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As the world’s leading geopolitical intelligence platform, Stratfor brings global events into valuable perspective, empowering businesses, governments and individuals to more confidently navigate their way through an increasingly complex international environment. Stratfor is an official partner of the Affiliate Network.

The U.S. Assassination of a Key Iranian General Throws Fuel on the Fire

This article has been republished with permission from our partner, Stratfor. The original version was first published in Stratfor’s WORLDVIEW and can be found here.


The Big Picture

In response to the latest round of escalation between Washington and Iran, in which protesters in Iraq breached the compound perimeter of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad earlier this week — likely at the behest of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force Cmdr. Qassem Soleimani — the United States has taken the opportunity to eliminate the Iranian military leader and other key architects of Tehran’s strategy in Iraq. But the question is, at what cost? Iran will retaliate in a significant fashion, increasing the risk of further escalation that could lead to a direct military confrontation between the two countries.

See Iran’s Arc of Influence


It’s the spark to ignite a major conflagration: Late on Jan. 2, the Pentagon said it launched an overnight strike in Baghdad killing several officials linked with Iran, including Qassem Soleimani, the powerful commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force. In addition to Soleimani, the head of the Iraqi Kataib Hezbollah militia, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and the deputy head of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Naim Qassem were reportedly killed — although the latter’s death has yet to be confirmed. The Pentagon explicitly noted that among other reasons, the United States conducted the strike in retaliation for the attempt by supporters of Kataib Hezbollah to overrun the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone on Dec. 31, but the decision to target one of Iran’s most important military figures is sure to raise tensions between Iran and the United States in the Middle East to new heights. 

Soleimani’s death, which had followed a stark warning by U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper that the United States was willing to preemptively strike Iranian-backed militias in Iraq to protect U.S. forces, will reverberate throughout the Middle East. As the head of the Quds Force, Soleimani was, more or less, the peer of generals leading the U.S. military’s actions in Afghanistan or Iraq. Naturally, his killing opens the way for a significant escalation, as Iran could well target high-ranking U.S. military personnel in the Middle East in response. Ultimately, Iran will absolutely seek to retaliate against the United States — the only question is at what level, what scale and when. 

Here’s how Soleimani’s death might affect a number of areas around the Middle East — and the wider world:

Iraq

The risk that Iraqi militias backed by Iran would attack U.S. and Western forces, assets and, potentially, commercial interests was already high, but it’s just increased precipitously. Although Iranian-backed militias led by leaders like al-Muhandis were not popular among many Iraqis, the U.S. move to stoke a conflict with Iran on Iraqi soil will inject serious diplomatic tension into Baghdad’s relationship with Washington and fuel nascent efforts in the Iraqi parliament to reevaluate Iraq’s security cooperation with the United States. It will also complicate the Iraqi security force’s efforts to continue to work closely with Washington against the Islamic State.

Israel

Israel reportedly had come close to assassinating Soleimani a handful of times in recent years. And based on the missile threat that it perceives from the Quds Force and the Iraqi militias led by al-Muhandis and others, Israel will no doubt support this decision by Washington. But potential Hezbollah retaliation against U.S. interests in Lebanon could also turn into attacks on Israel, given the widespread perception in Lebanon — and throughout the region — that U.S. and Israeli interests against Iran and its allies are one and the same. In the worst-case scenario, that could touch off a separate fight between Israel and Iran.

Lebanon

Iran’s strong presence in Lebanon through Hezbollah makes the possibility of retaliation against U.S. targets there a distinct possibility. Hezbollah exercises influence in large swaths of Lebanon, including parts of Beirut, and has the capability to launch attacks against U.S. targets in the country. That risk will be even more pronounced if the death of Qassem, Hezbollah’s second in command, is confirmed.

Saudi Arabia and Gulf Oil Producers

It has been nearly four months since Iran attacked the Abqaiq and Khurais oil-processing facilities, taking half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production down. If the United States and Iran continue their escalation with direct strikes on one another, Iran could certainly retaliate against countries like Saudi Arabia, one of the closest U.S. allies in the region, and their economic interests. Each of the Gulf Cooperation Council states — particularly Bahrain and Qatar — hosts a significant U.S. military presence that Iran could target.

