The strike was violent, decisive, and wholly unexpected. After frantic reporting, initially doubted by many, the news was confirmed in the early morning on January 3 in Iraq. Two of America’s enemies were dead.
Since the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ al-Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was head of the Iran-sponsored Hezbollah Brigades, there have been more deaths, caused directly and indirectly.
At least 56 people were killed by the weight of the crowds at Soleimani’s funeral. Iran fired missiles at bases housing foreign forces in Iraq, which did not kill any foreigners (despite Iranian claims to the contrary) but look to have killed or injured Iraqis.
It seems likely that a Ukraine International Airlines plane, which crashed shortly after taking off from Tehran, at the cost of 176 lives, was shot down by Russian air defences in Iranian hands.
In the United States, members of the Congress spent a week publicly fearing the outbreak of global conflict before attempting to restrict the president’s capacity to order new fighting by passing a War Powers resolution.
The picture described by these events could be that of a world approaching global war – something that was predicted and even eagerly anticipated by many at the beginning of the week.
That did not happen. Indeed, the nature of the events showed that global war was never a likely consequence of Soleimani’s assassination and that those expecting its outbreak were either incorrect or palpably dishonest in doing so.
When Iran launched missiles into Iraq, it is thought, it did so to miss, with its targets being large bases with much empty space. Iran let the Iraqi president know of the attacks ahead of time, information he duly passed on.
Although Iran’s network of proxies is extensive – and it has both form in retaliating with these groups and increasingly acknowledges their direct ties to Tehran – Iran-affiliated groups have posted public statements supporting the Iranian foreign minister’s claim to have ‘concluded’ retaliatory action.
A great deal of the speculation that a third world war was imminent began online, where it was both an instinctive reaction of the uninformed or partisan and something of an easy joke for those looking to make light of a situation they didn’t necessarily understand but could derive comedy from in any case.
For those who meant what they said, Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former British Army officer who works with medical charities in Syria and has served as an adviser for Iraqi Kurdistan’s peshmerga, said: ‘People all too easy look at the “status quo ante” and head to anecdotes about the first and second Gulf wars to predict a third conflict in the region or even the globe’.
Those parallels were flawed, he said.
‘Fundamentally, the US vastly overmatches Iran militarily and all its friends and allies. This is a battle that Iran can never win and they know it.’
Some of the comedy and activism seemed to fixate on Iran as a nuclear state capable of destroying the United States. The same thing is suggested every time the United States and Russia fall out. Nuclear war is said to be on the horizon. It has failed to materialise.
‘[Iran’s] nuclear programme is still years from providing a viable weapon and no doubt the Israelis would take it out long before it got near viability, as they did to the Syrians in 2007. There is not the oil leverage there was even a few years ago, with the US self-sufficient and most moving, if slowly away from fossil fuels’, de Bretton-Gordon said.
The threats of a response from Iran through its proxy forces remain significant as ‘Iran and its proxies are undoubtedly behind most terror in the Gulf and beyond and it is the time to rein them in. Tehran is well aware of this and is unlikely to commit national suicide in the face of overwhelming power. Tehran will no doubt continue to goad the West through terror rather than war unless decisively engaged by the West, which I believe is unlikely’, de Bretton-Gordon added.
Beyond all this talk lie real lives and real wars. In northern Syria, the forces of Russia and the regime of Bashar Assad – supported by Iran and its proxies – continue to attack Idlib province and its surroundings. There are aerial attacks almost every day.
Recent offensives have caused hundreds of thousands to seek to flee the path of the advances.
‘My most immediate concern is what is happening in Idlib in Syria’, said de Bretton-Gordon.
‘Assad, supported by Iran and Russia, is stepping up attacks to overrun this final resisting province under the smokescreen of Soleimani. The most pressing issue with this is that the UN mandate for cross-border humanitarian aid runs out on January 10 after the Russian veto.
‘Not only are the 3 million civilians, trapped with the remaining jihadists, being bombed into oblivion, they will soon be starved as well.
‘I understand why most Western and regional countries just want the war in Syria over, but their steadfast resolve to do nothing will lead thousands of innocent civilian deaths before that happens.’
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.