Category Archives: Security

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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The Apathetic American: Dismissing the Status Quo

Every December since the Affiliate Network was established in 2014, we seem to reflect on what a tumultuous year the world had. This year is no different. It seems so many things we took for granted since the fall of the Soviet Union are unravelling in some astonishing ways. Much of this can be attributed to the long-term effects of a rising China, climate change, or the Global War on Terror but there is a new and alarming contributor to the apparent dysfunction in the international system: American apathy toward the status quo.

Fluctuations

We began the year with a shutdown of the United States Government. Though it was the third such shutdown since the inauguration of Donald Trump, this was the most prolonged and severe in U.S. history. In Shutdown Security: Grinding the Axe, Lino Miani explains how the shutdown put tremendous strain on American relationships overseas and damaged U.S. security worldwide.

Latin America illustrates the wild fluctuations that happened this year. In January, Ligia Lee wrote convincingly that left-wing politics were on the decline in the hemisphere. In End of the Left: Latin America’s Right-Wing Swing, she describes a swing towards right-wing governments and voters’ frustration with leftist politicians. Just 11 months later, Christina Kirchner is back in Argentina, and conservative governments in Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador are under intense pressure that some may not survive.

American Apathy

Though U.S. apathy towards Latin America may arguably be the trigger for recent upheavals there, the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, feel the direct effects of American ambivalence. Nowhere did this hit harder than in Syria, where the surprise decision by President Trump to withdraw U.S. troops had a global impact on U.S. credibility. Many of our contributors wrote about conditions that, one way or another, can be seen as a growing recognition that governments everywhere desire to chart a more independent course than they previously thought necessary or possible.

Dr. Chris Golightly, a long-time energy industry consultant, wrote about Europe’s growing need to secure its natural gas supply from Russian domination. As he wrote in Mind the Gap: Geo-Strategy of Natural Gas, this will be much harder due to Russia’s growing influence in transit countries Syria, Turkey, and Ukraine. He also describes this influence in detail in his update to Green is the New Black: Making a Gas Cartel.

Dino Mora wrote an entire series of articles on the influence of Russia and its allies in Latin America. In his articles Around the Caribbean, and Measure Up Costa Rica, he tells the tale of Russian foreign policy backed up by Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua using Soviet-style active measures to erode U.S. influence in the region. In Venezuela’s Bad Neighborhood, Dino describes just how critical these measures are to the vital interests of those nations.

Perhaps most striking is the case of Japan. President Trump’s ambiguous and thus far mostly fruitless diplomacy with North Korea has come at a cost for the security of South Korea. At the same time, U.S. trade pressure and antipathy toward its long-standing security responsibilities in the region has allowed latent hostilities to rise to the fore between America’s allies. As Lino Miani wrote in Islands of Conflict, Russia and China are likely exploiting this rift. In Isolating Japan, he argues the U.S. decision to quit Syria further impacts Japanese calculations about its security relationships with the U.S. and its allies. In American Basing in Asia: Taking the Cow by the Horns, Gary Sampson proposes a new footprint that accounts for these realities.

Electioneering

Though elections are always important events, the Affiliate Network covered several this year that were particularly noteworthy. In Battle for the Throne: Indonesia Votes, Dr. Viana Geary explains why the Islamic “Green Factor” encouraged by the nomination of an influential Islamic politician, served as kingmaker in Jokowi’s re-election. The resultant shift in Jokowi’s priorities reflects the needs of millennials and women that together made up the majority of voters this year. In El Salvador’s Combative New President, Lino Miani describes the hopes and challenges facing the charismatic Nayib Bukele as he makes it clear he has no interest in maintaining the status quo of El Salvador’s political past amid a worsening relationship with Washington.

At a time when the world is fixated on tales of Russian interference in the U.S. election and the possibility of a conspiracy to do so again in 2020, it is easy to view democracy itself as under threat. After months of protest, three million of Hong Kong’s four million voters took to the streets to select the leadership for the city’s 18 districts. In How the Pro-Democracy Election Victory Could Calm Hong Kong, we explain how the results left the pro-establishment government in control of just a single district. After the election, the world is waiting with bated breath to see whether this victory will moderate the protests. In Sandra Torres: Under the Electoral Weather, Lino Miani describes how corruption threatens Guatemala’s electoral system. Lastly, in Overcoming Democracy: Italy’s Online Experiment, Jared Wilhelm warns us about the dangers of direct elections over the web.

New Relationships

Apart from the expert analysis, however, these last four articles are noteworthy because they were all shared with or from our new partner, Stratfor. As the world’s leading geopolitical intelligence platform, Stratfor’s partnership with the Affiliate Network has brought our work to new and broader audiences and complemented our native content in ways that make the Affiliate Network an essential inclusion in the daily reading of decision-makers everywhere. We’re thrilled to be recognized as a partner of such a respected organization and consider it a testament to the quality of work from our contributors.

As we look back on 2019 and prepare for what will surely be yet another tumultuous year ahead, we are very grateful to our readers and contributors. This year, however, we feel especially fortunate to have partners to thank as well. With that, we wish you and yours a hugely successful 2020 and hope that the Affiliate Network will be part of it.


Fred Hendricks, Editor, The Affiliate NetworkThe views expressed in this article are those of their respective authors and do not reflect the views of any government or private institution.

