The Middle East was in chaos prior to General Qassem Suleimani’s death. It remains in chaos after his death. Iraqis are on the streets protesting over unemployment, corruption and denial of basic rights. Lebanon is in a massive financial crisis with violent mobs on the streets. Libya is torn between two rivals for power prompting Turkish military intervention that in turn has led to a gathering of leaders to resolve the situation. The civil war in Yemen continues and will probably escalate after the latest Houthi missile and drone attack that killed over a hundred people. The Houthis are seen as Iran backed against the Saudi backed faction. In South Asia India faces street violence and a dangerous situation in Kashmir.
The US, Saudi Arabia and Israel triggered the unnecessary intervention in Iraq to bring down Saddam Hussein. The result is that more than half of Iraq is pro Iran being a Shia majority country. Saudi Arabia targeted Yemen and Iran gained influence there by backing the Shia Houthi faction. Iran now has more than a foothold in Yemen. Saudi Arabia led the strategy to isolate Qatar and Iran moved closer to Qatar. US-Israeli actions in Lebanon led to the creation and arming of the Hezbollah by Iran. The Libyan story is similar with turmoil and violence raging as Turkey intervenes. Qassem Soleimani read the evolving situation correctly having learnt lessons in the US supported Iraq-Iran war and acted in his own country’s interest to create a crescent of Iranian influence that exists and thrives today. His death though a great blow to Iran is unlikely to change the situation as his trusted deputy has been appointed as his successor.
Iran has retaliated with a missile attack on US bases in Iraq. The US has reported zero loss of life and minimal damage with the conclusion that minimum damage is what Iran intended because it did not want the situation to escalate. The US response to the missile strikes, considering President Trumps’ temperament has been subdued. The crisis has been somewhat sidelined by the admitted accidental downing of a Ukrainian civil airplane that is being fully exploited to pressure Iran through internal unrest against the regime. The general opinion is that Iran will not forget the Killing of its popular hero Qassem Suleimani and that its retaliation will continue over a period of time and in tangential directions but always directed at US interests. Libya, Iraq or Labanon could become future battlefields if the US strategy in the Middle East continues to lack clarity. Iran has ditched the JCPOA after having clung to it even after the US pulled out but Iran has left the door open for its revival in some form. The US needs a strategy with an end goal in sight.
The problem is that President Trump is being impeached. His tax and business records are being examined by the US Supreme Court. The trade war with China triggered by President Trump goes on though the recent US-China actions have sent positive signals. The other considerations are that the US Congress wants a say in any decision that takes the US to war, people are unlikely to believe any intelligence that the US puts out on Iran to justify its actions—not after the Iraqi WMD fabrications—and finally the world does not want a war especially after President Trump’s desire to pull out of prolonged conflict situations in the Middle East and Afghanistan. The massive US military-industrial complex that rakes in billions from the Arabs may have other ideas.
2020 is going to be a difficult and complex year because dangers lurk. India is reeling internally from Modi’s actions to change citizenship rules. Kashmir is in lockdown for over six months with unspeakable atrocities being committed by India’s security forces. The reckless US action of killing Suleimani has removed the fig leaf of proxy warfare that defined protracted conflict. A precedence has been set and the consequences are far from clear. The scene is set for hardliners everywhere to be more assertive—especially in countries where strong leaders rule on the backs of radicalized nationalist mobs.
What is needed is clarity in setting objectives and the priority must go to internal stability. Security is now defined in terms of political stability, economic viability, deterrent military power and above all diplomacy. This clarity will enable states to survive without becoming international pariahs and economic basket cases. Political and military leaderships have to chart the way forward for their countries.
(Spearhead Analyses are collaborative efforts and not attributable to an individual)