In the early morning hours on December 3rd, 2020, Qassem Soleimani’s plane touched down on the tarmac at the Baghdad International Airport. Called “the most powerful operative in the Middle East today” by a former CIA official, Soleimani was a nefarious figure. As the commander of the Quds Force, Iran’s special operations force specializing in operations outside of the country, he would often travel around the region, meeting with government officials, but also with various shadowy militia leaders.
That day, he was met at the airport by a leader of the local pro-Iranian Iraqi militia and his aides. Together, the group got into two vehicles and set off on the journey to downtown Baghdad. Unbeknown to them, a US military drone was flying overhead, following their every move.
Shortly after the two cars left the airport, the drone struck, firing off several missiles, hitting the vehicles and killing 10 people on-board. While the characters that died were pretty unsavory, what is significant in this entire story is the potential aftermath. This could be the spark that sets off much more deadly events, potentially destabilizing the entire region.
Most Important Thing To Do When Coming Up With A Strategy: Thinking Of The Second And Third-Order Consequences
It is still too early to tell how the decision to target Soleimani was made, but everything seems to point to very hasty planning, and not much reflection going into the potential consequences of such an act.
One important lesson that any decision-maker needs to constantly keep in mind is the fact that every decision has not only immediate consequences, but also tends to reverberate further, setting off a chain of other events. Whenever planning something, you always need to think of the potential second and third-order consequences of whatever you will do.
One person to point this out was Joe Biden in his reaction to the events:
“I hope the Administration has thought through the second and third-order consequences of the path they have chosen.”
So what are the potential consequences of this event?
1)A potential war with Iran is getting more probable
Ever since Trump rescinded the Iran Nuclear Deal, a deal which according to all the monitors Iran was actually abiding by, a series of aggressive incidents has been heightening the tension in the region. Trump started egging on Iran with his aggressive language and insults. Of course, Iran is not innocent in this, as they also engaged in several provocations, either directly or through its proxies.
However, now the proverbial shit hit the fan. The killing of an actual Iranian official, arguably one of the most powerful and popular figures in the country, could have grave consequences. Did the Trump Administration foresee this or did they not think of this?
Both things are quite worrying. If they did not foresee this, then they are incompetent. If they did, then they are dangerous. There was a quite scary interview between Wolf Blitzer and former Israeli ambassador Michael Oren on CNN last night. Oren called Iran a “paper tiger”, and stated that it might be good to have a war with the country now than further down the line.
“ So we’re on a path to war, irrespective with Iranians. And there’s a certain feeling here that if we would rather do it now rather than five years from now when Iran becomes stronger.
So for Israel, Iran is a serious military threat. We can defend ourselves. I must tell you honestly, Wolf. Israelis sometimes shake their heads why Americans are so afraid of Iran. From an Israeli perspective, Iran is a paper tiger.
Iran — when was the last time you saw a picture of an Iranian tank or an Iranian fighter jet? Their air force is from the 1970s. So a serious Iran cannot pose a serious military threat to the United States.”
If this is the type of reasoning that people in the current Trump administration are following, then dangerous times are ahead. While the Iranian conventional military is no match for the American one, it is not the conventional military that will matter. Iran is quite capable of fighting through proxies and using guerrilla tactics. After the quagmire of Afghanistan, Iraq, and also Syria, do people actually think they can cakewalk through Iran?
In 2011, Donald Trump accused Barrack Obama of wanting to start a war with Iran in order to boost his chances of re-election. Is Trump following the same playbook that he accused the former president of playing with?
2) Iraq might sink into further chaos
What we are seeing at the moment is that Iraq is in a difficult situation. There are three main ethnic and religious groups that make up the country: the Shiites, the Sunnis, and the Kurds.
While the Shiites and the Sunnis are both Arabs, there is an intense rivalry between them. The Sunnis were the ruling minority in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, which the Shiites have a hard time forgetting. Some of the Sunnis also supported the Islamic State when it took over large parts of the north of the country. So there is a big danger of them getting radicalized again.
The Shiites are the largest, and currently dominant group. The Prime Minister is from that group, as is the majority of the Parliament. In fact, the resolution that they passed kicking US troops out of the country was passed virtually only by them, with the Sunnis and Kurds boycotting that session of Parliament.
