IS stands to benefit the most as US and Iran confront each other over Qassem Soleimani's death
President Donald Trump’s foreign policy moves of late have stirred up a hornet's nest. In early October, his drastic decision to pull American forces from northern Syria invited wrath from not only the opponents but also his own Republican Party. The decision not only boosted Turkey to carry out a mission against the Kurds on Syrian soil but also weakened America’s allies in their fight against the Islamic State (IS) militants. Several militants were freed from confinement during the Turkish offensive where they had been put with the help of the Kurds.
Three months since then, Trump delivered another blow to his own country’s interests abroad. On Friday, January 3, top Iranian military leader General Qassem Soleimani was assassinated in an American drone strike outside the airport in Baghdad where he was reportedly present to negotiate a de-escalation in tensions with regional foes Saudi Arabia. Along with him, a leader of Iraq’s Hezbollah militia was also killed and the episode put America’s entire Middle East policy in jeopardy. Following the high-profile assassination and the resulting counter threats from Iran, the international coalition fighting the IS suspended its operations so that the focus could be made on protecting American, British and other troops based in Iraq.
On Sunday, January 5, a statement from Operation Inherent Resolve, America’s military's operational name for the military intervention against the IS, said the coalition was “fully committed” to protecting its bases in the light of “repeated rocket attacks” from pro-Iranian militias over the past two months and it was affecting the fight against the IS. “This has limited our capacity to conduct training with partners and to support their operations against Daesh [Isis], and we have therefore paused these activities, subject to continuous review,” it said.
This greatly impacts America’s war on terror even though Trump has announced time and again that the IS has been comprehensively defeated. The militants have been forced to cede advantage in Iraq and Syria, thanks to the coalition forces’ superior military might but now, Trump seems to have handed them back the advantage, even after killing the chief of the militant group Ab Bakr Al-Baghdadi in October end.
There are a number of ways in which the IS benefits from the latest tussle between Washington and Tehran in the aftermath of Soleimani’s assassination.
Soleimani's killing has messed up US' relation with Iraq
On Sunday, the Iraqi parliament supported a recommendation of the country’s prime minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, that all foreign troops present in the country should be asked to move out following the killings. There are around 6,000 American troops based in Iraq whose primary task has been to help the local military against the IS. Baghdad is close to Tehran and the US’ act of killing Soleimani and others on Iraqi soil has irked it to no end.
The coalition has hoped to resume its anti-IS operations soon as only the Shias have backed as the parliamentary resolution has been backed mainly by the Shias, but it will not be an easy walk from here on.
Soleimani was a strong opponent to the Islamic State
Soleimani’s death is a crucial blow to the anti-IS mission since he was a major opponent to the militant group who built alliance of Iran-backed militias that fought to drive the IS out of Syria and Iraq. His death has also jeopardized those anti-IS militias’ functioning as it is the US which has now become the main target in Iraq because of its strikes against Soleimani and other Iraqi leaders.
“This is precisely the sort of deus ex machina the organization needed, to give it room to operate and to allow it to break out of its current marginality,” Sam Heller, an analyst at the International Crisis Group who studies the fight against the Islamic State (IS), was quoted as saying by the New York Times.
“Even if the American forces are not withdrawn immediately, it is very difficult for me to imagine that they can meaningfully continue the counter ISIS fight.”
For the American forces now, the focus will be more on protecting themselves against attacks from Iran-backed militias rather than fighting the IS and this is certainly not an ideal situation to run a highly demanding mission against the IS.
Dana Stroul, a former senior Pentagon official and the co-chair of a congressionally sponsored bipartisan Syria Study Group, told the NYT: “They are going to be too focused on protecting the mission instead of on fighting ISIS.”
“That is the end of the D ISIS mission as we know it,” Stroul, now a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, added.
The American troops stationed in Iraq are considered vital in the fight against the IS in terms of provision of surveillance, intelligence and transportation, as per analysts and with them becoming engaged in defense against Iranian and Iraqi elements, the IS fighters will be able to escape the Iraqi forces’ pursuit and eventually rebuild their base.
A re-run of post-2003 Iraq War?
One of the major reasons why the IS grew in the past was the US’ attack on Iraq in 2003 on charges of its former dictator Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction. It was found to be a baseless allegation at the end but the devastation of Iraq’s political set-up saw the IS growing amid the ruins. If there is yet another escalation, this time between the US and Iraq on Iraqi soil, then there will certainly be a re-run of history and none else but the IS will gain the most.
General Soleimani was considered by the US as a fearsome enemy but it was the common enemy in the IS that had made them strange allies. But now, with the US eliminating Soleimani, the IS will be more than glad to see its enemies taking on each other and the war on terror receiving a shattering blow.