Saturday, January 4, 2020

Scott Ritter's Take On The Soleimani Assassination

Scott Ritter has an interesting article today at The American Conservative in which he analyzes Trump's action in authorizing the assassination of the Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. Unlike some of the virulently and repetitiously anti-Trump screeds at TAC, Ritter's analysis is in measured terms and worth considering. You can read the entire article hear: Iranian Revenge Will Be a Dish Best Served Cold.

For our purposes I want to focus on the last part of the article, in which Ritter speculates regarding the form that Iran's threatened retaliation might take. My own view regarding "the current crisis in the Middle East" is hardly novel--I think most commentators view the situation in overly simplistic terms. There are simply too many moving pieces involved for the types of solutions we so often see advanced to be viable. That, I think goes for Ritter's analysis as well. Nevertheless, his view is worth taking into account.

Ritter is correct in focusing on Iran's overall goal and in identifying that goal as the withdrawal of US military forces from Iraq. That is an achievable goal, but one which is most likely attainable by avoiding a direct war with the US. To the extent that the US assassination of Soleimani makes such an open military conflict more likely we see two things: 1) The likelihood that the assassination may have been staged in order to force such a conflict; the orchestrators in such a case would likely be non-Trumpist Deep State actors, headed by Mike Pompeo, whose goal is to maintain the US military presence in Iraq; 2) the assassination puts Iran in a difficult position because it pushes Iran toward action that would interfere with its long term goals. So, Ritter writes:

In many ways, the United States has already written the script regarding major aspects of an Iranian response. The diplomatic missions Suleimani may have been undertaking at the time of his death centered on gaining regional support for pressuring the United States to withdraw from both Syria and Iraq. Of the two, Iraq was, and is, the highest priority, if for no other reason that there can be no sustained U.S. military presence in Syria without the existence of a major U.S. military presence in Iraq. Suleimani had been working with sympathetic members of the Iraqi Parliament to gain support for legislation that would end Iraq’s support for U.S. military forces operating on Iraqi soil. Such legislation was viewed by the United States as a direct threat to its interests in both Iraq and the region. 
The U.S. had been engaged in a diplomatic tug of war with Iran to sway Iraqi politicians regarding such a vote. However, this effort was dealt a major blow when Washington conducted a bombing attack Sunday which targeted Khaitab Hezbollah along the border with Syria, killing scores of Iraqis. The justification for these attacks was retaliation for a series of rocket attacks on an American military base that had killed one civilian contractor and wounded several American soldiers. The U.S. blamed Iranian-backed Khaitab Hezbollah (no relation to the Lebanese Hezbollah group), for the attacks.

It seems to me that the likelihood is that the attack on Khaitab Hezbollah was probably staged simply as the first step in the assassination of Soleimani. The reason the US Deep State would take such a step would probably have been because it feared that it would lose a vote in the Iraqi parliament that would require withdrawal of the US military from Iraq. A major crisis was necessary to preempt such a vote. An attack on Khaitab Hezbollah would not have been the major crisis that would have preempted a vote, but the assassination could well be. Soleimani's involvement in Iraqi politics would be a flash point for a fair portion of Arab Iraqis. The US Deep State may well have been aided in this by Iraqi factions.

There are several problems with this narrative, first and foremost being that the bases bombed were reportedly more than 500 kilometers removed from the military base where the civilian contractor had been killed. The Iraqi units housed at the bombed facilities, including Khaitab Hezbollah, were engaged, reportedly, in active combat operations against ISIS remnants operating in both Iraq and Syria. This calls into question whether they would be involved in an attack against an American target. In fact, given the recent resurgence of ISIS, it is entirely possible that ISIS was responsible for the attack on the U.S. base, creating a scenario where the U.S. served as the de facto air force for ISIS by striking Iraqi forces engaged in anti-ISIS combat operations. 

I'm agnostic on this--I simply have no informed opinion to offer. The fact that the Khaitab Hezbollah base was distant from the point of attack hardly seems to be a decisive argument against their involvement. A stronger argument might be, What was in it for them? A strategy of pin prick attacks against US bases could be seen as part of an overall strategy to force a withdrawal, or to keep the US off balance. Either ISIS or Iran might adopt such a strategy.

