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Most of the commentary and media attention focused intensely on what Iran’s response will be and how escalating tensions between the sworn enemies of Iran and the US will develop. However, there is also a need to step back and weigh the lasting repercussions of this unilateral decision on the US’s regional allies. Key alliances have been challenged by President Donald Trump’s apparent disregard for the rules of international engagement, and already-strained coalition relationships have been challenged even further. The danger is that a new window of opportunity may have opened for terrorist organisations in the region.
Since 2001, the US has operated on multiple fronts in the Middle East in military offensives and campaigns against terrorist organisations and the governments which backed them. It has been supported throughout these operations by its Five Eyes partners – the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – as well as key European partners. These alliances have carried through campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as forming the leading component of the Global Coalition Against Daesh (the Islamic State) which operates in Iraq and Syria. It has not just been the blood of American soldiers that has made whatever advances can be considered victories in the region. And yet, it was a unilateral American decision which could potentially have immensely destabilising ripple effects in the region. Trump’s allies will no doubt have this episode in the back of their minds the next time his call comes for their partnership; the US president seems capable of taking major decisions without consulting them.
The UK is put in an especially hard position. The last thing London needs right now is the imposition of another strain on its already-tense relationship with mainland Europe because of President Trump’s actions and his calls on the UK to back American stances. That much became clear with the initial confusion in the UK government in the immediate aftermath of the killing of Soleimani. London was genuinely conflicted between continuing to express support for the EU position on Iran and siding with the US, or at least toning down any criticism of US action. But the UK’s predicament is also shared – to varying degrees – by other key allied nations.
The Global Coalition Against Daesh
The US administration seems to be burning its bridges with both its friends and foes. Although the US has long had a propensity for unilateral action, the general disregard for the coalition approach in the Middle East is testing the limits of its resolve.
The Global Coalition Against Daesh was formed in 2014 and comprises 81 partners, including the US, European states, Gulf states, Turkey, Iraq and many others. This complex collection of partners seems improbable given their very diverse security perspectives on the issues of this unstable region. The unifying factor was the threat of the Islamic State spreading across Iraq and Syria, scooping up nearly 110,000 square kilometres of territory in a campaign to establish its caliphate. This successful campaign of terrorism, which drew in more than 40,000 foreign fighters to its cause from around the world, provided a challenge large enough to override disagreements and resulted in the creation of the coalition.
Unfortunately, the surprise US action taken against Iran only compounds other recent blows delivered against the coalition’s sense of cohesion. Trump’s declaration of success against the Islamic State in Syria led to the announcement of the withdrawal of US troops from Syria and opened a rift in the coalition. The US was widely criticised for abandoning the Kurdish military, key allies in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, in the face of a Turkish offensive. Tens of thousands of these local partners gave their lives alongside more than 100 coalition members in the campaign against the Islamic State. However, with the weakening of the Islamic State’s grip has come a return of the divisive politics in the region. Turkey has been strongly admonished for its offensive against the Kurds, which spread into Syrian territory, and the potential opportunity its impact could give to the Islamic State to regroup.
Trump’s unilateral decision to act against Iran with complete disregard for Iraq’s sovereignty has also added new fuel to other fires simmering in the region. At its very basic, it has slowed down counterterrorism efforts: the US announced the temporary suspension of anti-Islamic State operations in Iraq, due to the need to protect its own bases and service members in the country. This happened amid an Iraqi parliamentary vote to expel US troops from Iraq, which the US has ignored. Iraq is a key partner in the coalition due to its strategic position in the region. However, Iraq is also being torn apart by the divisive politics of not only its strategic political position but also its geographical position as a neighbouring state of Iran.
A Dangerous Window of Opportunity
The fear is that escalation of tensions in the region between the US and Iran, and their respective allies, could create a vacuum from which all violent groups, Sunni and Shia alike, can only benefit. There is increasing concern from experts about the resurgence of groups such as Al-Qa’ida and the Islamic State. The halting of coalition operations against the Islamic State in Iraq, due to the need to boost the protection of its own troops, undoubtedly gives breathing room to the Islamic State. Attention has been, at least temporarily, diverted away from it and back to the larger issues of geopolitics of the region, yet another boon to the terrorist organisation. The question is whether the respite it may now be experiencing will give it enough time and space to regroup or renew its presence throughout the region.
The killing of such a leading political and military figure in Iran will likely be a rallying point for Shia militias. This event could improve recruitment and support for these terrorist groups and allow them to pose even more of a threat to US troops and coalition action in the region.
Tensions in Iraq had already been heightened prior to the killing of Soleimani over US retaliation against Kata’ib Hizbullah, an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia which has been conducting attacks on bases used by the US in Iraq. Other Shia militias, like Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, will now face a dilemma of whether they should show solidarity with Iran by retaliating against US forces in Iraq or whether they should take a step back from association with more violent groups such as Kata’ib Hizbullah. At least some of the Iranian-backed Shia militias will likely seek revenge, increasing the threat level for US troops and its allies in the region.
So, even though immediate hostilities after the killing of Soleimani seem to have diminished to a large degree – especially due to Iran’s military mistakenly shooting down a Ukrainian commercial plane – this is only a lull before the ripple effects of this unilateral action increase the already-heightened tensions in the region. The increasing prominence of internal divisions have a high probability of stretching the coalition to the breaking point. The various militant groups are surely rejoicing.
Jessica White is a Research Fellow in RUSI’s Terrorism and Conflict group.
BANNER IMAGE: US Marines guarding the US Embassy in Baghdad. US forces were on high alert in the aftermath of the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. Courtesy of US Marine Corps/Kyle C Talbot
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.