The US assassination of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Major General Qassem Suleimani in a drone attack has launched a new phase in a violent and bloody era in the Middle East. Washington and Tehran are closer to the brink of outright war than ever during the past 40 years, creating alarm and uncertainty, aggravating the sense of risk in economic and financial circles, and severely jeopardising the gains that followed the defeat of the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq. Potential chaos could unleash the beasts of sectarian warfare and militia movements on an even larger scale due to the collapse of a number of states and the polarisation that plagues countries that were once centres of gravity in the Arab world.
The Arab world — the theatre of the conflict between US military might and extensive Iranian influence — has been severely weakened and debilitated by the developments of the past two decades. The US invasion of Iraq dismantled the Iraqi state, wrenched Iraq from its Arab environment and placed it under the influence of Tehran. The second decade of this century brought the disintegration of Syria. That country is struggling to reassemble itself today, but only after an exorbitant cost. Politically, this took the form of Iranian involvement in Syrian affairs, US and Russian interventions to protect their interests, and a succession of Turkish invasions and territorial occupations. Now, in the framework of an alliance with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), Ankara plans to intervene militarily in Libya. It claims this is to protect its allies, but in fact it is another manifestation of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s opportunistic exploitation of the fluidity and weakness of the Arab region as he pursues his irredentist project to revive the Ottoman Empire and his bids to seize control of oil and gas resources in order to fund his ambitions.
Whether the US assassination of the most powerful operative in the Iranian regime, the commander of the militias that helped fuel the Sunni-Shia conflict in recent years, was calculated or not, regional temperatures will soar. The approaching brink will overshadow many crucial issues and put paid to opportunities for collective action to restore security and stability to a number of countries. If Iran retaliates in a manner that provokes a definitive US response, there will be no averting a full-scale war in the region despite the fears and warnings of the vast majority of the international community.
Will the American public approve their country’s involvement in another conflict in the Middle East? It is a question that is being asked everywhere and that is especially pressing in the US, which has just entered an election year. After all, there is no guarantee that the US will come away without major losses in a military confrontation with the Iranian military machine on which Tehran has spent untold billions during the past four decades of Islamist theocratic rule. Is US public opinion prepared for another overseas military engagement at a time when its president has been pushing to extricate the US from its foreign military obligations that cost the US so much during recent decades?
More questions arise at this perilous juncture:
Europe will certainly try to forestall the outbreak of a major war in order to safeguard its interests, especially given the current state of the economy in the Eurozone. But does it even have the ability to do so?
Can the Gulf countries, which have appealed for calm and restraint, play a role in building bridges of understanding with Tehran to keep it from falling over the precipice into a war that would be economically disastrous for the whole Gulf region?
Can China and Russia, which have extensive interests with all sides, merely stand by and watch the escalation between Washington and Tehran?
Such questions beg for answers in the coming weeks, if not days.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 January 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly