Category Archives: Middle East

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.


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

 

Turkey Races the Clock as Its Ground Forces Enter Syria

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.

Featured Image: (DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images) A Turkish military vehicle participates in a joint patrol with the United States in northeastern Syria on Sept. 24 that had been aimed at easing tensions between Turkey and U.S.-backed Kurdish forces. U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew U.S. troops from the area this week, clearing the way for a Turkish incursion.


The Big Picture

Turkey’s incursion into northeastern Syria is adding to tensions between Washington and Ankara. How the important U.S.-Turkey relationship evolves will depend heavily on how Ankara manages concerns over its operations in Syria.

See The Syrian Civil War

See The Gate: Standoff Against Daesh


Turkish ground forces, part of its military incursion dubbed Operation Peace Spring, rolled across the border into northeastern Syria on Oct. 9 in an offensive for which the first few days will be key. The Turks may have almost all the military advantages in this fight, but they can’t afford for their push to get bogged down, so they will attempt to seize their objectives quickly.

So far, it appears that Turkey’s initial aim is to split the territory held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) near the Turkish-Syrian border by driving down the middle to seize key roads linking the western and eastern parts of northeastern Syria. If successful, Turkey could further isolate the SDF holdings in the north and pave the way for additional assaults.

Situation in Syria 11 OctoberThe operation is focused on the territory between the border towns of Tal Abyad in the west and Ras al-Ayn in the east. The Turkish spearheads are attempting to advance around the two towns, which are about 110 kilometers (68 miles) apart, and then drive down to the M4 highway about 30-35 kilometers away that runs on a parallel course to the border. Aside from Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, both of which have a population of about 200,000, this territory is relatively sparsely populated and flat. The terrain and the dearth of major urban centers will significantly facilitate the Turkish advance, unlike the situation its military faced during its operations in Afrin and northern Aleppo.

The Turkish offensive relies heavily on Syrian rebel proxies of the so-called Syrian National Army, which consists of units of disparate combat effectiveness and discipline. Components from the Turkish army consisting of mechanized infantry, armor, engineers and special operations forces stiffen these Syrian units. Large numbers of artillery and significant air support abet these ground forces. Against this powerful force, the SDF’s roughly 40,000 fighters consist predominantly of light infantry forces with little in the way of heavy equipment, artillery or armored vehicles. Their lack of heavy weaponry will make it difficult for the SDF to stand up against the heavily equipped Turkish offensive in the flat terrain, driving them to focus their defense on the villages and small towns within this zone. This strategy puts SDF troops at risk of being surrounded and cut off by the mobile Turkish units, something that is already apparent in the way the Turks have attempted to surround Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn.

The Syrian Democratic Forces’ military disadvantages increase the likelihood it could seek an accommodation with Russia or the Syrian government in return for additional support.

Disadvantaged by the local geography and inadequately equipped, the SDF will be hard-pressed to hold back the Turkish offensive. This disadvantage adds to the likelihood the SDF could seek an accommodation with Russia and even the Syrian government in return for additional support. Even an influx of anti-tank guided missiles from the Syrian government could do much to inflict considerable casualties on the Turks and their Syrian rebel allies. The Syrian government, however, recognizing that the SDF is in trouble, will press hard for significant concessions in return for any support, likely including the demand that the SDF hand over key energy fields in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour.

As the SDF attempts to buy time and shore up external assistance, the Turks will be attempting to move their offensive as quickly as possible to minimize the international backlash that is already evident against it. In these early days of its move into Syria, Turkey’s most effective ally will be speed.


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

A Major Attack on Saudi Aramco Leaves the U.S. in a Difficult Spot

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

As the United States intensifies its campaign of maximum economic pressure against Iran, Tehran is seeking ways to escape the straitjacket that oil sanctions have put it in. The U.S. blames Iran for a serious Sept. 14 attack against Saudi oil infrastructure, and the aftermath is likely to reveal Iran’s boldness, Saudi Arabia’s risk aversion and the difficult decision Washington must weigh as it chooses how to respond.

