Monday, 20 Jan 2020

In Sunni World, Many Applaud Soleimani Killing

AMMAN - Security sources in the Sunni states mostly applaud the assassination of Quds Force leader Major General Qassem Soleimani of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the IRGC, and his deputy in Baghdad, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of Iraq's Kataeb Hezbollah.

"There has long been a hostile feeling by the Arabs and [Sunni] Muslims toward Qassem Soleimani," said Nabil Al-Otoom, a Jordanian analyst focusing on Iran. "The American move drew a strong positive reaction from public opinion in the region, and a strengthened U.S. presence in Iraq is becoming more important to stop Iranian plans to build a regional empire by 2030.

"His elimination has slowed Iran's plan to manage a military coup with politicians completely loyal to Tehran controlling the government," Al-Otoom said. "I can say that this American move was in the right direction."

But Al-Otoom and other experts foresee diverging impacts and new threats across the region. While they believe there is room in Syria for a significant rollback of IRGC influence, they say Iraq will intensify as the epicenter in the U.S.-Iran conflict.

Mohamed Ibrahim, a retired general and board member at the Egyptian Center for Strategic Studies, does not foresee a region-wide conflagration as the result of Soleimani's elimination.

"All Iranian statements indicate that Tehran does not want matters to slip into a state of war with the United States. The retaliatory response to Soleimani's killing will be limited," said Ibrahim. "But while the Arab states are keen on stabilizing Iraq and supporting its national army, the current situation does not allow us to contribute to this effort."

Iraqi epicenter

Zauba Al-Rawi, a former senior Iraqi officer, echoes many analysts in Arab capitals who think that until the targeting of Soleimani, the U.S. had shown too much restraint against the Quds Force. The transnational unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guards conducts military intelligence operations, organizes the region-wide training of Shi'ite militias and wages cyber warfare.

The largest of those is the 90,000-strong Popular Mobilization Force the Shi'ite brigades who won accolades by helping prevent the fall of the country to the Islamic State and condemnation for killing up to 600 peaceful demonstrators during this autumn's economic unrest.

"It is clear that the Iranians were surprised by this operation because they seemed to be counting on American diplomacy," said Al-Rawi. "President [Donald] Trump shocked them by proving he could play their game.

"Iran does not want to push the Americans into a comprehensive response, so they will act by kidnapping or killing the Iraqi allies of the Americans. They will hit an oil field here and an oil tanker there.

"But until now, efforts made by the Americans to improve the capacity of Iraq's national army never rose to a level enabling this army to regain one-tenth of its real capabilities," argued the former general, who expects Iran to double down in support of its Iraqi proxies.

Slippage in Syria

In Syria, Soleimani is remembered for the recruitment of foreign Shi'ite fighters and presiding over the massacres of Sunni civilians in the suburbs of Damascus.

At the peak of the Syrian conflict, the IRGC coordinated the defense of Bashar al-Assad's government with Hezbollah, commanded over 10,000 Iraqi Shia militiamen and deployed at least 1,500 Iranian fighters.

"The famous image is of Soleimani in Aleppo overseeing operations of besieging the city," said Ammar Kahf, executive director of the Omran Center for Strategic Studies in Istanbul. "He also flew to Moscow to ask for the Russians' involvement [in Syria] in 2015."

Russian President Vladimir Putin held talks Tuesday with Assad, where the Syrian Army commanders briefed the leaders at a Damascus command center.

"In terms of a direct impact on the Syrian government's military, I believe this may be a turning point in terms of Assad trying to distance himself from any conflicts with Iran," Kahf said. "And the Russians are also interested in not making Syria the scene for any American engagement with Iran."

In December, Russian airstrikes helped Assad's forces gain ground in Syria's northwest. On Saturday, the Russian news agency Sputnik proclaimed the capture of Al Tah, a village 45 kilometers from Idlib.

Yaroub Alshara, a former Damascus officer, believes Assad will now call on Russia to bolster his defensive posture even as it helps him gain ground in northern Syria.

"If Trump's new and unexpected policy continues, the elimination of Soleimani will have a significant negative impact on the morale and operational nature of the Syrian army," said Alshara. "This operation curbs Iran's ambitions in Syria."

Uncertainty in Lebanon, and cyberspace

On Tuesday, the IRCG warned Gulf states with U.S. bases that "any territory that is the starting point of aggressive acts against Iran will be targeted" and early Wednesday, Kuwait announced that its state-run KUNA news agency's Twitter account was hacked by intruders posting a false story claiming an imminent U.S. troop withdrawal.

"Kuwait has become a field of operations in cyber warfare, which raises a flag about this attack being also a warning to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Jordan. It's a simple message: They, too, can be targeted by Tehran's sophisticated digital warriors," said Barik Mhadeen, a Jordanian security researcher.

"The attack serves as yet another reminder that the information war is part and parcel of Iran's military strategy. One, they're not hesitant to use where a strike to the balance of power is needed. Iranian military has shown an advanced understanding of this edge and been utilizing it skillfully. It's a textbook asymmetric warfare tactic," Mhadeen added.

As for Lebanon, Mhadeen says regional states must account for the fact that killing Soleimani has turned him into a hero in Shi'ite communities from Baghdad to Beirut.

"It transformed him in the hearts and minds of many from a war criminal to an anti-imperialist who fell prey to fighting against the U.S. His assassination will be utilized to strengthen the victimhood narrative of Iranian proxies like Hezbollah," he said.

Still, Hezbollah's willingness to act on Tehran's retaliation impulse is being balanced with the risks posed for the Shi'ite militia's hefty political and economic presence if it were to lash out at Israel.

"Hezbollah is not only a military arm for Iran in the region but also an active actor in the decision-making process in the Lebanese state, constituting a significant social and economic bloc in Lebanon," said Hazem Dmour, General Manager of Strategics, an Amman think tank. "It will be weakened if a comprehensive military confrontation outbreaks in the region."

Source: Voice of America

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