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Trump Eliminates Soleimani, Mastermind of Iran’s Shia Crescent
Iranian General Qassem Soleimani was an evil genius responsible for the deaths of thousands over his lifetime. He was the mastermind behind Iranian adventurism from Yemen to Lebanon. Supplying the money and material to rain rockets on Israel? That was him. Intimidating civilians and shooting Iraqi protesters across the Nineveh Plain by Shia militias? Him too. Shooting cruise missiles from Houti rebel bases into Saudi Arabia? Him again. As commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards elite Quds Force and architect of foreign operations by Iran, he was the architect of the so-called Shia Crescent.
Soleimani’s death came suddenly. Unexpectedly. On the second day of a new decade, Soleimani’s assassination ushers in the roaring 20’s with a vengeance. Targeted at Baghdad airport by a US airstrike, he died in plain sight for the entire country of Iraq to witness and take heed.
My question is why? We’ve mostly tolerated Soleimani as he’s moved around in plain sight pulling his nonsense for years. The US is particularly careful about going kinetic these days. Why would US President Donald Trump, someone who has shown unusually strong restraint throughout 2019 at provocation after provocation by Iran, determine that he needed to act, and act now.
Let’s be clear here. This is not political theater. I’m not into those kinds of games. Anyone capable of commonsense thinking should realize that the United States don’t just turn on a dime and go from a passive containment strategy based on economic sanctions and coalition building to kinetic intervention using leadership decapitation with no reason. Something existential, present and actionable must have triggered us to act.
What changed in the complex calculus of Middle East stability? What was Soleimani up to? What was he planning with the Iraqi militias? On who’s orders? Who was he such a threat to?
Let’s start with the basics. Soleimani was not a threat to the United States. The efforts of the IRG to date have been mostly a nuisance to date. We lost three drones in 2019 which we can easily afford to replace. The Israelis are holding their own as are the Saudis even after being on the receiving end of attacks from Iran’s proxy war allies. People look at the troubles of the Yemeni the same way they look at the plight of the Afghans; it’s the Wild West of the Middle East. Syria is a stalemate scenario with everyone having a piece of the action and no one having a path to ever being the winner take all. No Iran is not an existential, must act now, problem in any of these scenarios.
That leaves only one scenario where a US national interest might be triggered. A possible regime change threat in Iraq. What we do know is that Soleimani has been actively organizing Shia militias in Iraq for years.
They were the opposite fist in the Iraqi equation. During the US war in the country, Shia militias fought the US led coalition tenaciously. So much so that feelings among western veterans still rub raw over the lives lost to them. During the war against ISIS, Shia militias were the wild card watched warily by Kurdish and Iraqi government forces even as they fought against a common Daesh enemy. We know that after ISIS, the Shia militias spread across Iraq’s Nineveh Plain serving as the proxy army for Iran’s ambitions in the region. And we know that at the top of that food chain, Qassem Soleimani was the charismatic leader of the campaign.
We also know that, after a period of quiet in Iraq, a series of popular protests by Iraqis emerged in the fall of 2019. And we know Shia militias fired on those protesters until Iraqi government forces arrived to quell the killing. We know that these events have caused the militias to lose popularity with the people and the government. We also know that Iranians ultimately reporting to Soleimani were involved with these militias and that some of the Iranian cadres had to leave because duty called them to come home to control protesters inside Iran itself. We know the Iranians tried to hide the extent of their internal problems by disabling the internet inside Iran. But enough information came to light to note that things were serious enough that people were burning buildings in cities across Iran. That’s some serious not happy stuff going on.
And then there’s this detail about Iranian strategic planning. Unlike the brilliance of someone like Soleimani, most Iranian leadership are third rate thinkers. Comical at times. They think like it’s the 7th century. One of more interesting flaws of that mentality is that they believe in religion being a powerful part of planning and timing. One does not fight when everyone is pilgrimaging to Mecca. And if your national leadership is top heavy with clerics, you probably assume Americans don’t fight during Christmas. You know, the way the South Vietnamese once made the mistake of letting their guard down for Tet, which is coming up by the way.
So we saw one of the Iranian backed Shia militias, Kataeb Hezbollah, attack an Iraqi government base in December killing one American. While the US can afford to love material almost forever, losing lives is not something we tolerate.
