First off, the last thing we need is a war. However, we are now in one. There are many questions about this. Chiefly, WHY NOW? First off, Qasem Suleimani is not precisely a small target. He was the second in command of the Iranian state, loved by his troops and the man behind the Quds force. He was also loved by Sayyid Ali Khameni, Iran’s Supreme Leader.
The United States declared the Quds force, a military formation, a terrorist organization. Think what if another country declared the US Rangers a terrorist formation. Granted, there are differences, the Quds are more like the CIA than the SEALS, but you get the point. However, this gets stranger. While we have never been fans of this force, as is a classic of the Middle East, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Suleimani traveled to Iraq often and helped stand a force the Popular Mobilization Front (PMF). The deputy, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was also killed in the strike.
The PMF was instrumental in the fight against the Islamic State. They did not get in our way, we did not get in theirs. It was convenient and at times we may have even given them air-ground support. First off, the US has never had a coherent strategy in the region. According to the Center for Strategic Studies:
The United States has never defined an integrated approach to the wars in Syria and Iraq, or address how it will deal with Arab-Kurdish-Turkish tension, Iran’s influence, Russian presence, the bitter sectarian division between Sunnis and other sects, and recovery from fighting that has created millions of refugees and internally displaced persons, massive damage to the economies of both Iraq and Syria, and changed the demographic map of sects and ethnic groups in both states. It has never explained what will happen to the volunteers and fighters supporting ISIS in Syria and Iraq, or whether “defeating” ISIS as a proto-state will end the fighting or suppress violent Islamic extremism and terrorism in Syria, Iraq, or the rest of the Islamic world.
The United States has never shown it has a credible strategy to bring stability to either Iraq or Syria, move them toward recovery and development, or create some political structure in either country that can develop effective governance in spite of the deep division between religious sects and ethnic groups. The United States still clearly lacks any overall strategy that can defeat the broader forces of Islamist extremism even if it can drive ISIS out of its proto-state.
These days we have pulled out of supporting the Kurds in Syria and pulled out. And then came back in because of oil. Iraq has been a proxy battlefield between the United States and Iran, who are both fighting for influence. However, the Iranians seem more organized, or at least have the long view we lack. So they have helped to keep Iraq just on the edge of total chaos, and our bumbling is not helping.
So what about this attack? It changed the equation in ways that I do not think the president understands. I agree with most analysts who believe that neither country wants military formations fighting each other in a traditional war. However, we are not very good at that other type of war, Iran is.
And those who do not remember history. Remember the USS Vincennes shooting down an Iranian passenger aircraft? Let’s forget all the reasons, and counter-reasons cited by both sides. People at the time feared an open war as they do now. Remember that Quds force? Well, you may not remember this, because it was a flash in the national news pan. The wife of the USS Vincennes Captain and her children were very, very lucky. The bomb that somebody left under their Honda Odyssey smoked heavily and did not go off. It was a bigger story in San Diego, since this happened in La Jolla, outside the very large shopping mall. They lost the van, but none was hurt.
The Iranians did not take on the US on a frontal fight. However, they did in other ways, and that retaliation with the Captain’s family is exactly how they roll. They are experts in asymmetrical warfare, which is the precise way you take on a military with nuclear weapons with funding in the billions a year. And you calibrate your actions where going full kinetic for the US is not worth it.
Incidentally, with President Donald Trump that calibration will prove tricky since he is desperate to get a major event in the United States that will ensure his re-election and distraction from his domestic troubles. And I will go there because most analysts will not.
They also excel in something else that we are lagging. This is cyber warfare and other forms of hybrid warfare. Why do I say we are lagging? 2016, enough said. This is exactly what the Russians did (and continue to do) as well. It is cheap, it is effective and until Americans start practicing digital hygiene and learn to identify the propaganda, it will continue to work.
Was this an act of war as the Iranians claim? Yes. And in a state of war decapitation strikes are authorized. However, we did this against a state against which there is no declared state of war. Here, from Harvard Law Review:
In wartime, governments may use deadly force against combatants of an enemy party, in which case the peacetime constraints are relaxed. But in war, the enemy combatants belong to another identifiable party and are killed not because they are guilty, but because they are potentially lethal agents of that hostile party.
While we declared the Quds force a terrorist organization, they are still wearing a uniform and belong to a nation-state. So the gray zone present with terrorist leaders starts to melt. And we do not do that in peacetime because that may start a cycle of targeted assassination including our own national or military leaders. This may very well include the president and his family. This is akin to killing the vice-president of the United States.
Short term everybody who has half a clue is watching the Straits of Hormuz like a hawk. Why? They are quite narrow and quite shallow. They are not that hard to block off. All nations in the area are tightening security because they know that proxy forces, for which the Iranians do not have full operational control, may go freelancing. And by freelancing I mean a short burst of violence to avenge a loved leader.
Yes, some people in the region are also celebrating. The General was not precisely popular everywhere or with everybody. This includes Iraq, and we are in the process of deploying more elite elements to the Middle East. However, the number of troops, so far, is defensive. By military doctrine, a brigade is not enough to do much then defend some strategic assets.
How this will evolve is hardly the way the Trump administration expects. In this sense, our President has not read any of the classics, but he will learn. No plan survives contact with the enemy.
And if he was thinking of how this will help him with reelection, because 9–11 helped George W Bush to get out of the doldrums…some in his far-right base are starting to peel off. However, the president may be trying to get an attack on the mainland. Why? George Bush, and yes, you may call me cynical at this point.
Incidentally, I am not defending the general. Those of us who do follow international affairs know he was not precisely a lovely character. We also had a collective OH SHIT moment as the news was confirmed. However, there are reasons why you do not do precisely what Trump just ordered. Why? I hope he is ready for the consequences, some predictable, some not really.
This is a hell of a way to start the new decade.