompted the US administration to tighten its anti-Iranian strategy, in order to exploit the current political developments in the region.

The killing of Soleimani will have major repercussions for the already tense relations between Washington and Tehran and, more generally, for the entire Middle East region. The risk of conventional warfare between Iran and the United States is currently low, while we can assume there will be a rise in small-scale conflict in the countries where pro-Iranian proxy actors operate. This strategic approach seems to be in line with the Iranian military doctrine, which at least since the late 1980s (after the war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq) has been less and less focused on the possibility of conventional warfare, especially due to the high costs and the lack of particularly important state allies (with the exception of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad), and more and more focused on the creation, throughout the region, of a transnational network of Shiite proxy actors capable of fighting – with varying degrees of skill and discipline – in specific localised conflicts.

In such a strategic environment, the direct and immediate consequences of the recent US military actions will be witnessed in all those countries that are variously linked to the tensions between Washington and Tehran or where there are significant Shiite minorities and Iran-linked Shiite militias: Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

As shown by the events of the past few months and the latest ones, the main front of the proxy war between Washington and Tehran will be Iraq. Iraq is indeed a key area to both the United States and Iran; neither of the two actors want to see their influence decline in the country. Iraq will most likely be the most destabilised country by the ongoing conflict between Washington and Tehran. Moreover, the latest events come at a time of political and institutional weakness in Baghdad: the recent socio-economic protests have resulted in extensive violence, the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi (accepted by the parliament on 2 December) and President Barham Saleh himself growing weaker and weaker. In the short term, not only could protests against US military presence increase throughout the country (especially in Baghdad and the south, where the main protests have been held so far), but there could also be a rise in miltiary operations by the various Iraqi Shiite militias (directly or indirectly backed by Tehran) against US, Israeli and, more generally, Western assets and personnel. In terms of security in Iraq, further US airstrikes on PMF and Tehran-related military bases and installations are possible. On the other hand, the possible increase in US airstrikes or a potential further increase in US military presence in Iraq could pave the way for a new conflict in the country between the Shiite militias and the US.

Asymmetric attacks on US interests, embassies or bases are also possible in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.

The possible repercussions for the other US-allied countries in the region are no less significant: in the short term, retaliations by the Lebanese Hezbollah organisation, as well as Iran-backed Palestinian groups (such as Islamic Jihad and Hamas) might target Israel. Tel Aviv’s decision to raise military readiness levels in the country immediately after Soleimani’s death was made official, is indicative of a substantial risk of retaliatory acts against Israel by the various Tehran-linked parties.

In regard to Saudi Arabia, the main threat is posed by Yemen’s Shiite Houthi rebels (more or less directly supported by Tehran) resuming asymmetric warfare operations. As happened in September 2019, new high-profile operations against oil infrastructure, reserves and gas-oil separation and stabilisation plants, refineries, oil pipelines and ports are possible too.

Moreover, asymmetric attacks on US ships (especially oil tankers) or vessels of US-allied countries are possible in the maritime area between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.

Potential retaliations against the killing of General Soleimani by the US include:

  • Asymmetric attacks by Iran-linked groups on US interests (embassies, military facilities, etc.) in Iraq and other countries in the region (especially those home to significant Shiite minorities).
  • Increase in protests and demonstrations, including violent ones, by the Shiite population against US facilities (embassies, military headquarters, etc.), in particular in Iraq.
  • Attacks on Western, Saudi or Israeli ships in the Persian Gulf.
  • Resumption of Houthi drone and missile attacks in Saudi Arabia.
  • High-profile attacks on oil installations, gas-oil separation and stabilisation plants, refineries, oil pipelines and ports in Saudi Arabia.
  • Retaliations by various groups (Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas) against Israel (an ally of Washington).
  • Escalation of violence in Afghanistan and Yemen.
  • Killing of high-profile US administration representatives in both Iraq and other countries in the region.