The Kurds are located in the north and have been vying for independence for a long time. In fact, their region is for all purposes already separate from the rest of the country (they even voted on independence). The reason they are still part of the country was because the international community convinced them that independence would not only destroy Iraq, but probably set off a wave of violence in the region.
What will very probably happen is that the Shiite militias will become much more emboldened. They were already protesting in front of the US embassy in Baghdad, trying to break in. The fact that they were able to do this, shows how much power the Shiite militias have in the country. These types of incidents will probably only get worse.
The other two groups (and especially the Sunnis) are scared of this. If they feel that they are threatened, they too might react violently. This could set off a cascade of chaos, which would once again engulf the country in bloodshed.
3) Making ISIS great again — that terrorist group might be making a comeback
This type of chaos will play right into the hands of the most dangerous group in the region, one which had unleashed a reign of bloodshed and threatened the world through terror attacks: the Islamic State. This is a genocidal group, one that the US troops in Iraq set out to stop.
At one point they controlled vast swathes of territory across northern Iraq and Syria, but now their area of control has dwindled to virtually nothing, and their fighting ranks have been decimated. However, they still pose a real threat.
With US troops currently getting kicked out of Iraq, the local forces might have a hard time stopping the fanatics of ISIS. While it is probable that despite the resolution of the Iraqi Parliament, the US military will stay in Iraq in one capacity or another, the problem will be that they will have a lot less legitimacy, making their job that much harder. They will also be under fire from militias sponsored from Iran, which will also keep their focus away from ISIS.
If Iraq unravels, then there is a high probability that ISIS will take advantage of this situation and come back in a big way. Trump will have achieved one unintended consequence: making ISIS great again.
4) The US is losing credibility in the region
The US is quickly losing credibility in the region. Abandoning the Kurds in Syria before a Turkish invasion led to hundreds of thousands of displaced people, and showed that the US could not be trusted to come to the aid of its allies. Trump further added fuel to the fire, when he disparaged the Kurds by saying that they did not help in WW2 (which was an incredibly weird comment to make).
The killing of Soleimani happened on Iraqi soil without their knowledge, which makes the Iraqi leaders look weak and not in control. It is a natural reaction in such situations that the politicians will try to act tough, and the resolution expelling US troops out of the country is the result.
Killing an official representative of a foreign state is often a bad move, even if the guy is an asshole. This move could paradoxically strengthen the Iranian regime. It had been faltering due to an economic crisis and worsening social conditions, which led to the largest wave of protests in Iran. However, when faced with a greater enemy, the people usually keep quiet and unite. Soleimani will likely become a symbol, a martyr for the cause.
5) Further rifts with European allies
However, it is not just its Middle Eastern allies that the US is losing credibility with, but also in other places. The US is quickly losing touch with its European allies and even NATO. The symbol of this could be seen in the fact that a group of NATO leaders was seen standing around making fun of Donald Trump. This is how low the US has sunk.
What has made the situation even worse is that Trump has been actively advocating what amounts to war crimes. By calling for Iranian cultural sites to be destroyed, he is putting into question everything that the US stands for. Destroying cultural sites is what ISIS and the Taliban did. This loss of credibility on the world stage could cost the US dearly in prestige in the long-term.
Hopefully, saner heads will prevail, but it seems that we are on the road to a much darker future. If the Middle East explodes, that could have repercussions across the globe. Already Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan are highly unstable. If you add Iran to the mix, then you have a continuous ring of failed states stretching all the way to Pakistan (with that country being highly unstable itself).
Back in June, I wrote a short piece comparing Donald Trump to Marcus Crassus, the Roman real estate magnate turned politician, turned general. Crassus was a man who made his money on shady real estate deals and entered politics, where he ruled the Roman Republic alongside Pompey and Caesar. However, thinking to ensure his legacy, he got entangled in Syria on his way to invade the Parthian Empire (which amounts to the territory of modern Iraq and Iran).
Legend goes that Crassus got his head chopped off, and the Parthians poured melted gold into his mouth in order to quench his thirst for money.
Whatever happens, we know that we are in for a bumpy ride ahead. It is paramount that the “steady state” operatives that Anonymous wrote about in his op-ed in the New York Times keep Trump on a leash. However, after reading his new book “A Warning” we can see that these more sane people have mostly left the administration already. Maybe that is why this strike took place. There was no one to reign in Trump’s worst impulses.
The only thing that we can do is hope that things don’t escalate further, and a wider conflict is prevented.