Persian Gulf

In addition to direct attacks on GCC member states, Iran could launch more attacks against the U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf. For most of U.S. President Donald Trump’s term in office, Iran has hesitated to use its naval assets to harass U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman despite its aggressive strategy to counter U.S. sanctions pressure. That, however, could change: As it is, the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group reported last month that Iranian naval ships had harassed it as it was leaving its deployment in the Gulf of Oman and Arabian Sea.

Syria

Soleimani’s death is a blow, but likely not a crippling one, to Iran’s ability to conduct its extensive operations in Syria. The United States does not have a significant presence in Syria compared to what it has in Iraq and the Persian Gulf, but the remaining U.S. forces in Syria are near Iranian-allied militia forces, meaning they could become a target. 

Afghanistan

Iran could decide to strike the United States in Afghanistan, given the target-rich environment of U.S. soldiers and military assets in the country, as well as Iran’s history of support for the Taliban. Iran is better positioned to strike elsewhere — since it does not directly control or direct the Taliban as it does other proxy forces — but the possibility of retaliation in the war-torn country cannot be ruled out.

Yemen

Iran could push the Houthi rebels in Yemen to launch retaliatory attacks against U.S. allies as well, even though Iran does not directly control that group, either. The Houthis maintain a robust arsenal of drones as well as ballistic and cruise missiles, which they have used to carry out attacks in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and surrounding waters such as the Bab el-Mandeb strait. Potential targets include, but are not limited to, airports, critical infrastructure, energy infrastructure, military targets and vessels transiting the Red Sea.

Beyond the Middle East

The threat of retaliation is not limited to the Middle East, given Iran’s history of conducting attacks against targets ranging from Latin America to Eastern Europe and South Asia, among others. Iran has also been linked to numerous plots in Western countries, including in Belgium, Denmark, France, the United States and the United Kingdom in recent years.


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How the Pro-Democracy Election Victory Could Calm Hong Kong

This article has been republished with permission from our partner, Stratfor. The original version was first published in Stratfor’s WORLDVIEW and can be found here.

Nearly 3 million of Hong Kong’s 4 million registered voters expressed their disapproval of the city’s current government in a decisive local election on Nov. 24 that reduces the Hong Kong authorities’ political potency and also gives the opposition and protest movement a mandate to push against Beijing’s control. In theory, the huge electoral victory gives only a marginal political boost to the opposition in an institution that is otherwise heavily tilted in favor of the pro-establishment forces and ultimately controlled by Beijing. Nevertheless, the opposition now has much stronger backing to promote its pro-democracy agenda.


The Big Picture

Hong Kong voters went to the polls for the first time since the city’s latest political crisis began in an election to select local representatives. The vote, coming six months into a protest movement that has gripped Hong Kong, amounted to a referendum of the city’s Beijing-backed leadership. An overwhelming victory for pro-democracy candidates significantly altered Hong Kong’s political landscape and dealt the current government a blow, weakening the key pillar Beijing relies upon to exercise control.

See China in Transition


According to Hong Kong’s Registration and Electoral Office, opposition pro-democracy parties won 77 percent of the 452 total seats up for grabs, giving them control of 17 of the city’s 18 districts. This is a sharp reversal of the pro-establishment’s near-dominance of the district councils (those groups held 70 percent of total seats and controlled all districts since 2015). The record-high turnout of 71 percent, compared with the 40 percent average for previous district council elections, reflects high political awareness among the city’s residents, who were energized by the protest movement and undeterred by street battles between protesters and the police leading up to the election and the strong security presence during Hong Kong’s only direct and democratic election.

A Symbolic Landslide

The district councils traditionally hold little political power beyond decisions over local community affairs. But six months of persistent — and increasingly violent — protests effectively transformed this year’s election into a proxy battle along partisan lines, with the defeat of the pro-establishment camp apparently weakening a key pillar of governance supporting Beijing’s control in the city. The result also energizes the opposition, boosting its prospects in next year’s Legislative Council elections and could give it as many as 117 additional seats on the 1,200-member election committee that will choose Hong Kong’s chief executive in 2022. Even with the momentum from the district council vote, it’s unlikely the opposition will be able to capture a majority in either the Legislative Council or on the election committee.