ISIS has emerged as a major feature in the Iranian thinking regarding how best to strike back at the US for Suleimani’s death. The Iranian government has gone out of its way to announce that, in the wake of Suleimani’s assassination, that Washington would be held fully responsible for any resurgence of ISIS in the region. Given the reality that Iran has been at the forefront of the war against ISIS, and that Iranian-backed Iraqi militias such as Khaitab Hezbollah have played a critical role in defeating ISIS on the ground, there is no doubt that Iran has the ability to take its foot off of the neck of a prostrate ISIS and facilitate their resurgence in areas under U.S. control. 
Such an outcome would serve two purposes. First, U.S. forces would more than likely suffer casualties in the renewed fighting, especially since their primary proxy force, the Syrian Kurds, have been diminished in the aftermath of Turkey’s incursion late last year in northern Syria. More importantly, however, is the political cost that will be paid by President Trump, forced to explain away a resurgent ISIS during an election year after going on record that ISIS had been completely defeated. 

I'm somewhat skeptical about this argument. There's no denying that Iran has made this statement. Nevertheless, a resurgent ISIS could hardly be expected to simply serve as an Iranian proxy, staging attacks on US forces. Nor are the Syria Kurds the only forces that have been degraded in the long conflict. Lebanese Hezbollah forces have born the brunt of a great deal of fighting in Syria. A resurgent ISIS would work against Iranian interests in maintaining the combat fitness of its own coalition. It would also pose problems in view of increasingly aggressive Israeli attacks against allies of Iran in Syria and Lebanon.

But the real blow to American prestige would be for the Iraqi government to sever relations with the American military. The U.S. bombing of the Iraqi bases severely stressed U.S.-Iraqi relations, with the Iraqi government protesting the attacks as a violation of their sovereignty. One of the ways the Iraqi government gave voice to its displeasure was by facilitating access by protestors affiliated with Khaitab Hezbollah to gain access to the highly secure Green Zone in downtown Baghdad where the U.S. Embassy is situated, where they set fire to some buildings and destroyed property before eventually dispersing. While commentators and politicians have described the actions targeting the US Embassy as an “attack,” it was a carefully choreographed bit of theater designed to ease passions that had built up as a result of the U.S. attack. 
Getting the Iraqi Parliament to formally reject the U.S. military presence on Iraqi soil has long been a strategic objective of Iran. As such, Iran would be best served by avoiding direct conflict with the US, and letting events take their expected course. 

This, I believe, is the key variable in assessing what the future may hold.

If Iraq votes to expel American forces, the Trump administration will be tied up trying to cope with how to manage that new reality. Add to that the problems that will come in confronting a resurgent ISIS, and it becomes clear that by simply doing nothing, Iran will have already gained the strategic upper hand in a post-Suleimani world. The Trump administration will find it hard to sustain the deployment of thousands of troops in the Middle East if there is no Iranian provocation to respond to. Over time, the American presence will lessen. Security will lapse. And, when the time is right, Iran will strike, most probably by proxy, but in a manner designed to inflict as much pain as possible. 
Trump started this fight by recklessly ordering the assassination of a senior Iranian government official. The Trump administration now seeks to shape events in the region to best support a direct confrontation with Iran. Such an outcome is not in Iran’s best interests. Instead, they will erode Trump’s political base by embarrassing him in Iraq and with ISIS. Iran will respond, that much can be assured. But the time and place will be of their choosing, when the U.S. expects it least.

The problem for us is to assess how much of what's going on is truly part of Trump's strategy and how much derives from Deep State scheming. I can see a possible confluence of interests at play--at least for the short term.


  1. I want all US military back home, period.

    If orher nations want want our help, let them ask and let them pay.

    However, we are all over the world due to WWII, fighting communism, and oil amongst other reasons.

    We are in the Middle East chiefly due to oil and lately due to terrorism.

    The great question is how to extricate ourselves from there and other places in ways that do not harm us, our property, or our interests.

    Worse, we have sone people in power that demand war no matter where, what, or for why and then we have many others who like war when their political party is in power.

  2. Trump doesn't think of Turkey/Syria/Iraq/WhateverStan as a chessboard. He thinks of them as 3rd-world hellholes that Americans should avoid. Iran vs Iraq = Who cares; I certainly don't. We can/should leave Iraq. The Kurds can have proven they can take care of themselves (with CIA assistance).
    The problem in the ME is Iran vs Saudi Arabia.
    We will protect Saudi Arabia from the forthcoming unpreventable Iranian-proxy attacks. And Trump will respond to those attacks by destroying assets of the Iranian regime inside Iran, with American air power, facilitating the internal Iranian civil war.
    You read it here first.

