In the early hours of January 3rd (UK Time), observers in Iraq reported a drone attack had taken place near Baghdad International Airport.
The targets quickly became apparent, with the deaths of two high profile individuals. General Qassim Soleimani, head of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds force (orientated towards foreign and clandestine operations) had been killed. Abu Mahdi Al-Mihandis, 2nd in command of the predominantly Shiite paramilitary organisation, the Popular Mobilisation Unit, was also killed. A press release that same night, from the US Department of Defence (DoD), confirmed that the strike had been carried out by a US drone and had targeted Soleimani.
General Qassim Soleimani was vital in Iran’s regional foreign policy and the most powerful general in the Middle East. Kim Ghattas, of the Carnegie Endowment foreign policy think-tank, described him in a tweet as being “indispensable to Iran… not on a mission, he was the mission”, and the “architect of Iran’s expansionist regional policy”. This is not a baseless epitaph. Soleimani oversaw the strategy that allowed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to recapture key areas of Syria from rebel forces and caused the deaths of over half a million Syrians, in a campaign in which cluster bombs, barrel bombs and chlorine gas were used to support the ground offensive by Soleimani’s militias. He trained paramilitaries that brought suffering to hundreds of Sunni Muslims. He was directly involved in cracking down on the protests in Iraq, in operations that have reportedly killed around 500 Iraqis and continue to do so. In Lebanon, from where Soleimani had just arrived, Iran’s proxy group Hezbollah confronted protestors with thugs wielding bats and sticks. That he has left a trail of blood and violence wherever he has been is an inescapable fact, a trail brought to its end in a flaming wreck on an airport access road in Baghdad.
Naturally, commentators in much of the Middle East have been elated by the news of Soleimani’s death. The chief editor of the Saudi Arabian news channel Al Arabiya, Mohammed Khalid Alyahya, tweeted that “The biggest criminal in the region has been neutralised”, while Steven Nabil, correspondent of the Alhurra Arabic-language news channel, reported that Iraqis were celebrating in Basra. In Syria, it has been reported by Elizabeth Tsurkov, Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, that sweets were being handed out in areas controlled by the Syrian opposition. In America, President Trump hailed the attack as “flawless” in his statement to the press, while Republican politicians and conservative media personalities have lined up to hail the killing as a great victory for the United States.
Not everyone is so enthusiastic. Least of all the Iranians. Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif has accused the US of “rogue adventurism” and of carrying out an act of “international terrorism”, while President Rouhani promised revenge for what he described as a “heinous crime”. Rockets have been fired at Balad airbase in Iraq, which houses US service personnel, and a red flag, signifying war, has reportedly been raised above Iran’s tallest mosque, though this has only been reported by The Sun and the Express here in the UK.
In the US, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi accused President Trump of “provocative and disproportionate actions”. Here in the UK, Jeremy Corbyn urged the government to “stand up to” the “belligerent” US, while Labour leadership candidates Keir Starmer, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Jess Phillips have all called for attempts to de-escalate the crisis. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is yet to make a statement at the time of writing, but Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has said that the UK is urging “all parties to de-escalate”. Anti-war protests have taken place across the US and outside Downing Street, where Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell spoke.
Pelosi also pointed out that Trump had not sought an Authorisation for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which Presidents must obtain from Congress when committing the military to deployments lasting longer than 60 days. The Trump administration has taken the position that it does not require an AUMF, as it claims that the Soleimani operation was covered by the 2001 AUMF. This justification depends on Iran’s involvement in 9/11, however, and this has been deemed false by the New York Times, The Independent, FBI Agent Ali Soufan and Lawrence Wright (published author on Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11). The apparent illegality of the strike, therefore, could well fan the flames of the Democrats impeachment proceedings. However, the Republican Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell appears to be onboard with the strike, meaning the prospects for impeachment remain slim. Furthermore, the US public typically favour successful proactive counter-terrorism operations, which could possibly improve Trump’s chances of re-election this year.
For the Middle East, however, the story is grim. Joyce Karam, Washington Correspondent of The National (UAE News Company), anticipates that the forthcoming collision between the US and the Iranian state will occur largely in the Middle East. It could take the form of disrupting the passage of oil tankers transiting the Gulf of Hormuz as they did with the Stena Impero or attacking US bases in the region. They may strike at Israel, or at the US embassy in Lebanon, where Hezbollah hold sway. There is a possibility they will attack its European Allies. The conflict will will be violent, and people will die for the events of Friday morning. The question now is whether or not the Trump administration is prepared for this.