Following the death of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani – head of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – in a US drone strike in Baghdad on 3 January, all eyes turned to Tehran.
Sadly, the killing follows a recent trend in the Western world, going back to at least 2003, of taking actions to achieve short-term objectives without considering the long-term consequences. According to a Pentagon statement, the strike was to prevent impending attacks on US military personnel in Iraq. It is interesting to note that on the same day, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported that a meeting of Arab tribes had taken place last month in Syria to discuss directing attacks against the US presence there – with Soleimani in attendance.
Whatever the truth of Soleimani’s activities, his assassination could have highly destabilising consequences for the entire region, none more so than in Syria and Iraq. Iraq’s interim Prime Minister, Adil Abdul Mahdi, has already stated that the attack has violated national sovereignty and could trigger another cycle of devastating violence in Iraq – with good reason.
This is because much of the chaos of the post-Saddam era was caused by sectarian conflict between armed gangs of Sunnis and Shiites, which was itself largely a result of the failure of the occupying US authority to establish a governmental structure which could accommodate all of Iraqi society and provide security to its various sects after the 2003 invasion.
Likewise, the so-called Islamic State, born from this post-Saddam violence, was able to command support across Iraq and Syria because it was able to provide security to the Sunni Arab population which their respective governments could not. On the contrary, Iranian influence in both countries gave the impression that the Sunni were being deliberately marginalised by Shiite-dominated regimes, manifested in discriminatory attacks against Sunni targets and allowing ISIL to effectively frame their struggle as a Sunni backlash to Shiite hegemony.
In this context, the US assassination of Qassem Soleimani has the potential to reinvigorate the cycle of sectarian violence in Iraq and breathe new life into the likes of Islamic State. Already, in response to the attack, the prominent Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has declared the re-formation of his militia in Iraq. The assassination also comes on the heels of another US strike which killed at least 19 members of Iraq’s Hashd al-Shaabi in retaliation for attacks against US positions which left one contractor dead and four soldiers wounded. The militia responded by issuing a warning for Iraqi troops to stay away from US bases.
Naturally, the US has the right to defend against threats to its citizens, and it is vital that its military and civilian personnel are able to operate safely at its embassy in Baghdad. However, as a consequence of unilateral American military action on Iraqi soil, the divided country has been put in a difficult position.
Any actions which may appear to condone either side will likely cause the government to lose support internationally and, more importantly, from sections of its own population. The last thing Iraq needs is more division, and the killing of such a controversial figure as Soleimani will undoubtedly do just that.
The series of interconnected proxy conflicts being waged across the region have added to the complexity of the situation. Take, for instance, the events of the Arab Spring, which have pitted the counterrevolutionary forces supported by the Iranian-led ‘Axis of Resistance’ against various armed opposition groups. For their part, many Western nations as well as Israel and Saudi Arabia decided to back the insurgents in order to counter and degrade Iranian influence.
This is yet another example of the dangerous Western habit of pursuing immediate objectives without a clear end goal. Many of the American weapons intended for ‘moderate’ groups in Syria made their way into the hands of Islamic State and al-Qaeda linked militants, to then be turned on the West’s regional allies including the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and the Iraqi security services.
The consequences of this myopic approach to Syria can also be seen in the north of the country, where militants backed by Turkey – a NATO member – have faced off with the US-backed SDF, creating friction within the bloc. Ironically, the Turkish incursion into northern Syria led to a power sharing agreement between the US-backed SDF and the Iranian-backed government of Bashar al-Assad.
Attempts to curb Iranian influence in the region have therefore come at the expense of combating Sunni extremism. The same Sunni extremism has been responsible for attacks on civilians in Europe and elsewhere, attacks which are feared to become more frequent as foreign fighters try to return home. For all the media portrayal of Iran in the West as a regional agitator and sponsor of terrorism, the reality is that it does not want to be surrounded by conflict-ridden countries – but it does not want to share its borders with hostile Sunni-dominated states either. In terms of regional stability Iran and the West are fundamentally on the same side – in terms of regional influence, they are bitter enemies.
Killing Soleimani may well have prevented imminent attacks on US military and civilian personnel in Iraq and Syria. It may even have seriously damaged Iran’s extraterritorial capabilities. Yet, the harm it may bring to the region could potentially eclipse anything that Iranian subversive activities ever would, making it the latest in a long line of short-term Western solutions with potentially devastating long-term consequences.