By Ali H. Soufan
Jan. 14, 2020
In 2016, Donald Trump, then a candidate for president, described Barack Obama as the “founder of ISIS.” In the end, it may be Mr. Trump who comes to be known not as the terrorist group’s founder, but as its savior.
The Islamic State has been weakened considerably since its peak in 2015, when it controlled a territory the size of Britain, but the Trump administration’s targeted killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani may have poised the group for a comeback. Just as the misguided American invasion of Iraq in 2003 revitalized Al Qaeda, some 17 years later, a return to chaos in the same country may yet do the same for the Islamic State.
Granted, the White House was correct to identify General Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s Quds Force, as an enemy of the United States. Using the militia groups he cultivated and controlled, he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of coalition soldiers in the late 2000s and early 2010s. But war in the Middle East is nothing if not complex; General Suleimani’s proxies also indirectly served American interests by fighting the Islamic State — to great effect.
Still, contrary to the breathless eulogies to him in Iran, he was not some indispensable hero who single-handedly defeated the Islamic State. Other commanders will fill his shoes, if not in star power then at least in strategic expertise. The real boon for the jihadists will be the second-order effects of his death.
First, and most obviously, American influence in Iraq is now living on borrowed time. One of those killed alongside General Suleimani, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was the deputy commander of the Popular Mobilization Force, a coalition of pro-Iranian militias that nominally form part of the Iraqi armed forces. For many Iraqis, that made the strike an attack against Iraq as well as Iran, and put the Iraqi government, which already has a tense relationship with the United States, in an even tougher bind.
Recognizing the heightened tensions, the 6,000 American troops in the country have switched their focus to defending Americans in Iraq, rather than fighting the Islamic State or training Iraqi forces to do so. American allies including Germany and Britain have begun pulling their own forces from the country, while the Coalition to Defeat ISIS has suspended its activities with no date set for resumption. These forces may not have been as visible as those from the United States, but their work behind the scenes — in intelligence, logistics and training — has been just as vital.
Second, the chaos threatens Iraq’s stability. Tehran responded to the strike on General Suleimani with missile attacks on two American-run military bases last week. But it’s unlikely this will be the end of Iran’s retaliation. Iranian military strategy is defined by asymmetry — and particularly by the use of militant proxies. Under a screen of plausible deniability, Iran will most likely work to drive the United States out of Iraq.
In this, the Iranians will be brutal. During the American occupation — before the rise of the Islamic State made strange bedfellows of Washington and Tehran — Iranian proxies often exceeded Sunni extremists in terms of the number of casualties they inflicted on American forces. These proxies have lost no time in returning to attacks on American interests. On Sunday, four days after Iran’s missile strikes, a rocket attack on another installation that houses American forces wounded four Iraqi service members.
A conflict between Iranian proxies and the United States will tear at Iraq’s fragile governing structures, creating a power vacuum for the Islamic State to exploit. Iraq already has only a caretaker government. The prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, resigned in November and has been staying on pending his replacement. The country’s governance depends on achieving a precarious balance among different ethnic, tribal and religious constituencies. When those blocs are forced to take sides between the United States and Iran, the balance becomes all but unattainable and Iraq’s viability as a state is jeopardized. Add to that the harm to counterterrorism operations brought about by the “pause” in coalition assistance, and you have a combustible mix.
Third, and perhaps worst of all, General Suleimani’s death portends yet more sectarianism in Iraq. The parliamentary vote on Jan. 5 to expel American troops passed on the strength of votes from Shiite lawmakers; members of Parliament representing Iraq’s other main factions, the Kurds and the Sunni Arabs, abstained.
Extremist groups thrive on this kind of division. Early last decade, the openly sectarian policies of Iraq’s prime minister at the time, Nuri al-Maliki, created a wave of communal violence. Sunni Arabs looked for protection anywhere they could find it, and the Islamic State was quick to exploit that need. Having built support that way before, the Islamic State will not hesitate to do so again, given the opportunity.
Moreover, the Iranian response to General Suleimani’s killing is likely to include an escalation in its conflict with Saudi Arabia, which is framed as a battle between Sunnis and Shiites. Ratcheting up these tensions will create still more openings for Sunni extremists such as the Islamic State.
Like all terrorist groups, the Islamic State draws fuel from chaos and division. The killing of General Suleimani promises much of both to come. The Islamic State still has deep pockets, affiliates around the world, and a knack for recruitment. General Suleimani’s death will have its leaders rubbing their hands in anticipation.
The damage is done. Without a major cooling of tensions, a jihadist resurgence might now be all but inevitable.
Original Headline: Why ISIS Is Delighted That Suleimani Is Dead
Source: The New York Times