Protesters hold an effigy of US President Donald Trump and a picture of Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani during a demonstration outside the US Consulate in Istanbul, on January 5, two days after Soleimani was killed by a US drone strike. Photo: AFP / Yasin Akgul

On April 15, 2019, the US government announced that it was adding Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to its list of internationally recognized terrorist organizations. Designating another country’s military as a terrorist organization was an unprecedented move, hence there was a great deal of apprehension internally within the US as well as among the international community. As  an unprecedented move by the most powerful country in the world, this was to have major unforeseen repercussions.

Now these very repercussions have marked the extremely tense beginning of the year 2020 with the assassination of the Iranian General Qasem Soleimani on January 3 by a US drone strike in Baghdad ordered directly by President Donald Trump. His assassination was touted as an act of defense against an “international terrorist” (Soleimani) to save American lives and assets all over the Middle East. Being a security provider for most countries in the region; this move ipso facto made the region “safer,” or so the US administration believed. However, that most certainly has not been the case.

Death, dissent and grief

In a span of seven days, the region saw a drone strike, a stampede at a funeral procession, missile strikes on airbases and a passenger-plane crash, in all causing a significant number of casualties. If anything, the region has never looked this flammable or at the edge of a potential war. The imminent threat of Iran-US escalation may have subsided for the time being, but the death of Soleimani and that of Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, the deputy head of the Iran-backed Iraqi militia Hashd al-Shaabi, have caused ripples of rage and grief all over the region.

Hashd-al-Shaabi, also known as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), is a politically significant militia that was integrated within Iraq’s armed forces by a presidential decree last year. A former member of parliament, Muhandis was a popular figure in both Iraq and Iran. Although not as influential as Soleimani himself, he was known as the ideal pro-Iranian leader to be placed in Iraq. Both personalities held great sway over the non-state actors in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and all over the region. The US move to strike their convoy [which might be referring to an earlier incident] has not only angered the militiamen all over Middle East but has also turned internal Iraqi dissent toward Iran into support.

ISIS rejoices and regroups

More important, these deaths have caused tremors of instability all over Iraq, as now the US assets there are more vulnerable than ever to vengeful attacks that could be spearheaded by militias such as PMU and many others. This escalation by the US has the potential to bring about a new regional order fraught with non-state actors claiming control over turbulent areas and hindering the smooth running of a state in the war-stricken country of Iraq. That turbulence would most likely spill over to other areas, causing sectarian, political and ethnic disturbances all over the region.

Although the Iran-US escalation seems unlikely any time soon, their mutual relations will continue to be strained

Dampened morale over these killings could also provide room to the scourge of the ISIS to regroup now that its greatest nemesis has been killed. Quite predictably, ISIS welcomed the killing of Soleimani as “divine intervention” as the al-Quds commander had been potently involved in curbing the threat of ISIS in the region.

Although the Iran-US escalation seems unlikely any time soon, their mutual relations will continue to be strained. Both sides have been cautioned by the international community to avoid any further unnecessary escalations. However, who can possibly make sure that the regional militias who behave as non-state actors will not act out in retaliation of their leaders’ assassination?

Assassination, anger and retaliation

Non-state actors in war-torn states, such as Hash-al-Shaabi in Iraq, hold a significant yet ambiguous position with reference to their regional designs and activities. Used by states that assume they can control their actions, these militias/non-state actors have a mind of their own and their actions cannot be charted satisfactorily. Even Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif after Soleimani’s assassination in an interview on one hand denied Iran’s control over any proxies or militias in Iraq and on the other maintained that those people in the streets of Iraq think independently and what they will do is not controllable by Iran.

Further evidence of the enormous power that such militias hold over politics in Iraq was the Iraqi parliament’s vote to oust US troops from the country after the Baghdad Airport drone strike. A Kurdish member of parliament, Sarkawt Shams, said he was threatened with harsh retaliation by the political bureau of the Kataeb Hezbollah militia if he or his people blocked the vote in parliament.

This brings to light the depth of the influence such non-state actors’ have over state affairs. It is thus quite difficult to predict whether the Iranian missile strikes will be vengeance enough for these disgruntled militias who lost their leaders to US involvement in the region.

Hence, it has become increasingly uncertain what the new landscape of the region and Iraq in particular will look like. On January 12, 2020; a volley of rockets hit an Iraqi airbase in Baghdad which usually houses US troops injuring at least four Iraqi troops. No groups have taken responsibility such as yet making it all the more believable that such unclaimed attacks may continue to rock the already shaky situation in the region.

Iran and the US may have finally realized the perils of warmongering and misadventures as the two seem to have scaled back the scope of their conflict. Unfortunately, their spat has left the region unhinged and at the mercy of rogue militias acting on impulse rather than prudence. This new regional order of non-state actors may be here to stay a while after all and has the potential to push the region into further turmoil and chaos.

Fatima Raza

Fatima Raza is a research associate at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad. She holds an MPhil in international relations.

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