Hizbullah supporters rally in Beirut Sunday evening to protest the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, in a US drone strike. (Marwan Naamani/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Assassination of Top Iranian General Could Reshuffle Region’s Cards

One analyst cites ‘Pandora’s Box’ while another feels deadly US drone strike will ‘reinforce Sunni-Israel alliance’

US President Donald Trump’s order to assassinate Qasem Soleimani, head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, shocked not only the regime in Tehran, but the entire world.

The already conflict-plagued Middle East awoke last Friday to news that Soleimani had been killed in a US drone strike in Iraq, a move that the Islamic Republic vowed to avenge with military might.

Soleimani’s demise drew a wide range of responses from across the globe, from praise to condemnation, with some major capitals fearing serious ramifications, including the possibility of a direct confrontation between Tehran and Washington.

For their part, Sunni Gulf states stuck to classic diplomatic language, calling for restraint by both sides despite their animosity toward Shi’ite Iran. On the other end of the spectrum, Iran’s proxies warned of a significant response.

In a fiery speech on Sunday, Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Lebanon-based Hizbullah, called on Iraqi officials to rid their country of the US “occupation.” He said that Soleimani’s assassination marked an “inflection point” in the region’s history and threatened to set the Middle East on fire.

Regarding the Islamic Republic, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei stressed that “harsh retaliation is waiting.” This, in turn, prompted President Trump to threaten that Washington would hit 52 Iranian sites “very hard” if Tehran attacked US assets.

Yusuf Erim, chief political and Middle East analyst for TRT, the Turkish public broadcaster, downplayed talk of a major military escalation, telling The Media Line that global powers like Russia and China “won’t allow a war to take place.”

Yet Erim believes this does not preclude the possibility of Tehran lashing out in some way given that its standing in the region is at stake.

“I don’t foresee a scenario where the US and Iran will directly engage each other,” he said. “Escalation will be undertaken by [Iranian] proxies against US assets and interests, and the US military [by] targeting those proxies.”

Erim says that as devastating as Soleimani’s loss is for Iran, the commander was merely a cog – albeit a crucial one – in a military apparatus that has already been taken over by his longtime deputy, Esmail Qaani.

“While Qasem Soleimani was an important instrument… he was replaceable,” Erim said, “as the network of proxies that he created is well established and now part of a system that’s greater than the individual.”

The Turkish journalist even believes that Soleimani’s killing could provide the Islamic Republic with new strategic opportunities.

“Iran can exploit [the event] to come out a winner,” he explained. “Tehran now has a pretense to further escalate against the US and can pressure Baghdad into expelling American forces from Iraq.”

Phillip Smyth, a 2018-2019 Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has been in touch with Iranian officials and told The Media Line that Tehran was taken by surprise.

“I do believe the Iranians were caught off guard by the attack,” he said. “I can see it in how they reacted on social media and how the rank and file responded. There is a strategic pause. Now what?”

As head of the Quds Force – the branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps responsible for coordinating Iranian activities abroad – Soleimani masterminded the country’s clandestine operations. He was widely considered Iran’s second-most-powerful man, after Khamenei, with some describing his death as “catastrophic” to the Islamic Republic’s regional ambitions.

“If we are looking at the IRGC Quds Force, which is running an entire proxy army for the Iranian general imperial project, losing a person like Soleimani is quite a big deal,” Smyth asserted. “He was highly charismatic. He was a good leader…. [He] understood how to run a multitude of different groups….”

Sina Azodi, an adviser at Gulf State Analytics, a Washington-based risk consultancy, told The Media Line that the US decision to eliminate Soleimani “crossed” a red line.

“I think the assassination of Soleimani has opened Pandora’s Box in the region,” he stated. “Iran and the US have been engaged in all types of war – economic, intelligence, cyber and diplomatic – short of a military bout.”

Nevertheless, Azodi agrees that the latest round of tensions is unlikely to lead to a full-fledged military confrontation.

“Iran, in my opinion, will avoid engaging the US directly…. [Instead, it] will probably enhance its operations in the region – especially in the countries that are aligned with the US – [and in the process] strike at American interests. In Iraq, too, I think Iran will move to use its proxy groups to target US military personnel.”

Abdullah Sawalha, founder and director of Amman’s Center for Israel Studies, told The Media Line that the assassination of Soleimani signals a major shift in Washington’s Mideast policy.

“This will reinforce the Sunni-Israel alliance [and] strengthen the position of the Gulf states, as they have been able to drag America to take action…. It will push some Gulf countries to establish security and economic relations with Israel,” Sawalha said.

“The message is that the US will no longer let these [Iranian-sponsored] groups act with impunity,” he added. “The United States is able to take strict and decisive steps, especially with respect to Hizbullah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen and, overall, with all parties and militias affiliated with Iran.”

Moreover, Sawalha believes that irrespective of Tehran’s rhetoric, the Iranians’ options are limited.

“They could launch a cyber-attack or shut the Strait of Hormuz, causing a crisis in the oil market, or give orders to [their] loyalists to attack US interests in the region or US allies,” he said.

Erim, the Turkish broadcast journalist, believes that Ankara could be the biggest winner to emerge from the drone strike.

“If the US leaves Iraq, it will have to rely on military bases in Turkey like Incirlik Air Base,” he said.

There are also Iraq’s Kurds, whose leadership, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), has relied on the US for much of its security needs and – at least in Turkish eyes – might be useful in Ankara’s long quest to quell autonomy efforts by its own Kurds, who rely on assistance from outside the country.

“Turkey could provide security to the KRG in return for sealing the borders,” he said.

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