Tag Archives: Iraq

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

 

Making Mosul Great Again

The writing is on the wall. In a matter of days, the rejuvenated Iraqi Army will begin its long-awaited assault on Mosul and the political struggle for the soul of northern Iraq will commence. What’s not apparent to many observers is that the military seizure of this ancient city of 1 million people is assured; Mosul will fall. If the capture of Mosul goes “well”, the Government of Iraq will be in a strong position to broker a stable political balance in the north. But if the assault bogs down, all interested parties will begin hedging their bets about the future. Either way, Mosul will fall, and when it does, the divergent interests of Turkey, Iran, the United States, and Russia will come into play making this historic city the lynchpin in a global struggle over the future of the Middle East.

Strategic Mosul

The 2014 fall of Mosul to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) forced both Washington and Tehran to make strategic decisions. The Iraqi Army’s defeat in the north left only a thin line of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters between ISIL and the Kurdish capital in Irbil. If ISIL had managed to take Irbil they would have shattered the Kurdish diaspora into four distinct parts, forced its people into exile in Iran and Turkey, and obliterated the federated nature of the modern state of Iraq. With no consensus and no army, Iraq would have been helpless to prevent victorious ISIL formations from moving swiftly down the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in a final, decisive assault on Baghdad. There is little doubt that Iran would have intervened to prevent this, a circumstance that would quickly provoke a massive Saudi response leading to state-on-state Shia vs. Sunni warfare.

Strategic Mosul
This map shows what the situation could have been after ISIL seized Mosul in 2014. If ISIL had taken Irbil, the Kurds would have been exiled and Baghdad threatened.

Faced with this abysmal possibility, both the United States and Iran acted quickly. America rushed to rebuild the Iraqi Army and initiated an air war against ISIL that continues to this day. Iran moved to bolster President Assad’s forces in Syria and to mobilize the Shia population in Iraq. Disagreeing with Tehran on the acceptability of the Assad regime but seeking ways to cooperate against ISIL, the Obama Administration made a series of compromises on Iran’s nuclear program. Sensing an opportunity, Russia started its own war in Syria and made good on long delayed deliveries of advanced anti-aircraft systems to Tehran. Freed from American sanctions and safe under the umbrella of Russian top cover, the Iranian mullahs had a green light to continue their nuclear program and intervene openly in both Iraq and Syria.

Ottoman Style

Outmaneuvered and seeking to relieve pressure on Iraq, the United States pushed Kurdish allies in Syria to attack west from their stronghold near the Iraqi border. When the US-backed Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) — which Turkey considers the military wing of its mortal enemy, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) — crossed the Euphrates river and seized Manbij in August 2016, Turkey responded by invading the Syrian border town of Jarabulus, destroying its ISIL garrison, and threatening the SDF flank. Though militarily insignificant, the seizure of Jarabulus sent a defiant message to the United States that Turkey would not accept a unified Kurdish homeland on its border. The lack of a US policy on the future of the Kurds has continued to paralyze American decision making for months and shapes the scheme of maneuver for the upcoming assault on Mosul.

Having embarked on a policy of direct intervention, Turkey is now exerting itself militarily across the region. President Erdogan, seemingly without consulting his advisors, announced in September that the Turkish Army would take part in any effort to seize ISIL’s capital Raqqah, particularly if that effort involves the SDF. Turkish military involvement would complicate coordination of the operation and vastly increase the risk of fighting between Kurds and Turks during and after the battle. Implementing this would be so difficult that the move seems designed to prevent the battle from ever taking place. Erdogan is now doing much the same with regard to Mosul, threatening to invade Iraq if Shia militias are employed to isolate the city or if the Peshmerga enters its outskirts. Ominously, he makes sectarian arguments to justify his threats.

Power Play

The Russians continue to take advantage of the situation, playing to Erdogan’s narrative of fear and working to patch up a relationship strained by the November 2015 shoot down of a Russian fighter jet by the Turkish Air Force. American paralysis and Turkish concerns about the SDF gave Russia and Syria space to abrogate a shaky cessation of hostilities in September, achieving tactical surprise in eastern Aleppo and making a Kurdish move against Raqqah even less likely. At this point, a Kurdish deal with ISIL to protect the SDF southern flank is not hard to imagine; a development that would enrage Turkey and stiffen ISIL’s defense of Mosul. If the Iraqi assault on Mosul bogs down and Russia and Syria manage to achieve a breakthrough in Aleppo at the same time, we could see a general Turkish offensive all along its border from Mosul to Manbij supported in the west by a Syrian seizure of Raqqah. This could isolate the SDF and leave Russia, Turkey, and Iran masters of most of Kurdistan.

