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End of Soleimani Era

''Corner Bet Pakistan” at it all over again, the familiar Geopolitical Roulette"

“Mr. Trump, the gambler, You are well aware of our power and capabilities in the region. You know how powerful we are in asymmetrical warfare. Come, we are waiting for you. We are the real men on the scene, as far as you are concerned. You know that a war would mean the loss of all your capabilities. You may start the war, but we will be the ones to determine its end”.

This is not a loudmouth, ranting, rambling mullah, shooting in the dark, catering to a delinquent, brain dead jihadi or a bunch of binge drinking, bemused YouTube watchers. He was The One, whom state leaders across the Middle East listened to most ardently, his enemies feared and the common Iranian cheered on their hearts out. Major General Qassem Soleimani, long-time chief of the Quds Force, a crack special force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), was not only a popular but a defining moment in the history of the Middle East, this last decade, the apt successor to Iran’s President Rouhani.

It is as if Mr. Trump has taken Hitler out of the World War II story.

Imperious Commander or a by the by Lawrance of Arabia

Soleimani took command of the Quds Force two decades ago, and in that time he has sought to reshape the Middle East in Iran’s favour, working as a power broker and as a military force: assassinating rivals, arming allies, and, for most of a decade, directing a network of militant groups that killed hundreds of Americans in Iraq, and diluted its presence to most extent. The U.S. Department of the Treasury has sanctioned Soleimani for his role in supporting the Assad regime, and for abetting terrorism. And yet he has remained mostly invisible, even as he runs agents and directs operations. “Soleimani is the single most powerful operative in the Middle East today,” John Maguire, a former C.I.A. officer in Iraq had said.

The Quds Force is part of the 125,000 strong Revolutionary Guard, a paramilitary organization that answers only to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Guard oversees Iran’s ballistic missile program, has its naval forces shadow the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf and includes an all-volunteer Basij Force. His primary choice of fighters were the infamous Basij Force who successfully at his behest handled the 2009 Iranian Purge. By the early months of 2013, marked a low point for the Iranian intervention in Syria. Assad was steadily losing ground to the rebels, who were dominated by Sunnis, Iran’s rivals. If Assad fell, the Iranian regime would lose its link to Hezbollah, its forward base against Israel. In a speech, one Iranian cleric said, “If we lose Syria, we cannot keep Tehran.”

Soleimani began flying into Damascus frequently so that he could assume personal control of the Iranian intervention. “He’s running the war himself,” according to an American defence expert. In Damascus, he is said to work out of a heavily fortified command post in a nondescript building, where he has installed a multinational array of officers: the heads of the Syrian military, a Hezbollah commander, and a coordinator of Iraqi Shiite militias, which Soleimani mobilized and brought to the fight. Over these years, Iranian operatives under Soleimani recruited militia fighters from other countries, mostly from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, airlifting them into Syria to back up  Assad forces in key battles.

Iran’s patronage of the Yemen Houthi rebels, which intensified when Saudi Arabia intervened against them in Yemen’s war in 2015, had all the footmarks of the Soleimani’s Quds force, above all, to support local militants as a way of expanding Iranian influence and punishing Saudi Arabia, the region’s Sunni power.

He has given similar support to the Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, creating new security headaches for Israel. Using his Quds Force, Hamas was able to take over the Gaza Strip, capable of firing rockets that can reach into most of the Israeli territory.

From 2014 through 2017, was a rare instance of Iran and the United States nominally fighting on the same side. On a number of occasions, Americans were hitting Islamic State targets from the air while Soleimani was directing ground forces against the militants, however not for long.

Iran Upscales the tempo in 2019

 

In May 2018, Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 nuclear agreement (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA), asserting that the accord did not address the broad range of U.S. concerns about Iranian behaviour and would not permanently preclude Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. The sanctions have been proved to be devastating on Iran’s economy.

Iran responded to the U.S. maximum pressure campaign in part by demonstrating its ability to harm global commerce and other U.S. interests and to raise concerns about Iran’s nuclear activities. Iran might have sought to cause international actors, including those that depend on stable oil supplies, to put pressure on the Trump Administration to reduce its sanctions pressure on Iran.

In May and June, attacks on Tankers picked up-tempo. In addition, Iran’s allies in the region have been conducting attacks that might be linked to U.S.-Iran tensions. June 2019 and subsequently, the Yemn Houthis, who have been fighting against a Saudi led Arab coalition that intervened in Yemen against them in March 2015, claimed responsibility for attacks in southern Saudi Arabia, and on Saudi energy installations and targets. On June 20, 2019, Iran shot down an unmanned aerial surveillance aircraft near the Strait of Hormuz, claiming it had entered Iranian airspace over the Gulf of Oman. U.S. Central Command officials stated that the drone was over international waters. Iran stated “The downing of the American drone is an open, clear and categorical message, which is: the defenders of the borders of Iran will decisively deal with any foreign aggression… This is the way the Iranian nation deals with its enemies.”. Trump kept his response muted and modulated, but it was clear, Iran was desperate.

