Suleimani’s Death, Reprisals, and America’s Limits

The material of an action filled thriller has happened. The Iranian General Qasem Suleimani, the shadowy mastermind of Iranian regional hegemony in the Middle East was slain by American missiles. Not only him, but also an entourage of nine other Iraqi and Iranian personnel including his long time friend Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

The mazal here was that despite years of threats, Israel was not the culprit. The Iranian rage is against the United States, that, despite years of strategic mishaps is still the world’s top military power. There are chants of “Death to Israel” however it is behind an even greater chant of “Death to America” and a pledge to force America to cowardly exit from the Middle East.

Where do things go from here and what does it mean for Israel?

As of writing, the Iraqi parliament voted to ask the United States to leave Iraq. The vote, mostly led by Shiite members of parliament passed with a boycott of most Kurdish and Sunni lawmakers exposing a sectarian divide. Even if there is a will to ask the United States to leave Iraq it will still need to provide a one year notice for the troops to leave the country and in the Middle East a lot can happen in a year. In a years time there can be a shooting war with Iran. Maybe the Kurdistan region will cut a deal with the American forces in defiance of Baghdad. Maybe the United States will carve itself an additional statelet in the oilfields of Eastern Syria. Other actors such as Saudi Arabia may also take advantage or intervene, even though for now they appear to be quiet.

What the United States has is Donald Trump who is hard to predict. One day he demands a withdrawal from the “endless wars of the Middle East”, the next month he entrenches himself in the same region.

However, Trump is limited by his own government. The Democrats, who control the House of Representatives, will be reluctant to sign off on any military action. If Iran’s reprisal includes the deaths of many US servicemembers it is uncertain that the reprisal “act of war” will be recognized as such by Trump’s opposition. Rather, they may blame Trump for endangering American lives, the exact reverse act of what he was telling the media: “I acted to save American lives”. A Declaration of War on Iran even after a bloody reprisal seems far fetched. Even if thousands of Americans were to die in bloody tit for tat, it is uncertain that the Democrats would authorize the use of force; rather, blaming everything on Trump. Trump was elected on an election promise to end America’s wars in the Middle East. Too much blowback, in addition to pressure from his base alongside the opposition might be all that it will take to order a withdraw. It’s happened before, in 1983.

Iran must be watching this with glee. They know that the Democrats would try to stymie any massive spiral toward war and Trump has his own base to appease. As such, Trump’s options are limited to reprisal tit for tat and Iran knows this. Will America withdraw if it receives a bloody nose in the Middle East from Iran? This is the question we should be asking.

Where does this leave Israel? The risk of immediate war is not likely to happen. However if the United States were to suddenly withdraw or a tit for tat reprisal spirals out of control, rockets could soon find their way coming this way. What stops the rockets for the time being is a fear of the United States and also a fear of massive retaliation from Israel. Nevertheless, the dynamic could soon change.

Suleimani, while an enemy of Israel, largely abstained from hitting the state. He was a master strategist, akin to a chess player, that preferred to take his time for the opportune moment. This strategy could soon change if less patient hardline elements take over.

Israel is watching for the time being events occurring in its neighborhood. However, a major miscalculation and what is taking place a thousand kilometers to the east could shake us here at home.

About the Author
Born in Israel but raised in Canada, Gil Lewinsky worked as a journalist in Jewish newspapers including the Jerusalem Post after completing a Masters degree at the Munk School of Global Affairs from the University of Toronto. He also has a LLM in International Law from Lancaster University in the UK. His past topics include a book written about the Status of Gaza under International Law soon after its conquest by Hamas in 2007. He is perhaps best known as one of two people that brought a flock of Jacob Sheep from Canada to Israel in 2016, making history. He currently works as a teacher and public relations professional in Israel.
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