The United States is left with few good options. Its hopes for Mosul rely upon the effectiveness of a reconstituted Iraqi Army which is performing miraculously well but will have to operate without help from the Peshmerga that must remain outside the city. The Iraqi Army however, a largely Shia force, is not an ideal tool to control what has long been a Sunni outpost. This lends a great deal of urgency to creation of a more suitable constabulary that can stabilize the great city; what US planners call the “Wide Area Security Force”. Given that some front line Iraqi units are operating below 50% strength due to combat losses, recruitment will be only the first challenge.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s relationship with its western allies is now in tatters. The failed coup in Turkey allowed President Erdogan to consolidate his power and resulted in the ongoing purge of the Turkish military. That purge, and the Obama Administration’s refusal to extradite the coup’s alleged mastermind, Fethullah Gulen, has hamstrung the relationship between the US and Turkish militaries at a time when cooperation against ISIL is at a premium. The crowded airspace over northern Syria and Iraq illustrates how dangerous this disconnect can be: the Turkish Air Force remains off the Coalition’s order of battle and is therefore dangerously uncoordinated. American diplomats, eager to keep Turkey out of the Mosul fight, are limited to leveraging NATO to shape Turkish actions in Iraq; an unlikely and inefficient political approach that in better times would have been easily managed at the military to miliary level.

In the coming days, there will be a convergence of interests in Mosul, the scope of which has not been seen since 750 AD when the Abbasids defeated Marwan II near there, effectively ending the Umayyad dynasty and casting the Muslim world into a cycle of vengeance. To an extent, the fortunes of an army of Iraqi replacements will determine the future stability of Iraq, Turkey’s relationship with NATO and the United States, and the scope of Russian and Iranian influence in the Middle East. Though none could have foreseen the dramatic political events that have brought us to this point, we can all agree that they have made Mosul great again.


Lino Miani

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

Stealth Wealth: ISIL and the Myth of Oil

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has established itself as an extremely powerful jihadist army in the heart of the Middle East. The group is well armed, commanding a vehicle fleet that includes 2300 High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWV) and countless others along with enough weaponry and soldiers to manage a “state” of 300,000 square kilometers (roughly the size of Italy). ISIL is not just powerful, it is well funded. The group is reportedly so wealthy some members of the United States Government, without any apparent fear of hyperbole, repeatedly describe ISIL as the “best funded terrorist group in history” with oil as its main source of affluence.

The narrative is an attractive one. A wealthy terrorist group is novel and alarming. Fighting it requires new methods, new powers, and indeed new budgets. But it seems infeasible for the so-called Islamic State to accumulate wealth by selling functionally useless crude oil or poorly-refined petroleum products a truckload at a time. Survival alone must be very expensive indeed while under constant armed assault by a US-led coalition of 65 countries, along with Syria, Russia (arguably), Iran, and countless rival groups including the very capable Hezbollah. This gives credence to reports that some Sunni Arab states (allies of the United States) look the other way while their prominent citizens support the group.  Whatever the case, the mainstream media seems unwilling to question the narrative of ISIL’s oil riches.  The numbers however, do not support this idea.

Unbalancing the Books

Estimating ISIL’s oil revenue is complex and based largely on assumptions and derived intelligence but is useful for making the point that the group will have great difficulty profiting from the sale of stolen petroleum.

A generous estimate put ISIL’s February 2015 production capacity at 50,000 barrels per day (bpd). With a market price of $10 a barrel according to one Iraqi official, ISIL could theoretically make $15 million a month. But there is more to the story. ISIL does not control a single pipeline from origin to destination meaning they require 181 standard tanker trucks just to move all that oil, a very inefficient and expensive transportation method. Standard trucks of this type would require roughly four barrels of diesel just to make the 800-mile round trip from Kirkuk to Raqqah. That is 724 barrels per day ($217,000 per month) just to deliver to potential customers.

