The fallout from the killing of Qassem Suleimani

The killing of the Iranian general Qassem Suleimani in an airstrike ordered by Donald Trump is one of those things that make any sane observer wonder what the hell Trump was thinking and what the hell those around him were doing in allowing him to do it.

The strike came at a time when Iraq was already on the brink of an all-out proxy war, and hours after a two-day siege of the US embassy in Baghdad by a mob of PMF militants and their supporters. The Pentagon accused Suleimani of having masterminded the mob attack.

That siege followed US airstrikes on camps run by a PMF-affiliated militia particularly closely aligned with Tehran, which in turn was a reprisal for that militia’s killing of a US contractor in an attack on an Iraqi army base on Friday.

This action is only going to inflame anti-US feelings of both Iraqis and Iranians. The Iraqi government is already under some pressure to ask the US to withdraw its troops and this will likely increase the volume of such calls.

Robin Wright has a profile of Suleimani and why he was such an influential figure and says that this killing is tantamount to an act of war.

Was the U.S. attack an act of war? Douglas Silliman, who was the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq until last winter and is now the president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told me that the death of Suleimani was the equivalent of Iran killing the commander of U.S. military operations in the Middle East and South Asia. “If Iran had killed the commander of U.S. Central Command, what would we consider it to be?” he said.

Murtaza Hussain writes that this action will have long-term, serious, and unpredictable consequences.

The reported airstrike last night has taken this bitter conflict to an altogether new level. The killing of Suleimani, along with several other top Iraqi Shia militia leaders, is the single most significant lethal operation since the joint U.S.-Israeli assassination of Lebanese Hezbollah operative Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus in 2008.

It is also perhaps the most reckless foreign policy action by President Donald Trump since he took office. Unlike Mughniyeh or other nonstate militants that the United States has killed over the years, Suleimani was a ranking official of a foreign government. He was a popular figure among Iranian nationalists whose reputation as a battlefield commander in Iraq and Syria had been publicly promoted by a regime looking to boost its flagging domestic popularity. His killing seems to mark the beginning of direct hostilities between the United States and Iran, with top officials apparently not off-limits for violence. Late last night, the Department of Defense issued a statement claiming responsibility for Suleimani’s killing, saying that he and the Quds Force were “responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more.”

Based on past precedent, any Iranian response is likely to be asymmetric and carried out by proxy groups, and may also include physical or cyberattacks against critical infrastructure. To a degree not seen in years, U.S. personnel in Iraq may now also be at risk. In the past, directly targeting U.S. troops in the country was seen as taboo given the longstanding Iranian goal of preventing escalation that could lead to all-out war. But with the conflict suddenly turning into a hot war with the top-ranking Iranian as a target, that may well change. The consequences could be painful for both sides.

“The strike is bad news, as it takes off the table any prospect of future dialogue between Iran and the United States,” Esfandiary said. “Suleimani was a popular figure inside Iran and even many Iranians who are against the government are likely to be outraged about the targeting of a high-ranking official of their country. No Iranian leader will be able to spare the political capital to engage with the U.S., at least for the foreseeable future.”

In April, the Trump administration took the unusual step of designating the Revolutionary Guards a foreign terrorist organization. But the decision to kill such a powerful individual without any apparent idea of what comes next is chillingly reckless. What happens in the coming weeks and months is still a matter of speculation. But it is safe to say that if, as likely, bloodshed in the region immediately escalates, Iraqi civilians will pay the highest price.

While tensions between Iran and the US have been simmering for a long time, the most recent actions were triggered by the killing of a US contractor in Iraq. The line separating a US mercenary from a ‘contractor’ is a very thin one, depending on whether the contractor was carrying out military or paramilitary operations or whether he was an accountant or cook or in some other civilian capacity. But killing a top Iranian military and government official in retaliation for the death of a quasi-mercenary seems like a wildly disproportionate action and can only be interpreted as a deliberate provocation to start a war.

The US says, as it always does, that it is acting to save the lives of Americans and that it was a preemptive strike to prevent future planned attacks on Americans. ‘Saving American lives’ has become the go-to justification for pretty much any act of belligerence. We should all be drearily familiar by now with this rationale that is brought forward. It is always easy to manufacture claims of a future threat, like that of Iraq’s WMDs, claims that are supposedly based on ‘strong intelligence’ that cannot be released but later turns out to be false. It is the flimsiest of all rationales.

But what is bizarre is that the US invades Iraq, keeps it forces there in the face of a hostile and restive local population that has strong ties with its neighbor Iran with whom it shares strong cultural ties, and then claims that Iran, the country right next door, is the one interfering in the region, not the US which sent its troops there from half a world away. This is because the US sees itself as the emperor of the world, having the right to use its military anywhere it wants to achieve any ends it wants and anyone who resists it is seen as the aggressor or a terrorist.

But as usual, this move by Trump will rouse the jingoistic sentiments in the population and create support for him because there is nothing like war to rouse people’s passions, revive patriotic fervor, and rally round the country’s leader. And no doubt that fact was appealing to an increasingly unstable president chafing under the humiliation of having been impeached and heading into an election year.

It is all so sadly familiar.


