Assessing the implications of Iran’s missile attack on Iraqi military bases

Iran IraqThe missiles that targeted American troops in Iraq a few hours ago offer significant clues about the evolving confrontation between Iran and the United States. The attack appears to have been largely symbolic —a somewhat rushed attempt to restore some of Iran’s wounded prestige following the assassination of its military commander, Qasem Suleimani. At the same time, however, it is also the prelude to a broader regional conflict that appears increasingly unavoidable.

There are two notable aspects in the attack. First, the fact that Tehran did not —as many expected— take aim at American targets using its proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, or Yemen. Instead, not only did the attack come directly from Iran, but the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), of which Soleimani was a leading commander, openly claimed responsibility for it. This is a major paradigm shift for the Iranians, who in the past have taken great care to avoid giving any indication of their direct involvement in military or paramilitary attacks on their opponents. It is clear that Q QuoteSoleimani’s killing is viewed by Tehran as too insulting to be responded to indirectly. This does not mean that Tehran will not revert to its standard method of employing proxies in the future. But the fact that it consciously chose to deviate from that time-tested method is in itself extremely important.

The second notable aspect of the attack is that it was markedly muted, especially considering the many options that are available to the Iranians. According to reports, 22 ballistic missiles were fired, most of which struck two military bases housing US troops in western and northern Iraq. The number of missiles fired is surprisingly low, given that Iran possesses the largest ballistic-missile force in the entire Middle East. Additionally, it is interesting that Tehran directed its attacks against the most obvious and predictable American target in the region —uniformed US personnel stationed in what is essentially Iranian-controlled territory. These troops have been on high alert since the moment Soleimani was assassinated. It is therefore highly unsurprising that no American casualties have been reported (although Iranian state media are apparently telling their domestic audiences that “80 terrorists” died in the attack).

The fact remains that, if Iran’s leaders truly wanted to cross the point of no return, they could have attacked American diplomatic facilities in over a dozen countries in the region, including Iraq, Israel, Jordan, and many others. Alternatively, they could have directed their ire against American political and commercial targets in Saudi Arabia, of which there are countless. They could have also sent an unmistakably ominous message to the global financial markets by attacking energy facilities in the region, or by blocking maritime traffic in the Strait of Hormuz. Or they could have carried out all of the above simultaneously, thus virtually ensuring a US response, which would in turn ignite an all-out war. But they didn’t —which should be interpreted that the IRGC is not, for now, interested in going to war. Read more of this post

Analysis: Soleimani’s killing was tactically flawless, but was it strategically wise?

Qasem SoleimaniBy assassinating Qasem Soleimani, a Shia celebrity and the Middle East’s most influential military leader, US President Donald Trump has made the most fateful decision of his presidency to date. Tehran has no option but to respond. When it does, the way that Mr. Trump and his administration handle the situation will largely determine the future of the Middle East and the fate of his presidency. In the meantime,Quote it is becoming increasingly clear that victory, if and when it comes, will not be unblemished for whomever claims it.

Mr. Trump’s decision to assassinate General Soleimani was shocking because it was unexpected. It must be remembered that, not only has this president based his entire political program on his desire to end America’s decades-long military engagement in the Middle East, but he had also in recent months signaled his desire to negotiate with Tehran. In the summer he said he wanted to “make Iran rich again, let them be rich, let them do well, if they want”, adding that no regime change was necessary. In December, following a surprise prisoner exchange between the US and Iran, Mr. Trump tweeted: “Thank you to Iran on a very fair negotiation. See, we can make a deal together!”. The news prompted one notable expert to speak of “a very positive step, because it’s the first time under the Trump Administration that Iran and the US have agreed on anything”. That was on December 8, just 25 days before Soleimani’s Quoteassassination. And yet, while publicly thanking Iran, Trump was likely formulating plans to kill its leading general.