But ISIL needs fuel as well. A large percentage of ISIL’s estimated production would be consumed by 2300 HMMWVs, hundreds of armored vehicles, likely tens of thousands of civilian cars and trucks, heavy machinery for construction and survivability, generators, and heaters. With only about 70% of refined petroleum products useful for those purposes, ISIL’s for-sale inventory is down to somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,000 bpd. Subtract another 10% for likely corruption, loss, fuel contamination due to mishandling, and inefficiencies from distributed and improvised refining, that is 27,000 bpd before accounting for a single action by any of ISIL’s many enemies.

The Myth of ISIL's Oil
“Crude Stills:” A field refinery used by ISIL to process crude oil into useable forms such as diesel and kerosene.

All the same, 27,000 bpd is worth $8.1 million per month; not a paltry sum, but a far cry from the $50 million bonanza the United States estimates ISIL earns monthly from oil sales. It is also only one half of the equation. Though ISIL’s monthly expenditure is beyond the scope of this article, we must remember that its army of tens of thousands of soldiers is a very expensive commodity to operate. Those soldiers must be recruited, fed, paid, housed, equipped, armed, and trained. The wounded require expensive medicines to heal or keep healthy and their families must be compensated upon their deaths. If we compare these priorities with appropriation titles in the budget of the United States Army, we find that similar expenses account for 91.8% of the total US Army budget. Assuming ISIL has similar combat priorities, it is clear $8.1 million will not go very far.

Groupthink, Bureaucracy, and Confusion

If strained production capacity, distributed and inefficient refining, expensive distribution infrastructure, extremely high operating costs, and a questionable customer base are not enough to break ISIL’s bank, enemy action certainly will.  Unfortunately, there is a political rUntitledeason we keep hearing tales of the group’s fabulous riches. Since the Obama Administration began perpetuating the myth of ISIL’s oil wealth in August 2014, bureaucrats and generals have used the idea as a foundation for action. As early as September 2014, the Department of the Treasury sought authorities to target ISIL’s bank accounts and those of its financial backers while the State Department lobbied to block donations to ISIL from  citizens of Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Meanwhile, the Pentagon went after the group’s oil infrastructure, most notably in an effort to retake the Bayji refinery complex. Though this seems a refreshingly comprehensive approach to a complex problem, these agencies carried it out in the context of bureaucratic competition, particularly when diplomacy constrained military options or when bombing annoyed regional allies and complicated negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal. Yet amid the bureaucratic maneuvering, none were willing to question the attractive but invalid assertion that ISIL was making a lot of money…Until Vladimir Putin agreed with them.

Following the downing of a Russian fighter aircraft by the Turkish Air Force, Russia produced photo evidence accusing Turkey of being the primary consumer of ISIL’s stolen oil.  The Russian photos even implicated the family of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the trade. Despite their ambiguity, the allegations are troublesome for the mantra underpinning the policies of the United States, NATO, Turkey, and a number of other outwardly anti-ISIL stakeholders. The response from the United States came from special envoy and coordinator for international energy affairs, Amos Hochstein, who said that ISIL’s oil sales to Turkey are of “no significance from a volume [or revenue] perspective” and that most consumers are in ISIL-controlled areas of Syria and Iraq. Bizarrely, other US officials even questioned ISIL’s production capacity, pointing out that the group refines its stolen oil in “ad hoc desert pits equipped with crude stills”. Suddenly Washington was further complicating an already confusing policy by qualifying its previously bold statements about ISIL’s oil wealth.

The Cost of the Myth

Maintaining the myth of ISIL oil wealth was always an operational liability, incorrectly informing policy and improperly shaping decisions on the use of national power. It is now clear the tortured logic required to maintain the fiction is an international political liability as well and it is time for the United States and its allies to face facts and abandon the groupthink. ISIL is not enjoying a massive windfall from the sale of oil and instead is waging a successful war with more intractable sources of funding including possible covert sponsorship from some of America’s less scrupulous Sunni allies. Until Washington is willing to face the reality of ISIL’s oil wealth, those “allies” will enjoy political cover to support the Islamic State and Mr. Putin will continue to use America’s own rhetoric against it.

Lino Miani

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