What constitutes a successful military operation? A usual criterion would be statistics on the scale of casualties and destruction, or the significance of the target. In that regard, the Iranian response to the killing of General Qasem Soleimani is a puzzling case.
On January 3, a US drone strike killed Soleimani, the head of the elite Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, near Baghdad International Airport. Tehran retaliated a day later by firing missiles on two US bases in Iraq: Ain-al-Asad airbase and one in Erbil, in central and northern Iraq respectively. The Iranian regime claimed there were 80 casualties. However, US President Donald Trump announced that there had been no deaths thanks to the preparedness of the US military.
Amid speculations that the Iranians had intentionally launched a “harmless” missile strike, then-Iraqi prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi confirmed that that the Iranian government had given him prior notice of the attacks; Baghdad presumably passed on the information to its American partners, allowing them to evacuate some personnel from the bases beforehand.
This seemingly odd decision by Tehran was in fact a very rational choice, not only because the Americans possess overwhelmingly superior military forces but also because the non-lethal attack achieved some of Iran’s short-term goals.
In fact, keen-eyed watchers of the region would see a parallel in an American missile strike on Syria on April 7, 2017, in response to the Bashar al-Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons on civilians. The Trump administration notified the Russian government – whose forces had been working with their Syrian allies in the targeted base – about the attack. Given that there were minimal Syrian casualties, President Assad’s forces were likely alerted by the Kremlin beforehand.
Such pre-notified strikes by Iran and the US that resulted in minor damage point to some key aspects of such attacks.
First and foremost, giving prior notice to the enemy of such strikes is meant to avert escalation of the conflict. Even with minimal casualties, missile strikes can be threatening. Iran’s recent attack included a package of 10 Fateh-110 short-range missiles, which can hit key US allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia with reasonable accuracy. Tehran has repeatedly threatened to obliterate US military assets and American allies in the region, should the current tension escalate. Iran would have hoped that a proper military operation directly from the Iranian military, as opposed to “mini-punches” by its Houthi proxies in Yemen, might send a stronger warning across the Persian Gulf. The 2017 US strike was an even more apparent display of force, launching 59 Tomahawk missiles from the Mediterranean Sea on to Shayrat Airbase.
Non-lethal, pre-notified military operations still score political points for the domestic audience. Such strikes are usually in response to what the launching side deems is the adversary’s provocation. National governments cannot afford to look like a “punching-bag” in front of their own people.
In 2017, the Trump administration surprised the world by launching Tomahawk missiles on Syria, as during his presidential campaign he had promised a withdrawal from “endless wars” in the Middle East. Yet Trump had frequently criticized the Barack Obama administration for failing to follow up on the Assad regime’s alleged violation of the chemical-weapons “red line” in 2013. Therefore, once he was president, Trump could not afford to turn a blind eye on the reported chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun on April 4, 2017. Two-thirds of the American public showed support for the missile strike, with some pundits even wondering if the president had finally announced himself as America’s commander-in-chief on the world stage.
Similarly, Tehran could not simply overlook the death of its national hero; Soleimani was Iran’s de facto intelligence chief, defense minister and shadow foreign minister. He commanded the Quds Force for 15 years, whose activities terrorized Iran’s enemies in the region. The regime had to respond beyond the usual venomous public statements; direct attacks on American bases in Iraq were meant to show the Iranian people that the government was avenging the death of its fallen hero. More important, it diverted the Iranian people’s attention away from persistent economic crises, corruption and oppression, albeit temporarily.
Nonetheless, these merits are practical only under the premise that pre-notified strikes prevent unwanted escalation. By inducing minimal damage, such strikes give the adversary some “political space” – without having to respond immediately with full force – to find its breath, make rational calculations and, it is hoped, reach out for back-channel dialogue. Ironically, pre-notified displays of force may also entail a subtle message for talks: “This is for our domestic and international audience, not to start a war.” President Trump himself noted in a speech that “Iran appears to be standing down” and even urged Iran to work with him on defeating Islamic State (ISIS) and “other shared priorities”; such comments, as hollow as they might have sounded to Tehran’s hardliners, would have been impossible had there been major damage on American assets and personnel.
However, there are latent dangers associated with this seemingly cost-effective strategy. First and foremost, it might send a wrong signal. Instead of conveying a message of de-escalation, such attacks, even if pre-notified, could be received as a declaration of war.
Similarly, a paranoid adversary could believe that the prior notice was in fact a deception to inflict larger damage and thus launch an early pre-emptive strike. There is no need to look far for evidence of paranoia; on January 8, Iranian forces accidentally shot down a civilian airliner, mistaking it for an American missile; this implies that at least some elements of the Iranian military actually thought that the US was attacking Iranian territory in earnest.
There are concerns in Washington that the communication channel with the Iranians has been undermined in recent months because of the hyper-tense political atmosphere. Fortunately, it turned out that the diplomatic back channel was effective in this particular case. However, with every player in the region on full alert, further use of military force, even non-lethal and with prior notification, could elevate tension instead of achieving desired results.
Second, there is always room for mistakes and errors. Considering the stakes, and the animosity and distrust deeply rooted in the region, one wrong move could be apocalyptic. An accidental attack that results in massive damage would force the recipient to respond, triggering an uncontrolled spiral of retaliations.
Third, pre-notified strikes endorse “normalization” and preference of kinetic forces over diplomacy. It is safe to say that the use of military force on a state without its permission, except in extraordinary circumstances, is far from global norms and expectations. Repeated use of kinetic force that does not trigger an outright war may still encourage aggression.
In the same vein, hawks on both sides are strengthened while proponents of dialogue are sidelined. In both Washington and Tehran, there is a constant struggle between hardliners and moderates on how to deal with the opponent. Ultra-nationalist sentiment and injured pride from being on the receiving side of pre-notified strikes may give a clear upper-hand to those who would prefer a showdown to a compromise.
The art of pre-notified strikes is a delicate one; one success can lead to a satisfying resolution, but one failure will not allow a second chance.