Why did the president do it? To some extent, one should not dismiss his argument that he wanted to put an end to the slow tit-for-tat escalation of tensions in the Middle East, before it boiled over. He wanted to make Iran listen. Writing in The Washington Times just hours after Soleimani’s assassination, former CIA official Charles Faddis noted that Mr. Trump’s decision honored US President Theodore Roosevelt’s famous dictum, “speak softly and carry a big stick”. Your adversary is more willing to listen to you if he is able to “see the big stick, and he needs to understand you will wield it”, wrote Faddis. A few hours later, David Petraeus, former director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, described Mr. Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani as “a very significant effort to reestablish deterrence, which obviously had not been shored up by the relatively insignificant responses up until now”. Read more of this post

Analysis: Middle East on verge of new regional war as US kills top Iran general

Qasem SoleimaniIn an act whose implications are impossible to overstate, the United States has assassinated General Qasem Soleimani, arguably Iran’s second most powerful official. In the early hours of this morning, the entire Middle East stood on the verge of a regional war as the US Department of Defense announced it killed Soleimani in a “defensive action […] aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans”. But Soleimani’s killing will be seen by the Iranian government as nothing short of an official declaration of war. Tehran’s next move will determine the precise form this new war will take.

The United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia have targeted Soleimani for assassination for over a decade. In 2019 alone, Iran reported over half a dozen alleged plots to kill the general, the most recent of which was in early October. Soleimani’s killing is therefore not surprising. Moreover, Washington’s move rests on a number of crucial calculations by the White House, which help explain why US President Donald Trump made the decision to kill Soleimani, and why he did so now.

In the not-too-distant past, some of America’s tactical security goals aligned with Soleimani and his Quds Force —an elite unit inside the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is tasked with exporting the Iranian Revolution abroad. The Iranian paramilitary unit helped Washington deal with the Afghan Taliban in the days after the 9/11 attacks, and its proxies in Iraq and Syria helped the US and its allies deliver fatal blows to the Islamic State. But in doing so, Tehran solidified its power within Iraq, turning its government into a satellite of Iran. The rise of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), the Iranian-supported militias in Iraq, is largely a replay of the rise of Hezbollah, Iran’s paramilitary proxy in Lebanon, in the 1980s. Having painted themselves into a corner, America’s political leadership had to act. It chose to do so by essentially ‘decapitating’ the Quds Force, which is the main conduit between Iran and the PMF. It is worth noting that Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy head of the PMF, was also killed in the same strike. Washington’s hope is that these killings can somehow prevent —or at least curtail— the Lebanization of Iraq. Read more of this post

ISIS forces now patrolling nearly all of northern Iraq, says intelligence official

ISIS IraqThe Islamic State has regrouped, rearmed and refinanced itself, and its forces are now actively patrolling nearly all of northern Iraq, according to a senior intelligence official in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. The Islamic State, which is also known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), used to control territory in the Levant that equaled the size of Germany. But its forces were pushed back by an international coalition of state armies and militias, a development that prompted several heads of governments, including United States President Donald Trump, to announce that ISIS had been defeated.

However, senior military and intelligence officials been warning in recent years that ISIS is far from defeated. In an new article published on Sunday, the BBC reports that Kurdish intelligence officials see ISIS as a resurgent organization. The report relies heavily on the views of Lahur Talabany, the head of Iraqi Kurdistan’s Information Protection Agency, which serves as the primary security and counterterrorism organization of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government.

Talabany told the BBC that ISIS is today “like al-Qaeda on steroids”. The group has “better techniques, better tactics and a lot more money at their disposal” than the al-Qaeda of old, he said. The abundance of financial resources allows ISIS to “buy vehicles, weapons, food supplies and equipment”, said Talabany, adding that he is not sure about the precise source of the funds.

In addition to utilizing its strong finances, ISIS has exploited an ongoing dispute between the Kurds of northern Iraq and the central government in Baghdad, which has left large regions of north-central Iraq without an effective government presence. The militant group’s forces are therefore able to carry out daily patrols over “a huge territory, from Diyala to Mosul, which encompasses nearly all of northern Iraq”, said Talabany.

