Yeah, as is occasionally the case with major world events, no clever or punny title for this one.
We just assassinated one of Iran’s top military officials. Also one of the leaders of Iraq’s Shiite militias, and various people who happened to be in the car with them at the time the airstrike happened, of course, because weapons, as it turns out, are only so smart.
Though occasionally smarter than the people dictating their use.
Qassem Soleimani is a something of a celebrity in Iran, so it’s hard to draw a parallel for the younger generations, but imagine if Norman Schwarzkopf had been assassinated, and you’ll probably be fairly close to the reality of this situation in terms of political and social impact. Not quite a Patton, but an important and reasonably charismatic figure whose death will not pass quietly into the night.
Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was the Iraqi militia leader killed in the attack, and he held a similarly venerated position in Iraq’s sprawling network of paramilitary forces, though he was typically the front man for Iranian interests in the area. And again, a key figure in the Shiite militias, charismatic and well-liked by his forces.
Neither of these men was exactly what one would call a good person. Soleimani was sentenced to death in absentia in Kuwait for his role in various embassy bombings in the 1980s, and al-Muhandis has his own fairly lengthy rap sheet of bombings and attempted assassinations. He was also involved in the fight against ISIS, of course, but there are times when the enemy of my enemy is still my enemy.
Those times being “almost always in the long run”, but the issue right now is the immediate response.
This particular assassination puts Iran in a rather difficult position, since both men had built up something of a cult of personality, and the unique web of friends, acquaintances, and alliances that goes along with such, so replacing them will not be as simple as promoting one of their lieutenants. As such, this represents a significant attack on Iranian capabilities, particularly in irregular warfare, in the Middle East.
So what happens next?
It’s difficult to say, and a great deal depends on just how deluded, misled, or irrationally confident the Iranian government is regarding their chances in a general war with the United States. By the time this post goes live, you’ll likely have seen a few dozen pundits saying that this time it’ll be different and the body count will be enormous for any US forces sent into the region, but in all likelihood… Not really. Iran is a somewhat more sophisticated enemy in 2019 than Iraq was in 1991, and the technological advancements in the intervening decades have greatly increased the efficacy of asymmetric warfare, but at the same time…
The mistake people often make regarding the Iraq War,the Afghanistan War, hell, the Vietnam War is to conflate “winning the war” with “leaving behind a friendly government”, and in reality that doesn’t happen very often. We managed it in Germany and Japan in no small part because we’d flattened those countries so thoroughly that their options were “be friendly or starve”, and we did it by means that most Americans today would find reprehensible, and I’m not just talking about the nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It’s perfectly possible to “win the war” by crushing the opposing military force and then leaving a resentful, defanged enemy behind you whilst you move on to other things. Yes, in the long run it is very much an inferior option to leaving a friendly government behind, but if a war with Iran escalated, the only thing that they could do to keep from getting flattened entirely would be to effectively beg Russia to intervene on their behalf with threats of nuclear retaliation.
And I don’t think Putin is that stupid.
So no, this is not “a war we can’t win!” It’s just a war we’ll “win” by leaving a pissed of Iran stewing in the Middle East, and a significantly greater degree of regional instability, with what will probably be an almost inevitable second round within the next decade after Iran gets back on its feet and starts doing things like sinking oil tankers with RPG-armed speedboats.
Of course, Iran has been poking the bear in this fashion for some years now, testing out their capabilities in asymmetric warfare, and trying to find out just how far they can ratchet up tensions with their enemies before someone does something like, say, assassinate one of their most popular military leaders.
Also, before someone says “but we don’t do that!”, tell it to Isoroku Yamamoto. We have done it, we do it rather often to military commanders that operate outside of conventional national military organizations, and for fuck’s sake the CIA sent Castro an exploding cigar, so you can safely assume that we’re dicks like that.
The most likely response from Iran would be more of the same sort of probing and quasi-deniable actions they’ve been conducting for years now. Probably an embassy gets bombed, or stormed by a “spontaneous public uprising”. People will certainly get killed, and some of those people will be Americans, functionally none of whom had anything whatsoever to do with the decision to assassinate Soleimani.
The somewhat less likely response would be an escalation, open military operations against US allies in the region, a blockade of the Strait of Hormuz, things of that nature. It’s something they couldn’t keep up for long, but if they can put together a response that hurts the world economy, the theory would be that they could turn popular opinion against the United States. Which won’t exactly be difficult with our jowly orange overlord in charge, but at the same time…
Such actions could easily escalate further, to a full-on counterforce operation by the United States, designed to destroy Iran’s military capabilities. And with likely a few bombs landing on their nuclear facilities as part of the bargain.
At times I wonder if the lack of involvement of most of the world in the so-called Second World War has lead to a certain deficiency in understanding of just how awful war on an industrial scale can be. And in the past 70 years, we’ve worked out ways to make it so much worse than that, without even bringing up the question of nuclear weapons.
The United States, alone among functionally all world powers, has the capacity to effectively gut major cities in a single day without ever employing nuclear weapons, because we have a sizable strategic bombing fleet and nobody else does.
But I digress.
Long run, there is no scenario where Iran wins a conventional war with the United States. And by Iran, I mean the Iranian people, not the idiots in charge of the country. They could well come out of any such situation in a position of power strengthened by popular resolve engendered from a well-earned hatred of the United States.
Of course, they could also find themselves getting killed by drone strikes. Which so far haven’t really managed to do what their clearly intended goal is, to cut off the head of the serpent, because as Heracles could tell them, when you’re dealing with popular movements, what you have is a hydra, not a snake. You can slow it down, make life difficult, but there are enough true believers that someone will always step up to a position of leadership, and the collateral damage from drone warfare ensures that they will always have a healthy supply of cannon fodder willing to die for the cause.
Barring the aforementioned flattening of cities. It’s entirely possible to break the will of an enemy populace from the air, it’s just… unpalatable. Even in the significantly less politically correct days of WWII, people found euphemisms to help them sleep at night.
The British weren’t bombing German civilians, they were conducting a “dehousing” program.
We could “dehouse” functionally all of Iran within a shockingly short period of time were we so inclined. We have ~150 strategic bombers in service at this moment, and while those numbers are insignificant compared to the thousands of aircraft that took part in the bombing campaigns against German and Japan, they are individually much more capable than the venerable designs of WWII, and the weapons they employ equally so.
But I digress. Again.
The possibility of escalation is what concerns everyone at this point, particularly with Trump in charge and Congress having effectively ceded control of the US military to the Presidency decades ago. By the time the Democrats could get their shit together, it’s entirely possible that they’d find themselves with few options but to approve continuing military operations because the alternative would be political suicide.
The ball is in Iran’s court now, and they know it. The question is what they intend to do with it.
The smart thing, in the long run, would be to take that ball and go home. Play the victim, wave the bloody shirt, but don’t push, don’t escalate, and hope that international opinion swings to their side in the face of their obvious “restraint”. Trump is sufficiently unpopular abroad, and his tendency towards unilateral action sufficiently frustrating, that the odds of European backing for any Iranian adventures is very slim, after all, so if Iran hunkers down and takes it, they would come out ahead in the political conflict, which is their only hope for any tangible victory.
What I fear is that pride, ignorance, and domestic political maneuvering will lead to Iran chucking that ball through someone’s window to see what happens next.