Finally, the US reacted to the provocation. We used force attacking the offending Shia militia, killing twenty-five of their fighters, and issued a blustery warning not to continue such actions.
The Iranians, who have been desperately trying to get the United States to react to provocation for so long, finally smelled an opening for game of goad and pretext they’ve been hoping for.
This in turn precipitated an attempt by Iran to test US resolve by threatening the US embassy in Baghdad. The embassy siege test resulted in observing that the US government would react with strength and speed, and that the Iraqi government would react in a restrained fashion. That is an actionable piece of intelligence. One that says there’s a limited time to act before the US and the Iraqi government adapt.
Have no doubt, this was General Qassem Soleimani, master architect of the Shia Crescent, at the helm of this operation. The fact that he came to Baghdad says so. I conjecture that, given Iran’s frustrations throughout 2019, he was probably under some pressure to exploit the opening from his superiors. How ambitious his plans were remains to be detailed as classification turns to transparency; but the I doubt this scenario hasn’t been played and replayed by the Iranian general staff ad nauseum; or that the Shia militias in Iraq haven’t been preparing for an opportunity to come to turn Iraq into a domino falling into the hands for the Shia Crescent of an Iranian Greater Middle East Islamic Empire.
So here’s the million dollar question of the day. Did Soleimani come to Baghdad to make ad hoc plans with the militias or to command the carrying out of a set piece plan primed and ready to go?
The forceful attack by the United States suggests we thought the latter. If that is true, then Donald Trump just saved the Iraq government from an existential threat.
It’s going to get noisy next. But here are the three things coming out of this moment to I am going to watch.
First, I’d watch the Iranians. This is a major brain power loss to their cause. Soleimani was an evil genius in the service of an ambitious regime. With him gone, the entire Shia Crescent vision of Iran is no longer cohesive. Soleimani’s personal charisma was vital to Iran’s agenda. Now decapitated, will Iran’s weak strategic thinking tendencies come to haunt them?
I personally hope so. I believe that the collapse of Iran’s Shia Crescent ambitions will be a good thing for the entire Middle East including the Iranians. Abandoning their adventurism will allow them to use their oil wealth for the benefit of their people. For the moment, Iran’s leadership is pledging revenge. But is that really resolve? Or is it, like so many other things in Iran, just fresh rhetoric for a failing regime to hold on to power just a little longer.
Second, I’d watch the reactions of the Russians and the Chinese. You know people in the US administration is pulling 24 hours days right now talking to the Kremlin and Beijing about how much to they should or should not want to get sucked into this hole that is about to get weird in Iraq. What we can be sure of is that we are telling other world leaders exactly what we know about what Soleimani was going on that prompted us to conclude we had to blow him to pieces on the second day of the second decade of the 21st century.
As to how will they react, I’ll just note that Russian President Vladimir Putin just thanked US President Donald Trump for the US helping the Russians thwart a terrorist threat against them. I’ll also note that Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping plan to sign phase one of the US-China Trade Deal.
Third, I’d watch the American political system. The lesson of Tet in Vietnam bears remembering this minute. Will we win the complex calculus of foreign policy only to lost it to our penchant to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Already, we see the same forces gathering in our politician and media. Will we fall victim to the same cultural weaknesses that lost us a war once upon a time again?
On this last one, I’m not so sure we are any smarter than we were in 1968. Once again, this is our most asymmetric weakness. This is the aspect of the problem that we cannot ignore. We are impervious militarily. The only we can lose is to shoot ourselves in the foot politically.
We should take a lesson from social media not in the US but in Iraq. There were videos of Iraqis dancing in the streets at the news that Soleimani was dead. We should be asking why are they happy?
Dennis Santiago is an author and commentator on national policy and global stability issues. His subject matter expertise was developed during the Cold War as a strategic warfare systems analyst, missile defense architect, and arms control analyst. He is the author of the US Imperfect Defense Theory of Strategic Missile Defense. Dennis has worked on conventional warfare, nuclear warfare, and asymmetric warfare. His expertise includes combat aircraft, ordnance, electronic warfare, command and control, campaign design, and game theory.