  1. Jean says

    As you’ve probably seen from the old tweets that resurfaced, Trump had already announced in 2011-12 that this is what he would do by projecting his own intentions on Obama. And that probably seemed like a good time to him for such a distraction. I doubt there was much more thought given into it than that on his side. And he continues to be a useful idiot for those who have agendas.

  2. says

    The best thing Iran could do to get back at the US is maneuver Iraq and Syria into demanding that the US leave off its aggressive invasion.

    Although, the US seems to just love driving around streets littered with IEDs, taking casualties. Basically, Iran is in a position to let US troops start to bleed harder. They don’t need to do much.

  3. springa73 says

    A big irony is that overall the US has strengthened the Iranian government greatly through blundering policy over the last 20 years or so. The US invasion of Iraq and the chaotic insurgencies and civil wars that followed resulted in a relatively weak Iraq with a government friendly to Iran. In Syria, Assad had to turn to Iran and Russia for support when the US supported rebel groups. In Iran itself, whenever the government is becoming increasingly unpopular, the US government is a convenient enemy for the Iranian government to use to rally popular support, especially since Trump decided to treat Iran as enemy #1.

  4. says

    The Iranians ought to doxx Trump. The Russians surely have all that stuff; it’s just a question of whether they’re tired of Trump and willing to burn him. My bet is that he’s becoming an inconvenience and the Russians or Chinese would be pretty happy to pull the flush-lever on him.

    When the US gets mad about something someone has done they often seize their assets. I.e: hundreds of millions of $ of Russian oligarch money is controlled by the US treasury. Trump co has business assets exposed world-wide. The jackass is wide open for personal attacks that would hit him in the net worth -- that’s without getting nasty. Nasty would involve chemical weapons leaks in Trump properties; watch their revenues drop to zero overnight, and stay there. The reason it’s bad to have a businessman as president is because everyone can easily manipulate them. This ought to be obvious to any imbecile, but, well, imbecile.

  5. says

    Ps -- does this count as another case of “inviting foreign involvement in the 2020 elections”? Because this is a golden invitation to the Iranians to start planning some surprises.

    If Iran asked me, I’d recommend they start buying facebook and twitter ads and publishing everything they could get their hands on. Since Trump and his co-conspirators used consumer communications services, they are probably more vulnerable than the DNC was. I’d start with a “Trump financial document of the week” and then start dropping emails between his co-conspirators. Like a big old splashy turd landing in the punchbowl for election season.

  6. suttkus says

    All of our great country’s defensive attacks have saved American lives! Why every time we disproportionately respond, there are no more attacks on US citizens until the next attack on US citizens! That proves it’s working!

  7. Just an Organic Regular Expression says

    what the hell Trump was thinking and what the hell those around him were doing in allowing him to do it….

    Wait wait wait. This was a precisely-targeted attack that had to be based on rather good intelligence — this person would be at that place at that time — and had to be planned and coordinated. I do not believe that Trump himself had the knowledge to say, “go kill Suleimani”, if he knew the guy’s name at all. At best, he said, tell me what they’ve got that we could hit, and this was on a detailed menu of things that were presented to him. In other words, our military planners laid it out, Trump just checked the box with his sharpie.

    So “what those around him were doing” had to have been, “given specific detailed advice on available actions” followed by “issuing highly specific orders to deploy designated pilots, aircraft, and munitions”. Yes, the guy at the top is responsible, but the details and the execution of the operation were done by people who knew exactly what they were doing and exactly (probably better than Trump) what the impact could be.

  8. mnb0 says

    “This action is only going to inflame anti-US feelings of both Iraqis and Iranians.”
    Nope. Almost half of the Iraqis are non-shiites and they definitely do not like Iranian influence as embodied by Suleimani. As so often your view on non-American politics is way and way to simple, because you try to force it in your neo-marxist ideological schemes.
    That doesn’t mean it was a smart move; but there is a fair chance Donald the Clown can get away with it. What worries me most is if he -- and especially his clique of rabid right advisors -- do want to get away with it.

  9. file thirteen says

    The US strategy towards war with Iran is one of deliberate provocation. If they can blame Iran involvement on anything that causes collateral damage to “the US”, no matter how tenuous the link, they will overreact in the most extreme way possible.

    That strategy has been waiting like a mine for something to trigger it. Killing Soleimani was one of the top priorities. They will have been tracking him for ages, just waiting for an excuse to take him out. And now a protest against another overreaction provides that excuse.

    The irony is that if Soleimani did have a connection with the protesters, it was probably to say something like “Ok, you can go ahead with the protest, but you must keep it in check. We cannot afford to kill anyone in the embassy. Things are so sensitive now; they are just looking for an excuse.” Although we’ll never know.

    This US strategy is going to be successful too. No matter how much of their own fury those in command in Iran bottle up, their lack of response is going to infuriate the populace, and they cannot be checked. There will be attempts at revenge and more US overreactions. Eventually the dam will break, someone will do something stupid, and the US will get the excuse they really want.

    And even if there aren’t enough excuses, why the US will fabricate some. As a strategy it cannot fail. Each action will drive Iranians mad with fury, while US media won’t even think to question the veracity of any stories. Maybe ten years after the war.

    Trump is an absolute bystander in all of this btw, a figurehead at best.

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