Main Image Credit Courtesy of Ahodges7/Wikimedia Commons.
Iran is striking back for the killing of one of its top commanders. A real test of US resolve in the Middle East is beginning.
In the days following the assassination of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani, the foremost question being put to analysts was when, where, and how Iran would retaliate. The consensus was that Iran would bide its time, and then set about killing Americans in a manner that prevented runaway escalation. Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan were primary candidates for where it would begin. There was little consensus on timing, except that it would come after the Iranian parliamentary elections. An Israeli colleague made one prescient observation: be careful on anniversaries.
On what would have been Soleimani’s 63rd birthday – 11 March – a salvo of Katyusha rockets struck Camp Taji, north of Baghdad. The 18 rockets that made it to the target area killed two Americans and a British medic, wounding 14 others. There have been four subsequent rocket attacks including a follow up strike in daylight against Camp Taji, and a salvo against Camp Besmayah. The Katyushas were launched from modified civilian vehicles and pre-emplaced rocket pods, proving that they were the result of planning and coordination. A new group calling itself the Revolutionary League claimed responsibility, via a Hizbullah-linked media channel, though the personnel responsible appear to be from Khateib Hizbullah.
The US’s immediate response proved poorly planned and counterproductive. Following the initial rocket attack on Camp Taji, US warplanes struck targets associated with Khateib Hizbullah on 13 March, but failed to inflict damage to the militia, and instead killed three Iraqi soldiers, two policemen and a civilian. Iraqis are now taking casualties from both sides. US forces have subsequently withdrawn from Al-Qaem and other bases, reducing the number of targets and setting up point defence systems to protect their personnel.
Deterring these attacks will be difficult. Prior to October 2019, Iran was holding its proxies on a tight rein, concerned that uncoordinated attacks could lead to unmanaged escalation as Tehran carried out its own strikes on shipping and oil facilities. At that time attacks from Iraqi groups could therefore be seen as originating from a change in Iranian policy, and the US made clear that Iran would be held responsible. However, following Soleimani’s death, Tehran said that it would not instruct, but would also not seek to prevent, proxies from acting independently. For many of Soleimani’s former allies avenging his killing is personal, besides which Khateib Hizbullah are eager to pay the US in kind for the killing of their leader Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis. There is no clear mechanism of accountability therefore between these recent attacks in Iraq and Tehran.
Striking Iraqi groups in retaliation comes with its own risks. The Popular Mobilisation Forces, within which Khateib Hizbullah, Asabi Ahl Al-Haq, and other elements of the Revolutionary League are nested, is closely integrated into the Iraqi military and police, or have offices in densely populated civilian areas. Killing them will see Iraqis caught in the crossfire, and in turn increase pressure for international forces to leave. This is precisely what the Revolutionary League is hoping to provoke.
And yet many Iraqis are deeply concerned at the prospect of a withdrawal of international forces. In the first instance the loss of intelligence and targeting support will significantly reduce Iraq’s capacity to proactively target the remnants of the Islamic State. The Islamic State will not ‘return’ in its old form, but the fight against it would likely shift from its hideouts in the mountains to insurgent attacks on Iraq’s streets. Furthermore if Iraq is ceded to Iran then Washington will have few reasons not to cut Iraq’s waivers on imports from Iran, and impose sanctions. That would be economically catastrophic for Baghdad, especially at a time when oil is heading towards $20 a barrel, leaving a gaping hole in Iraq’s budget. Few Iraqis will say it publicly, but in private many officials are resigned to the need for coalition forces to stay. It is unsurprising, in this context, that the latest Prime Minister designate, Adnan Zurfi, is once again someone on good terms with the US.
We are therefore at a critical juncture. The Iraqi military has not conducted any raids, made arrests, or sought to punish the Revolutionary League for killing Iraqi soldiers – let alone those from the coalition – showing just how far the militias have taken over the levers of power. If the US wants to retain its position it will need to make clear to Iraqi politicians aligned with the Revolutionary League that they will be held accountable for attacks on coalition forces. The US would need to make a concerted diplomatic effort. With the US distracted by coronavirus, and lacking a regional strategy, there are few signs Washington is prepared to commit the resources to improve its position.
However, so long as the competition continues, coalition forces are going to be killed. Either that or be pinned on a handful of bases, unable to carry out any meaningful activity. If the US is to improve its position it must be clear sighted about what it is trying to achieve, and whether it is worth the cost.
The uptick in violence also poses key questions for the UK. The UK has interests and relationships in Iraq independent from the US. Although UK forces are at risk owing to their proximity to US troops, they have not been specifically targeted. The UK embassy, unlike the US, has not yet been subjected to semi-frequent rocket attacks. As the US either escalates or dials back its presence the UK must decide how best to posture its forces, its risk appetite, and the extent to which it can diverge from Washington. From the UK military’s perspective it is necessary to make a clear assessment as to the leverage or security that an ongoing UK military presence provides.
Short of a complete withdrawal, expect strikes on US forces to continue, while Iran politically dials up the pressure. At the same time the threat of a spectacular or symbolic attack against the US hangs over American embassies throughout the region. When it comes to avenging Soleimani the response has only just begun.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Dr Jack Watling
Research Fellow, Land Warfare