See the U.S. and the Balance of Power

See Iran’s Arc of Influence


Attacks on Sept. 14 apparently conducted with cruise missiles and drones targeted the Abqaiq and Khurais crude-processing and stabilization facilities belonging to Saudi Arabian Oil Co., knocking 5.7 million barrels per day of crude oil production offline — 5 percent of the global daily total. Although Yemen’s Houthi rebels quickly claimed responsibility, the United States asserted that the attacks did not originate from Yemen and were conducted with Iranian help. Details released in the aftermath of the attacks seem to corroborate at least the U.S. claim that they were launched from outside Yemen.

The Iranian Calculation

If this was indeed Iran directly attacking targets in Saudi Arabia, it marks a brazen escalation in its efforts to maintain and strengthen its political and military standing in the Middle East and Persian Gulf. It would also track with Iranian efforts to seek relief from increasing U.S. pressure. Iran has demonstrated with a number of recent attacks that it is willing to aggressively push back against the United States and its allies as it tries to break the current cycle of heavy oil sanctions and economic pressure.

With the United States blaming Iran, the odds that the United States or its allies would retaliate militarily against Iranian-linked targets, if not Iran itself, have risen significantly. In the hours after the attack, U.S. President Donald Trump stated that the United States was “locked and loaded” and waiting for final verification of Iranian involvement before deciding how to respond. The Iranians undoubtedly understand that attacks such as these could provoke a U.S. military response, but they are clearly willing to accept that risk and may even calculate that Trump would not be willing to chance a serious and highly damaging military conflict in the lead-up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Alongside these attacks, the Iranians are also seeking to drive a parallel negotiation, mostly through the Europeans, to offer an alternative path toward de-escalation that the Americans could take.

The Case Against a Houthi Attack

Given the facilities’ geographic location, the Saudi air defense focus on Yemen, the angles of impact, the overflight reports over Kuwait and debris recovered from a failed cruise missile, it is quite likely that the attacks came from Iraqi or Iranian territory — or both. It is also possible that some of the drones could have been sea-launched. Regardless, the attack vector these details indicate more directly implicates Iran and/or its direct proxies in Iraq, increasing the danger of escalation. U.S. officials concluded in May that an attack on Saudi pumping stations originated from Iraq. Although that incident left only a fraction of the damage as the destruction of Sept. 14, it drove home how Iraq could be used as a staging ground for attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure.

Saudi Abqaiq and Khurais Infrastructure Attacks

An attack of that magnitude, however, will decrease the likelihood that the United States would be able to hold meaningful talks with Iran in the short term. The White House has already taken a generally hard-line stance on Iran, and the United States will be loath to back off in the aftermath of this major assault. It will not want to project weakness by allowing Iran to dictate events and will be concerned that too soft a response would send a message that could encourage other states it has disputes with, such as North Korea, to act provocatively. In addition, as the global hegemon, the United States has a vital stake in preserving the free flow of commerce and energy resources.

The Decisions Ahead

The United States now faces a difficult decision. Washington may calculate that an attack of this magnitude on critical Saudi oil infrastructure requires a military response to establish deterrence. But thus far, Trump has been unwilling to take actions that could escalate U.S. military commitments in the Middle East as Washington seeks to shift its focus and resources to the Western Pacific and Europe. Therefore, the United States will likely seek to commit to a response in conjunction with local allies, placing an added emphasis on the reactions by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

Saudi hesitance to embroil itself in a major conflict is clear already. Saudi and U.S. intelligence so far agree that cruise missiles were used in the attack, but Saudi Arabia has stopped short of concurring with the U.S. assessment that Iran provided the staging ground for the attack. Riyadh’s cautious response reflects Saudi Arabia’s general course of risk avoidance and its desire to avoid the disruption of a major Gulf conflict. If the attack came from Yemen, Riyadh would face an easier, albeit still costly, choice of further pummeling the Houthis there. This course would not require a strategic readjustment since the Saudis are already heavily engaged there. But with the evidence pointing toward the attack originating from Iraq or from Iran, the Saudis now face the decision of supporting a U.S. military response at the risk of escalation in its struggle to contain Iran. And despite a clear hesitance to stoke a broader conflict, the attack confronts Saudi Arabia with the clear, glaring vulnerability of its oil and gas infrastructure in a way that could drive Riyadh to support a U.S. military response.


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