A large portion of ISIS’s forces appear to be based in Iraq’s Hamrin Mountains, which are riddled with deep caves and ravines. But the group maintains nearly 10,000 fighters all over Iraq, said Talabany, of which 5,000 operate as members of sleeper cells and another 5,000 are armed and active members of ISIS.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 December 2019 | Permalink

Analysis: ISIS leader’s hideout in Turkish-controlled part of Syria raises questions

Turkey SyriaIn 2011, the discovery of Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad raised questions about Pakistan’s knowledge of his whereabouts. Today it is hardly controversial to suggest that at least some elements in the Pakistani government must have been aware of bin Laden’s location. Last week’s discovery of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a region of Syria controlled by Turkey inevitably raises similar questions about Ankara’s role in the Syrian conflict and its relationship with the Islamic State.

The self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State was found hiding in Barisha, a village in the Syrian province of Idlib, which is located just two miles from the Turkish border. The region that surrounds Barisha is under the control of Turkey and can most accurately be described as a Turkish protectorate inside Syria. The area north of Barisha has been under Turkish control since August of 2016, when Ankara launched Operation Euphrates Shield, a cross-border operation conducted by the Turkish Armed Forces in cooperation with Turkish-baked militias in Syria. In early 2018, Turkish and pro-Turkish forces extended their territorial control further south, capturing Barisha and all surrounding regions. They remain in control of the area to this day.

Turkish-occupied northern Syria is often described as a “proto-state”. It is governed by a collection of local councils of Turkmens and Arabs, with some Kurds and Yazidis also present. These councils elect representatives to the self-proclaimed Syrian Interim Government, which was formed in Turkey by Turkish-backed Syrian exiles and is currently headquartered in Azaz, an Arab-majority city of 30,000 that is under direct Turkish military control. Azaz is also the headquarters of the Turkish-backed “Free Police”, a gendarmerie-style militia that is funded, trained and equipped by the Turkish government.

In addition to the Turkish troops, the region is controlled by the Turkish-funded Syrian National Army. The 25,000 troops of the SNA —which is jokingly referred to by the locals as the “Turkish Syrian National Army”— operate completely under Turkish command. A substantial portion of the SNA’s force consists of former Islamic State fighters who switched their allegiance to the SNA once they saw the writing on the wall. Others are former members of the group that used to call itself Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate that has become the most powerful Salafi-jihadist force in Syria after the demise of the Islamic State.

Turkish-occupied northern Syria is also the base of Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafi-jihadist group consisting of over 20,000 fighters, which is not officially aligned with al-Qaeda, but has similar goals. Since at least 2017, Ahrar al-Sham has effectively operated as a Turkish proxy militia and is in charge of dozens of check points and observation posts throughout the region. Lastly, the area is home to Hurras al-Din, yet another Salafi-jihadist group that is affiliated with al-Qaeda —though its leaders deny it. The group is able to operate in Turkish-controlled areas of Syria with suspicious ease. It was this group, Hurras al-Din, that sheltered al-Baghdadi in Barisha in return for cash.

Given Turkey’s military and political control of Idlib province, the question arises of how the world’s most high-profile terrorist leader was able to enter the region and receive protection from a militia that operates there under the watchful eye of the Turkish military. The New York Times reports that al-Baghdadi had been living in Barisha for several months before last week’s raid, and that Washington had been aware of his hideout location since the summer. Was Turkish intelligence also aware of the Islamic State leader’s whereabouts? If not, how could that be? If yes, why did it take a Kurdish spy, handled by Syrian Kurdish intelligence, to locate him and provide information to the Untited States? More importantly, what exactly is the relationship between Turkey and the al-Qaeda-linked Islamists who seem to operate freely in Idlib and provide protection to senior Islamic State officials in exchange for cash?

There are clearly more questions than answers here. If the United States is serious about combating Islamist extremism in the Middle East, it must press Ankara on these questions as a matter of urgency.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 31 October 2019 | Permalink

Opinion: Saudi Arabia will not go to war with Iran, but it may pay others to do so

Saudi AramcoEver since a barrage of drone and missile attacks struck Saudi Arabia on September 14, many have wondered whether the oil kingdom will go to war with Iran. Riyadh has directly accused the Islamic Republic of being behind the attacks. But the speculation about a possible war is baffling, argues Nesrine Malik in a well-argued article published last Sunday in Britain’s Guardian newspaper. Saudi Arabia does not “go to war”, she says —it pays others to do so on its behalf.

