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Qasem Soleimani: Crisis puts Mid-East friends and foes on edge

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Qasem Soleimani: Crisis puts Mid-East friends and foes on edge

By Barbara Plett Usher, BBC News, Jerusalem

From left: Benjamin Netanyahu, Adel Abdul Mahdi, Hassan Nasrallah and Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Imagine, if you will, a Middle East situation room with four of the region’s key leaders who have been watching the recent confrontation between the US and Iran unfold.

At the table is Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; caretaker Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi; and Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Iran’s Lebanese ally, the militant Hezbollah movement.

They’ve just been listening to what sounded like a “mission accomplished” speech from US President Donald Trump. Most of them, although perhaps not all, are breathing a sigh of relief. But they are scratching their heads about what this turbulent week means for their future.

Qasem Soleimani: Crisis puts Mid-East friends and foes on edge

Qasem Soleimani: Crisis puts Mid-East friends and foes on edge
Who was Qasem Soleimani?

For Mohammed bin Salman, the speech signals an immediate danger averted.

It’s true the crown prince has previously been outspoken about what he’s called the “evil” nature of Iran’s leadership in recent years. But the Saudis have been urging de-escalation since Mr Trump ordered the assassination of top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in a drone strike in Baghdad, afraid of becoming engulfed in a spiral of conflict between their ally, Washington, and their enemy, Tehran.

And if Saudi Arabia had been caught in the crossfire, there was no guarantee the US would have struck back on its behalf. It didn’t last year, when two oil installations were disabled in an attack blamed on Iran.

That experience deepened doubt that the Saudis could rely on the man in the White House, who seemed to be telegraphing that he didn’t want to get drawn into another Middle East war.

So they began exploring diplomatic options to reduce tensions with Iran.

Supports of Iraqi militias climb onto the outer walls of the US embassy in Baghdad during a protest on 1 January 2020
Protesters attacked the US embassy in Baghdad days before Qasem Soleimani was killed

But wait, is the equation changing? Is the Trump administration more prepared now to take military action in its ongoing confrontation with Iran? Or did Soleimani, that master military strategist, take a wrong step across the “red line” of targeting Americans?

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“You’ve got to understand elections,” let’s imagine Mr Netanyahu saying.

The conversation turns to the recent attack on the US embassy in Baghdad during a protest by supporters of Iran-backed Iraqi militias.

It goes something like this: “OK, no-one was hurt, there wasn’t much damage, so Soleimani thought he’d get away with sending a strong message. But Mr Trump was probably thinking about the 1979 hostage crisis at the US embassy in Iran, which sunk [then President] Jimmy Carter.

“It’s even more likely he was thinking about the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, for which he’s lambasted the Obama administration. He even tweeted that the incident was the ‘Anti-Benghazi’. He didn’t want to head into a presidential election year looking weak.”

US officials have variously justified the killing as self-defence to prevent an “imminent” attack on American interests, and a show of deterrence to Iran to signal that the president’s previous restraint was not a sign of weakness.

Qasem Soleimani: Crisis puts Mid-East friends and foes on edge

Israeli troops in the occupied Golan Heights (3 January 2020)
Israel is wary of what it considers Iranian entrenchment in neighbouring Syria

The Israeli prime minister is almost certainly hoping it’s the latter.

The Israelis were deeply concerned by the lack of US military retaliation last year for alleged Iranian attacks in the region.

“It would be better if we weren’t alone,” the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, General Aviv Kochavi, said darkly in end-of-the year remarks.

“Suddenly we are no longer alone!” crowed Israeli defence correspondent Alex Fishman after the strike on Soleimani. “This is a strategic miracle!”

The Israelis are also rid of their number one enemy.

Israeli analysts say Qasem Soleimani was the author and executor of a plan to entrench an Iranian military presence – via proxies and otherwise – in countries around Israel, what they call a “ring of fire”.

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But by and large, Israeli officials have been quiet about the drone strike, like the Saudis seemingly hoping to avoid getting caught in the crossfire.

Aftermath of US drone strike near Baghdad International Airport that killed Qasem Soleimani (3 January 2020)
Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis died in the same drone strike as Qasem Soleimani

Mr Abdul Mahdi probably feels like he has been thrown into a fire during the past week.

The US strike toppled him off the tightrope on which he’s been trying to balance alliances with both the US and Iran.

The Iraqi foreign ministry summoned ambassadors from both countries to chastise them for using Iraq as their battleground.

He can be grateful that Iran gave President Trump a face-saving way to step off the path to war, by firing missiles at bases that caused no casualties.

But he’s still in the hot seat.

Caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi addresses the Iraqi parliament on 5 January 2020
The Iraqi parliament passed a non-binding resolution demanding the withdrawal of US troops

The US is a demanding if inconsistent ally. Yet when cornered, Mr Abdul Mahdi found it safer to side with the pro-Iran forces in Iraq.

The powerful Shia politicians and militias have been given a new shot of legitimacy after months of popular protests against their grip on the country. They’ve condemned America’s violation of Iraqi sovereignty and demanded that its 5,200 troops there leave.

It’s not clear what’s going to come of that. But the fallout from the assassination has created uncertainty about the staying power of a US military presence. Mr Abdul Mahdi has said there’s no other way “otherwise we are speeding toward confrontation”.

Qasem Soleimani: Crisis puts Mid-East friends and foes on edge

Hezbollah supporter holds up a photo of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Qasem Soleimani at a rally in Beirut, Lebanon (5 January 2020)
Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement has said Iran’s allies must help exact revenge

That is the goal of Hassan Nasrallah.

As one of the most senior figures left standing in Qasem Soleimani’s regional network of proxy forces – the US air strike also killed the powerful Iraqi paramilitary leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis – he feels the weight of responsibility to continue the general’s mission and to avenge his death.

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That should focus on hitting US military assets, he has said. So far he hasn’t mentioned Israel – Hezbollah’s usual target. Perhaps the Iranians don’t think it’s a good idea to reignite that front on top of everything else right now.

Hassan Nasrallah is probably still trying to game out the new landscape – what does this mean for the so-called “axis of resistance” now that its prime architect is gone; and how will he step into the breach given the turmoil in Lebanon that’s challenged Hezbollah’s domestic political dominance?

Let’s imagine that, after this meeting breaks up, the Hezbollah chief plans to debrief Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who’s been tied up with a rare visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad talks to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Damascus, Syria (7 January 2020)
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was visited by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday

Without Qasem Soleimani’s crucial help, Mr Assad’s regime would almost certainly not have survived Syria’s civil war. The Iranian general’s cruel counter-insurgency methods have left many Syrians rejoicing at his death. But how will the country take shape now, without the heaviness of his guiding hand?

No doubt that’s what Mr Putin, Iran’s ally in Syria, is trying to gauge, along with the question that has consumed our situation room.

Was this Mr Trump’s parting shot before exiting the region, or is the US really back in the game?

And have the Americans struck a mortal blow to Iran’s regional reach, or unwittingly aided its long-term goal of expelling US troops from the region?

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