But the results do send a clear measure of the strength of societal approval for it to pursue pro-democracy measures. Ultimately this means the central government will be forced to address opposition demands in some fashion or risk drawing an even stronger reaction on the streets as well as more international scrutiny. The number of opposition candidates who take seats in the local councils, however, will also lead to political impasses with the Beijing-friendly city administration over community affairs, likely leading to gridlock over local enforcement for years to come.

Despite the strong performance by opposition candidates, the raw vote totals do not necessarily translate into a sweeping popular endorsement of the protest movement, especially its more violent elements. The opposition candidates won 57 percent of the total popular vote, an improvement from their average 40 percent share of vote totals in the previous two district elections in 2011 and 2015, but not a dramatic one. Critically, this year’s election outcome will not appease the city’s more radical protesters, whose confrontations with authorities have persisted largely irrespective of the city’s political process. But the strong performance of pan-democracy politicians could restore the prominence of the protest movement’s more moderate voices.

What Could Happen Next

The local election results could effectively infuse the city’s political institutions with the spirit of Hong Kong’s street battles. The election may also provide a window of temporary respite in Hong Kong, but it likely will not last much more than a matter of days or weeks. Several major developments in the near future could signal whether the election result will lead to spikes in protest activity or whether the opposition’s demands will be channeled into political action, even as the broader protest movement is set to stay. Here are the signs to watch.

What the Protest Movement Does Next: Protest-related violence notably ebbed on election day, reflecting a degree of unity in the protest movement. One test of that unity will be whether the opposition’s electoral gains will help moderate protest groups and pan-democracy leaders discourage the more radical elements in the movement from resuming their violent tactics. It also raises the question of how the election results will be used as leverage to push forward the protesters’ demands. In particular, a scheduled protest on Dec. 8 by the Civil Human Rights Front will be important to monitor. What happens surrounding that protest will show whether protesters of all stripes can maintain a collective front on the pro-democracy demands. Another key question is whether the radical wing of the movement will maintain the peace as it did over election weekend or whether there is a quick return to disruptive action.

The loss of legitimacy suffered by its ally at the Admiralty will effectively force Beijing to choose between offering concessions to Hong Kong’s moderates or taking the risk of energizing the radicals.

How Hong Kong Authorities Respond: Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said she and her government would “seriously reflect” on the Nov. 24 results, but ultimately, Beijing will determine how she and her government respond. As happened in 2003, when mass protests led to a similar defeat of pro-establishment forces and the resignation of several key officials, the election results will almost certainly cause more fissures within the administration and possibly prompt a few officials to resign. There is also a possibility that Lam’s administration could make political concessions to try to appease moderate protesters. Anything short of those gestures, however, will only deepen the political crisis.

What Beijing Does Next: The Chinese central government has issued no official responses to the election outcome beyond making convenient accusations, blaming “outside interference” for the result. Nonetheless, the loss of legitimacy suffered by its ally at the Admiralty will effectively force Beijing to choose between offering concessions to Hong Kong’s moderates or taking the risk of energizing the radicals. Thus, it may find the more expedient course of action will be to isolate itself from the mess by scapegoating the Hong Kong authorities and forcing the resignation of some Cabinet officials — and possibly even Lam herself. Beijing may even go as far as to influence the Hong Kong authority to pursue an inquiry of police actions during earlier protests — a key demand of protesters that the Admiralty rejected out of hand. Beijing certainly doesn’t want whatever concessions it grants to further embolden the protesters and the pro-democracy movement. But its more hard-line alternatives — especially the disqualification of a few of the recently elected pro-democracy candidates — would immediately inflame protests and push a resolution of the city’s crisis even further away.


Stratfor LogoAs the world’s leading geopolitical intelligence platform, Stratfor brings global events into valuable perspective, empowering businesses, governments and individuals to more confidently navigate their way through an increasingly complex international environment. Stratfor is an official partner of the Affiliate Network.

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Militancy in Tajikistan Could Draw in Outside Powers

This article has been republished with permission from our partner, Stratfor. The original version was first published in Stratfor’s WORLDVIEW and can be found here.


A Nov. 6 attack on a Tajik security checkpoint in Rudaki district near the border with Uzbekistan reportedly left at least 17 people dead, including 15 militants, a border guard and a police officer, though subsequent reports Nov. 9 indicate that at least five more security officers than initially reported actually died.

