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.