Fred Hendricks is the editor of the Affiliate Network and a Surface Warfare Officer in the US Navy. He has eight years experience working in counter-piracy in the Gulf of Aden, counter-narcotics in the Caribbean, and with NATO and allied partners in the Mediterranean.

Guarding the Games

At eight o’clock on the morning of 25 November, 27,000 Philippine policemen and women went on alert ahead of the 30th Southeast Asia Games. At a press briefing from Philippine National Police (PNP) headquarters in Camp Crame, the spokesman for the Security Task Force, Police Brigadier General Bernard Banac, explained the practical implications of an alert this size. Leaves are cancelled or denied and overtime prepared for the multitude of officers required to secure the Games scheduled from 30 November through 11 December. Though the official figure of cops assigned to the Games was subsequently reduced to 19,767, they come from six federal agencies and countless local counterparts. The large size of the Security Task Force (STF) is a reflection of the scope of security challenges in the Philippines in general.

Less than three years since the Battle of Marawi, terrorism in the Philippines remains enough of a concern that the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) will play a significant role in guarding the Games. What Brigadier Banac did not mention was that special operations support often accompanies security preparations for events of this type and will come from a variety of sources. AFP Special Operations Command will certainly bolster the PNP Special Action Force for contingencies; as will other participating nations that will demand direct involvement with security of their citizens. Though it hasn’t been publicly acknowledged, world-class counterterrorism units from Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia are almost certainly involved with response planning if not actually deployed in the Philippines. Together, the combined forces of the STF and regional Special Operations Forces is a significant deterrent but it may not be enough.

Scope of the Problem

Securing the 30th Southeast Asian Games is a massive and expensive undertaking. The Games are taking place at 46 venues in four “clusters” spread across several provinces and thousands of kilometers. Four police regions – Ilocos, Central Luzon, Calabarzon, and Metro Manila – form the core of the STF. They are in turn supported by the AFP, the Bureau of Fire Protection, the Philippine Coast Guard, the Office of the Civil Defense, and the Metro Manila Development Authority, as well as local agencies from the four venue clusters. Recycling security measures used for elections, the PNP announced a ban on guns, sirens, blinkers, and “unauthorized motorcycle escorts” in and around the venues. These are significant expressions of state power, the management of which would be a significant bureaucratic challenge in the most developed of nations. In the poor, diverse, and criminally violent Philippines, it a daunting task.

Unsurprisingly, the largest effort by far is in the Metro Manila region. The National Capital Region Task Group of the STF consists of 17,734 of the total force structure. Though Manila is clearly the biggest and most visible venue and the most symbolically important, this leaves a scant 2000 personnel to guard and manage the remaining venue clusters in Subic, Clark, and “Other Areas” which includes significant events in La Union, Batangas, Laguna, and beyond. The Coast Guard contingent responsible for guarding the surfing events at La Union and other water sports in Subic and Zambales accounts for fully half of that number; a lopsided disposition that adds security concerns to the growing list of complaints about the Games.

Whatever the reason for the perceived (and real) dysfunction of the event, guarding the Games is a massive interagency – and international – security challenge.

Problems with the Games began well before the 30 November opening ceremony. Construction delays and shoddy work led to some events taking place in half-finished venues. There were reports of incomplete paint jobs, lack of lighting, and in the case of the first football qualifier, a stadium without a scoreboard or enough working toilets. Transportation and accommodation of athletes however provoked the loudest protests as several teams waited hours for transportation and were then forced to squeeze into accommodations designed for half their number. The Cambodian team became briefly famous for forcibly occupying their hotel’s conference room after being told there were no guest rooms for them. Ever active in the Philippines, social media exploded with comparisons to the disastrous Fyre Festival in the Bahamas and the hashtag #SEAGames2019Fail trended on Twitter.

Guarding Games

President Duterte is sensitive to the fact these complaints reflect poorly on the Philippines as a whole. Perhaps feeling pressure, he announced on 28 November that the military, not the police or a civilian planning committee, would organize future events of this type. In Duterte’s words, he prefers AFP planning because “they think structurally.” This is an unsurprising reaction from Duterte who has been predisposed to military administration for some time. In 2018, he placed the Customs Bureau under the AFP after elements of the former were involved in drug smuggling. At times he put the AFP and PNP at odds, encouraging the military to prevent corruption by blocking PNP officers from entering casinos. He has a pattern of appointing retired generals in positions of bureaucratic power. Eight of his Cabinet principals are retired generals as are 46 appointed to lower level offices. This includes the former Chief of Defense that serves as Director of the Security and Safety Cluster within the Southeast Asia Games Organizing Committee. With government in Manila largely in the hands of former AFP generals, it is difficult to pin the Games’ shortcomings on the failings of civilian planners.

Whatever the reason for the perceived (and real) dysfunction of the event, guarding the Games is a massive interagency – and international – security challenge. Despite their best efforts however, the Philippine agencies tasked with security have limited funding and lack spare capacity. A number of powerful and longstanding insurgencies occupy the AFP in the country’s south while a well-armed criminal class empowered by the drug trade and enabled by entrenched corruption hampers the PNP’s ability to surge for the Games. The Philippine Coast Guard, charged with protecting the water sports, is well known for not having the budget to leave the pier. These obstacles are endemic to the Philippine government and are not likely to go away no matter how much “structural thinking” President Duterte manages to apply to guarding future games.


Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLC

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.