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2020 so far: Iran and allies push forward despite losing Soleimani

February 1, 2020 at 2:09 pm

Iranian members of the Basij militia take part in an anti-US rally to protest the killing of Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani by a US airstrike in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, at Palestine Square in the capital Tehran, Iran on January 4, 2020 [Fatemeh Bahrami / Anadolu Agency]

The opening month of 2020 launched with a significant strategic blow to Iran and its regional allies, with the assassination of Major General Qassem Soleimani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) Quds Force, on 3 January. This act was primarily aimed at baiting Iran into war, based as it was on false claims of an “imminent threat” and a disproportionate response over the killing of a US contractor at an Iraqi military base. The rocket attack was blamed on a faction within Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces – who did not claim responsibility, and were targeted in air strikes on the Syria-Iraq border, all without any evidence provided. However, rather than Tehran caving under pressure and “withdrawing”, as some have incorrectly speculated, the alliance known as the Axis of Resistance has made a series of gains, politically and militarily, within the space of the same month.

There were several possible motives behind the killing of Soleimani – such as providing a distraction from President Donald Trump’s impeachment hearings, the president himself being goaded by military intelligence, acting for the strategic interests of Israel (who were notified before Congress) and related to this – stifling any attempts of reconciliatory back-channel talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, to interrupting the progress made against Daesh to keep Iraq and Syria unstable.

Ultimately, however, the decision to carry out the assassination was made well in advance, and the killing of the contractor merely provided the catalyst for the US to exploit it.  This act of aggression is one among many which are geared towards provoking Iran into the war that the Neo-Cons and Zionists want so dearly. The tactics used, such as military bases and naval presence in the Gulf to trade sanctions, are not too dissimilar to those mentioned in the McCollum memo, which contained an eight-step plan to war against Imperial Japan during the Second World War, and pre-dated the Pearl Harbour attack, which we are told was the pretext for the US to officially declare war against Japan.

The Gulf of Tonkin incidents were manipulated, leading to full US involvement in the Vietnam War. Only decades later it was revealed that the US government deceived the US public and misled Congress, just as the current administration has done vis-à-vis the threat posed to the US by Soleimani.

Read: Pentagon now says 64 US troops injured in Iran attack  

Iran’s IRGC

The initial phase of the Iranian response by missile strikes were swift and calculated, controversially, it also involved casualties among US troops at the bases in Iraq, which were originally denied then downplayed by the US. The number of those suffering from what the Pentagon claims is only traumatic brain injury, is growing steadily. Iranian details of US casualties are more severe, although they have been consistently claimed from the start.

Shedding light on the gravity of what took place, some observers likened the assassination of Iran’s top military general to Iran doing something similar to a US general or high-ranking intelligence official. Indeed, the missile strikes were just the beginning of the “hard revenge” promised by the supreme leader and the IRGC. The recent downing of a spy plane in Afghanistan, allegedly by the Taliban, killed several “high ranking” CIA officers, and according to Russian intelligence, the head of the agency’s Iran Mission, Michael D’Andrea. This has been dismissed by Western media as propaganda, who have taken the official line that only two pilots were on board, though the incident has been marked with inconsistencies. If true, it would appear to be more of a sufficient and proportionate retaliation, taking out someone of similar political value as Soleimani.

After all, he was alleged to be behind the assassination of Hezbollah’s Imad Mughniyeh in 2008. Although the Taliban lack the capabilities to down a high-altitude plane, they may have assistance from Iran, who have offered support to them when convenient, as the Afghan War documents leak of 2010 revealed.

Soleimani’s successor, Esmail Qaani, has years of experience in Afghanistan too, and there exists an all-Afghan Shia brigade in the Axis of Resistance, trained by the IRGC – the Fatemiyoun many are now veterans returning from the conflict in Syria. Afghanistan’s former ambassador to the UN warned on Thursday, that the Fatemiyoun could pose a threat and that the Iran-US tensions could jeopardise the fragile Afghan peace process. US forces in Afghanistan, as in Iraq, will continue to be at risk.

Read: Iraq FM slams rocket attack on US embassy compound in Baghdad

Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces (Hashd Al-Shaabi)

Integrated into the Iraqi armed forces and under the command of the prime minister, they were established based on a 2014 fatwa by Ayatollah Sayyid Al-Sistani, originally to combat the existential threat Daesh posed to the capital of Baghdad and further south. They, too, have vowed to exact revenge, especially over the killing of the deputy commander, Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis who was killed alongside Soleimani, near Baghdad Airport.