On September 14, an attack was conducted on multiple locations within critical Saudi energy infrastructure sites at Khurais and Abqaiq. The Houthi movement in Yemen, which receives arms and other support from Iran, claimed responsibility. The attack shut down a significant portion of Saudi oil production and, escalated U.S.-Iran and Iran-Saudi tensions and demonstrated a significant intent by Iran to threaten U.S. allies and interests. The result was additional sanctions by US.

Soleimani’s imperious handling of this episodic conflict, dealt a final blow when on December 27, a rocket attack was launched by Iran and Qds backed militia, on a base near Kirkuk in northern Iraq and on December 31, 2019, two days after the U.S. airstrikes against KH targets in Iraq and Syria, supporters of Soleimani backed Kata’ib Hezbollah and other Iraqi militias surrounded the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, forcing their way into the compound and setting some outer buildings on fire. Die is cast.

China Russia Iran Entente?

China, Russia and Iran are conducting joint naval drills, intended to “deepen exchange and cooperation between the navies of the three countries,” however has been a statement of continuity boldness of action by Iran with impunity as well as a message cohering mute solidarity by China and Russia.

This purported entente/show of strength has been exposed hollow by the Soleimani assassination. There were no joint statements. Russia’s initial response to the assassination was, by Russian standards, comparatively muted. An official readout of President Putin’s phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron on January 3 only mentioned the two leaders’ “concern” (ozabochennost’) over the killing and the potential for escalating tensions in the Middle East. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was more critical, claiming that the assassination of a government official on the territory of a third country “crudely violates the principles of international law and deserves condemnation” but explicitly stopped short of minor joint threatening consequences.

Syria remains the biggest question mark amongst them. Assad owes his victory in the Syrian civil war to the support of both Russia and Iran. Despite being on the same side of the conflict, Moscow and Tehran are also rivals for influence in post-war Syria. Russia’s main disadvantage in this rivalry has long been its lack of boots on the ground (Russia’s main military contribution was airpower, which is good for striking targets but not at controlling territory), and Iranian grown influence would seem worrying to Russia.

Beijing’s official statement were consistent with China’s past efforts to avoid commitments in a region where it could clash with the U.S. and its allies. Beijing has so far done little to counter President Donald Trump’s effort to ratchet up pressure on Tehran, beyond defending the Iran nuclear deal and criticizing the U.S.’s unilateral sanctions.

Saudi Pakistani Bonhomie Rediscovered

While Tehran is understood to be having little options but to keep pouring in money to keep presence in the Iraq muddle, US has surely rallied its geopolitical partners. That includes the required but an evident sly rat Pakistan. Pakistan had been leaning towards Turkey-Tehran-Malaysia axis with eyes on monetary gains, as against the Saudi led Arab OIC. Saudi Arabia apparently had leaned on Imran to rethink his participation, because of the perception that the KL Summit was meant to replace the OIC. However, the bigger picture appears the need of the old Geo-political coalition against Iran’s belligerence, targeting Saudi Oil assets and growing influence in the region.

Whenever US decides to put impetus in the region, while it may be from the shadows of Riyadh, Pakistan emerges as a player, mostly in terms of its inevitable Geo-strategic placement and as a counter to Tehran.

Viewpoint

Every other decade, Pakistan is brought out of depths of decadence, by a geostrategic event be it the Russian-Afghanistan war in the 80s or the US-Taliban conflict in the 2000s. This conflict, with US likely to ebb its presence in the region, while playing behind the curtains for some time, may give breathing space yet again, to the failed state.

In effect what Pakistan is likely to get is little monetary gains, both at the behest of Saudis and US. However it is unlikely to be at the magnitude, as has previously been. Stance on Pakistan’s support to terror shall not change, while the Chinese involvement shall be kept silhouetted.

Taliban’s entanglement in Iran’s dirty work has already harmed the Afghanistan peace process, and Iran is likely to increase its outreach to the Taliban, as part of its effort to retaliate against the U.S. for targeting Soleimani. Hence it is unlikely, US presence in the region is going away anytime soon. It shall be there to provide spine to the Saudi monarchy and its Oil-based assets. And while the game plays along, Pakistan finds itself in familiar territory, whilst this time it will be tough to keep all quarters, given Chinese breathing down their neck.

08 Jan 20/Wednesday                                                    Written By: Fayaz

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