Just a few months ago, it seemed as if the United States and the Middle East were going their separate ways.
On October 7, US President Donald Trump announced that it was time “for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home. WE WILL FIGHT WHERE IT IS TO OUR BENEFIT, AND ONLY FIGHT TO WIN,” he tweeted.
The major players in the region, including Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia, the Europeans and the Kurds, would now “have to figure the situation out” by themselves, he added, justifying his controversial decision to withdraw nearly all US troops from northern Syria.
Israel and its supporters in the US were worried about the move, fearing that leaving the entire playing field to Moscow and Tehran would further embolden the enemies of the Jewish state.
“I’m concerned. We have relied for the last 45 years on a Pax Americana that no longer exists,” Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the US, told The Times of Israel in mid-October. “I am not saying that the US won’t come to our assistance [in case of war] but we can’t be certain of it anymore,” he said. “We have to internalize that that’s the situation.”
Other security experts in Jerusalem and Washington agreed that Trump’s withdrawal from Syria underscored his isolationist foreign policy. The US was not reacting forcefully to Iran’s increasing belligerence. No massive retaliation followed Iran’s attack on Saudi Arabia’s Aramco oil factory. Likewise, the US did nothing after Iran shot down a US drone or after the regime disrupted various maritime vessels.
Evidently Trump would do nothing to risk starting a new war in the Middle East — certainly not as he fends off an impeachment and heads into an election year, many analysts thought.
They were wrong.
Overnight Friday, Trump authorized the killing of General Qassem Soleimani, the powerful head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force.
More than any other action the US president has approved in the three years since taking office, the airstrike on Baghdad International Airport that killed Soleimani and other top Iranian officials demonstrated that Trump is willing to use military force in the Middle East, even if that may mean starting a new regional war.
“Justice is done and American deterrence in the Middle East restored,” Oren, the former Israeli diplomat, cheered on Friday morning.
Qassem Soleimani, responsible for the murder of thousands—Syrians, Iraqis, Americans, Israelis, Yemenis—and for plotting terrorist attacks around the world, is dead. Justice is done and American deterrence in the Middle East restored. All those threatened by Iran are grateful.
— Michael Oren (@DrMichaelOren) January 3, 2020
The strike once again demonstrated the US president’s unpredictability. One may consider many of Trump’s actions erratic or even capricious, but the fact is that no one in the Middle East — including the Iranians — saw this coming.
The strike was thus the latest reflection of the president’s mercurial attitude toward the region. And potentially the most dramatic of his military moves.
Changing the status quo
In April 2017, Trump raised eyebrows when he ordered an airstrike on the Iranian-backed Syrian regime. Many Israelis cheered, celebrating that where the previous president, Barack Obama, failed to endorse his own red line and refrained from attacking Syria, his successor was willing to use force to underline the seriousness of his threats.
But, to the great disappointment of many, the 59 Tomahawk missiles the US Army fired on the Shayrat Airfield, north of Damascus, did not dramatically change the course of history. The Syrian civil war, including the gassing of civilians, continued more or less unabated.
A year later, in early April 2018, the US once again attacked Syria. A coalition of US, French and British pilots fired 105 missiles at targets connected to the regime’s chemical weapons program. This strike, too, did little to end the Syrian tragedy or to deter Tehran from entrenching itself there.
Killing Soleimani, on the other hand, has the potential to dramatically change the status quo in the region, including leading to a major conflagration involving Iran, the US, Syria, Hezbollah, Russia, the Gulf states — and of course Israel.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khameini vowed “severe revenge” for Soleimani’s assassination. He called for three days of mourning, after which Israel will be braced for Iranian efforts at retaliation.
The regime could try to strike Israel directly with drones or missiles stationed in nearby Syria. Its Lebanon-based proxy Hezbollah may attempt cross-border attacks or terror attacks at Israeli and/or Jewish targets abroad.
Tehran is also likely to exacerbate its violations of the 2015 nuclear deal. An Iranian effort to break out toward nuclear weapons capability would pose an entirely different — but no less complex — set of challenges for Israel.
To be sure, many in Jerusalem are happy about Soleimani’s demise. As the mastermind behind Iran’s efforts to export the Islamic Revolution, he was responsible for countless terror attacks targeting Israelis and Jews worldwide. However, Israeli ministers were instructed on Friday not to publicly comment on the matter, likely to avoid pouring fuel on the fire.
And yet there is no doubt that, as of Friday morning, the Israeli security establishment is working overtime to be sure it is prepared for all eventualities. Trump’s order to kill Soleimani was utterly unexpected. A violent Iranian response to it will surprise no one.