Authorities have detained four people suspected of involvement in the incident. According to the government, the attackers belonged to the Islamic State and entered Tajikistan from Afghanistan. Islamic State social media channels on Nov. 9 claimed the attack and attributed it to the group’s Tajikistan affiliate, though this has yet to be independently verified.


The Big Picture

The persistent threat of militancy in Tajikistan will demand the attention of Russia, China and the United States given the security interests of all three external powers in Central Asia.

See Instability in Central Asia


The Latest in a Series of Attacks

This is the latest in a series of recent militant attacks in Tajikistan. Earlier incidents included an attack on foreign bicyclists claimed by the Islamic State in July 2018 and two deadly prison riots allegedly tied to the group in November 2018 and May 2019. Whether the Islamic State, in fact, was involved in the most recent incident remains unclear; details on the identities of the attackers have not been released, and some reports have emerged that the attackers were natives of Tajikistan’s northern Sughd region.

The Tajik government has been known to exaggerate the threat of militancy generally and of the Islamic State specifically to justify security crackdowns and political consolidation when what it actually is dealing with is local opposition to its rule. If the government is correct this time, however, then the threat of a spillover of militancy from Tajikistan’s long and porous border with Afghanistan has just grown.

The attack on the security checkpoint in Rudaki district highlights the persistent threat of militancy of all stripes that Tajikistan faces, something of direct concern to external powers in the region — and especially given the U.S. drawdown of forces from Afghanistan. Primary among these concerned external powers is Russia, which has 7,000 troops stationed at a base in Tajikistan and has voiced concerns over the militant threat stemming from Islamic State militants in northern Afghanistan.

Tajikistan Map Rudaki District

China has also become more involved in the security sphere in Central Asia due to its concerns that militancy could spill over into its restive Uighur population; China, too, has a military presence on Tajik territory near the border with Afghanistan’s Wakhan corridor. And despite its intention to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, the United States has also remained involved in counterterrorism and counternarcotics efforts in Central Asia. Even though all three powers share an interest in preventing or mitigating the spread of militancy in Tajikistan, tensions between them could arise if any one of these countries unilaterally increases its security activities there.

What to Watch for

Details about the attackers: Further details on the identities of the attackers will help determine their links, if any, to the Islamic State or other transnational militant groups. Connections to the Islamic State would indicate a transnational militant threat has emerged in Tajikistan, as opposed to a domestic militant threat arising from local political and security dynamics within Tajikistan, where tensions stemming from crackdowns on opposition groups and lingering animosities from the country’s civil war in the early post-Soviet period still simmer. External powers are far more likely to respond — and Tajikistan is far more likely to allow them to respond — if the Islamic State was in fact responsible. It will also be key to watch if more evidence emerges linking the Islamic State to the attack, and if there are any indications of plots by the Islamic State to conduct further attacks in the country.

Tajikistan’s next moves: Tajik security forces are known to respond to such attacks with military crackdowns and security sweeps, particularly in opposition hotbeds like the Rasht Valley and the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region of eastern Tajikistan. It will be important to see if such crackdowns lead to further clashes between security forces and opposition elements, whether political or jihadist. This could create a more tenuous security situation in the country, with greater instability increasing the potential for external involvement. If the Tajik government perceives a threat from Afghanistan that it can’t deal with directly, it would be more willing to allow such involvement.

The position of Russia and other external powers: Russia’s reaction to the attack will be key to monitor, whether in terms of increased exercises or potential deployments of additional assets and personnel to the country. A day after the attack, counterterrorism units based at Russia’s 201st military base in Tajikistan conducted a military exercise that involved a mock armed group attempting to seize control of a checkpoint and military hospital in a cantonment of the Dushanbe garrison. Russia has also attempted to have its forces return to the Tajik-Afghan border in the past, something the Tajik government has resisted — though it might relent if the threat level rises. If such attacks increase in frequency and intensity, not only could Russia’s security involvement in the country increase, counterterrorism involvement by China and the United States could also increase — potentially fostering increased competition between these powers.


Stratfor LogoAs the world’s leading geopolitical intelligence platform, Stratfor brings global events into valuable perspective, empowering businesses, governments and individuals to more confidently navigate their way through an increasingly complex international environment. Stratfor is an official partner of the Affiliate Network.

www.stratfor.com