The war in Yemen is a perfect example, argues Malik. Even though the Saudi monarchy is leading the foreign military involvement in that war, Saudi Arabia is supplying almost no ground troops in that war. There are only Saudi commanders who are managing groups of mercenaries from Morocco, Jordan and Egypt. A large portion of the Saudi-led force consists of Sudanese child soldiers, whose families are paid handsomely for supplying the oil kingdom’s force in Yemen with what Malik describes as “cannon fodder”. The Saudi commanders communicate their battle orders to their hired troops via satellite phones and use unmanned drones and high-flying planes to attack the predominantly Shiite Houthi rebels. That largely explains the high civilian toll in that war.

Meanwhile, the United States government announced last week that it will be sending several hundred troops to the oil kingdom and will be beefing up its air defense systems. But Malik wonders why it is that Saudi Arabia, which has been the world’s largest weapons importer since 2014, and whose 2018 arms purchases accounted for 12 percent of global defense spending last year, requires the presence of American troops on its soil for its protection. The answer is simple, she says: the Saudi regime purchases weapons, not to use them, but to make Wester defense industries dependent on its purchasing power. In other words, the Saudi monarchy buys Western weapons for political reasons. These purchases enable it to get away with its abysmal human-rights record at home, as well as its kidnappings and assassinations abroad.

In the meantime, says Malik, if Saudi Arabia goes to war against Iran, it will do so the way it always does: it will hire proxies —including the United States— to fight on its behalf.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 September 2019 | Permalink

Analysis: Al-Qaeda shifts strategic focus to Syria while still seeking to attack West

Jabhat al-NusraIn an effort to remain relevant, al-Qaeda has shifted its strategic focus from Yemen to Syria but continues to pursue a globalist agenda by seeking ways to attack Western targets, according to an expert report. Following the meteoric rise of the Islamic State in 2014, al-Qaeda found it difficult to retain its title as the main representative of the worldwide Sunni insurgency. But in an argue published last week on the website of the RAND Corporation, two al-Qaeda experts argue that the militant group is rebounding.

The authors, Middle East Institute senior fellow Charles Listeris and RAND senior political scientist Colin Clarke, editorial that al-Qaeda followed a pragmatic and patient strategy after 2014. Specifically, the group remained on the margins and “deliberately let the Islamic State bear the brunt of the West’s counterterrorism campaign” they argue. At the same time, al-Qaeda has sought to remain relevant by shifting the center of its activity from Yemen to Syria. That decision appears to have been taken in 2014, when the group began to systematically transport assets and resources from its traditional strongholds of Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Levant, the authors argue.

Observers are still evaluating the implications of al-Qaeda’s strategic shift. Listeris and Clarke note that counterterrorism experts have yet to fully understand them. What appears certain is that al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, the al-Nusra Front, “proved to be the most potent military actor on the battlefield” in the Levant. It did so by operating largely independently from al-Qaeda central, which allowed it to act with speed in pursuit of a strictly localized agenda that attracted many locals. At the same time, however, al-Nusra’s independence effectively separated it from its parent organization. Many al-Qaeda loyalists accused the group of abandoning al-Qaeda’s principles and left it when it rebranded itself to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Levantine Conquest Front) in 2016 and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Organization for the Liberation of the Levant) in 2017.

Al-Qaeda itself denounced Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in 2018 and today supports a number of smaller militias that operate on the ground in Syria. These smaller groups appear to be extremely professional and experienced, and are staffed by “veterans with decades of experience at al Qaeda’s highest levels”. What does this mean about al-Qaeda’s strategic priorities? Listeris and Clarke argue that Syria remains al-Qaeda’s priority. But the group remains focused on attacking the West while also pursuing guerrilla warfare in Syria, they say. This reflects al-Qaeda’s overarching narrative, namely to fight in local conflicts while pursuing the “far enemy” (the West), which it sees as a mortal enemy of Islam.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 September 2019 | Permalink