    1. It seems inevitable that Iran will seek to extend its influence over people who will want to resist that, and will turn to non Middle East players for assistance.

  3. Different take, but I think everyone is happy with Soleimani's death: the US for obvious reasons, the Iraqis because he was trying to take over their country, and the Iranians because of the way that Khameni practically forced Trump to kill Soleimani with his “You can’t do anything,”speech.

  4. The ME situation is a millennia-old Shia vs Sunni cat fight in which I can detect no US national security interest. We don't need the oil. As one wag has commented, we don't need to keep the Hormuz Strait open, we only need to be able to close it.

    Selfishly, I'd rather have them (Muslims) fighting amongst themselves rather than fighting (or united against) the US.

    My niece and nephew both served in Iraq--for what purpose or goal I can no longer discern.

    The Neocons essentially got us into Iraq with the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, under Clinton. The US subsequently ousted the Sunni strongman Saddam Hussein--who countered Shia-controlled Iran--resulting in a Shia controlled Iraq likely to find themselves in alignment with Iran. We did Iran's bidding in Iraq. And they call it "unintended consequences."

    1. That's essentially the view of Col. Macgregor, whom I linked a few days ago. Since we don't need ME oil, I assume we police the Persian Gulf to keep oil flowing to those who do need that oil. I'm not aware that we get paid for doing so.


    Daniel (not Andrew) McCarthy thinks Trump got it right.

    I hope so.


    Would somebody please explain to me (again) why we are undertaking to police the Straits of Hormuz?

    1. To insure that India, China, Japan, and S. Korea are supplied with oil.

    2. Bingo!

      And this is in our national self-interest...exactly why?

      Before you answer let me remind you that the cost of the Endless War (largely to protect said Straits) has been estimated at $6.4 Trillion with a T.

      Consider how much of that expenditure could rationally be re-characterized as an unreimbursed subsidy (i.e., wealth transfer) to 'Chinese' manufacturing?

      Paid for by the same taxpayer who thinks the $200 Chinese-manufactured flat screen at Walmart is a really good deal...

      $6.4 trillion would subsidize a lot of US manufactured flat screen tvs...and create a lot of US jobs.

      Another way to look at this is that the globalists got filthy stinking rich, the Chinese got filthy stinking rich, the military-industrial complex got filthy stinking rich and the American worker got...laid off with a prescription for oxycontin with unlimited refills.

      Until 2016, when perhaps miraculously, along came Donald Trump.

    3. I'm about to publish a new post that addresses this at length--by copying and pasting.


    The estimable VDH thinks we've got the upper hand.

    When you think it through, who, really, are Iran's allies?

    1. I'd agree that we have the upper hand--if we're willing to recognize limits to our legitimate interests and clearly think through the means to those ends.

  8. An excellent book which discusses the anomalous situation where we pay to secure the seaways between the Gulf and Asia is Peter Zeihan's The Accidental Superpower.

    Here's an excerpt:

    “American involvement in the Persian Gulf has not been in order to secure energy supplies for the United States, but instead to supply energy for its energy-starved Bretton Woods partners in Europe and Asia. Put more directly, the Americans do not protect the Persian Gulf kingdoms and emirates so that the Americans can use Middle Eastern oil, but so that their Bretton Woods partners in Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, Thailand, India, and Pakistan can.”

    Zeihan goes on to reach some startling conclusions which suggest that Donald Trump may well be on the right track.

    More info here:

    1. Looks interesting. Apart from the question of energy resources, not enough people appreciate the uniquely favorable geography the US enjoys, which ensures that we remain the one true superpower as long as we want:

      1. All-weather ports on three sides plus ready access to the arctic--plus oceans on two sides that are a defensive barrier as well as an open road for us if we maintain our navy.

      2. Favorable weather in our agricultural lands--by and large we get rain when we most need it and dry weather for the harvest.

      3. An incomparable supply/transport system on fresh water: the Great Lakes and the Mississippi - Ohio -Missouri (plus) river system that connects to the Great Lakes. All located in the agricultural and industrial heartland.


      It's simply incomparable.