The public mass outrage, already seething from the US airstrikes on PMF positions fighting against Daesh on the Syrian border, led to the Iraqi parliament passing a resolution requesting that the US withdraw from the country, which was ignored. Largely downplayed by Western media, Iraq held a “million-man march” in response to a call by nationalist Shia cleric, Moqtada Al-Sadr, with some estimates suggesting the turnout exceeded one million.

There have been sporadic rocket attacks against the US embassy’s vicinity in Baghdad’s Green Zone, however the PMF have made it clear that they will only attack military targets, and it may well be Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army faction, although no one has yet claimed responsibility for these. Daniel Davis, a retired US army officer, has recently written as to why he believes the US needs to urgently withdraw from Iraq and Syria, before any more US military personnel are “needlessly killed”.

Read: Russian-backed Syrian forces close in on major city in rebel-held Idlib

Syrian Arab Army

The Syrian Arab Army continues reclaiming sovereign state territory and the Al-Qaeda affiliated terrorists are holding onto Idlib province and parts of Aleppo province. Having now surrounded several Turkish military outposts in Idlib, they have as of this week, recaptured the strategically important Maaret Al-Numan, the second largest city in the province which lies on the M5 highway connecting Damascus to Aleppo, which in turn, re-establishes vital access between the government-controlled cities.

Read: Yemen’s Houthis make ‘biggest gains’ against Hadi forces 

Houthi-Yemen Armed Forces

Yemen’s Houthi movement, who, as I have explained previously are allied with most of Yemen’s armed forces, have also made strategic gains this month. Fierce counter-offensives in the Nehm district in the Sanaa province led to the retreat of Saud-backed forces, fighting on behalf of the exiled Yemeni president, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, has ensured the eastern front of the capital city, Sanaa, is secure. Further gains were made in the Marib and Al-Jawf provinces, including an important highway connecting the two.  At the time of writing, the Houthi-led forces are seeking to gain control over the provincial capital of Jawf, which would result in further setbacks to Hadi’s ground-forces. On Wednesday, Houthi military spokesman, Yahya Saree, announced that they have “liberated 2500 square kilometres” of Yemeni land.

Read: Lebanon’s Hezbollah warns of attempts to besiege PM-designate 


Hezbollah in Lebanon

Despite growing civil unrest and economic problems, the government of Lebanon has for now overcome a potential crisis created by former prime minister, Saad Hariri’s resignation, with the appointment of new prime minister, Hassan Diab. With the pro-Western and pro-Saudi Sunni bloc absent from the new technocratic government, which Jerusalem Post described as being the first time since Syria’s withdrawal in 2005, Lebanon’s government is only represented by Hezbollah and its allies. Although Hezbollah only controls two ministries, the Christian Free Patriotic Movement and the Shia Amal movement aligned with Hezbollah, control much of the rest. Thus, the new government constitutes for the first time an administration that “reflects the long-standing power reality in Lebanon”.

The months ahead

Soleimani’s void is still being felt across the region and in particular in Iran, however the Axis of Resistance appears to be continuing in outmanoeuvring their adversaries, be it politically, or on the battlefield. The Syrian army will continue to reclaim state territory, as will the Houthi-led forces in Yemen. The Houthi-led National Salvation Government has also met with European ambassadors and the UN Envoy for Yemen this month, early signs of future political recognition from the international community. Iraq is too crucial for the US to withdraw from, which would inevitably affect their presence in Syria’s oil fields. Thus, the US has been re-exploring options of balkanising Iraq, especially into an autonomous Sunni state in the west, which borders with Syria in the face of waning influence in the capital and south. This might lead to an inevitable return of the destabilising chaos associated with Daesh. Israel continues to target Hashd bases and the US, and according to one Iraqi security expert, have been relocating Daesh fighters into Western Iraq to undermine Iraqi parliament’s withdrawal request. The incumbent minister, Mohammad Tawfiq Allawi, a Sunni, has the support of two powerful Shia political blocs. Under Allawi, the US will be given three months to withdraw, after that period they will be legitimate targets. As for direct war with Iran, that has not yet materialised. However, the option of provoking war is still on the table, and I am sure there are more steps to follow in the plan, as set out by the McCollum memo.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.