There is talk in the region about arrangements and operations that Iran is preparing to carry out on the first anniversary of the assassination of Lieutenant General Qasem Soleimani, the former commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) (Soleimani was killed together with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a leading figure in the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Committee (PMC), on 3 January 2020, in a US raid targeting their convoy near Baghdad airport). Perhaps what raised the level of belief in the possibility of Iran's retaliation is the tweet by the Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei, posted on 16 December 2020, in which he said that "whoever ordered and carried out the assassination of Lieutenant General Qasem Soleimani must pay the price", and that "this revenge is inevitable", considering that "Soleimani's shoes are more honourable than his killer’s head".
The attention of observers was drawn to the fact that the commander of US forces in the Middle East General Frank McKenzie made an unannounced tour to Syria and Iraq. His Syrian tour focused mainly on the Al-Tanf base, located at the border triangle that connects Iraq, Jordan and Syria. There, he issued threats to respond to Iran if it attacked US targets.
Triggers for shifting the Iranian response to the Syrian arena
The question being raised in this context is this: does the US have estimates of a possibility that the Iranian retaliation for the killing of Soleimani would be carried out in Syria, specifically in its eastern regions, given that there are no US targets except in that region? The importance of this possibility stems from several facts, the most important of which are the following:
Accordingly, Syria appears, at least in theory, to be an option that Iran can favour over the option of responding in the Iraqi arena. However, in practical terms, there are obstacles that hinder Iran from using the Syrian arena to retaliate against the Americans for the killing of Soleimani.
Obstacles to the Iranian response in Syria
Iranian concern over Trump's reaction
Despite the Iranian media hype, the facts indicate, with near certainty, that Tehran will not avenge the assassination of Soleimani, neither in Syria nor elsewhere, as all of its proxies in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon have committed themselves to shelters for fear of President Donald Trump’s "madness" in the last moments of his rule. Remarkably, the Iranian Foreign Ministry hastened to denounce the recent targeting of the US Embassy, considering it unacceptable. The most important Iraqi militias loyal to Iran in Iraq (Kataib Hezbollah (Battalions of the Party of God) and Asaib Ahl al-Haq (Leagues of the Righteous) militia) also rushed to issue statements declaring that they were not responsible for the targeting of the Embassy.
The British newspaper The Guardian covered from the heart of Beirut some of the demonstrations of terror and anticipation that afflict the Lebanese Hezbollah and how its elements are experiencing a state of maximum alert. Its leaders describe this stage as the most dangerous in 30 years. According to The Guardian, the Hezbollah members are watching the sky, as Israeli planes have been roaming the skies for more than a month. Over the past few weeks, the frequency of overflight has increased dramatically. According to the newspaper, Hezbollah is also watching the clock that is progressing very slowly towards 20 January 2021, when Joe Biden will arrive at the White House.
The US is dealing seriously with Iran's continuous threats to retaliate for Soleimani. While it is no longer possible to carry out those threats in the Iraqi arena, Iran may turn to the Syrian arena, which is characterised by chaos and the numerous opponents of the US.
However, there are many difficulties and obstacles that prevent Iran from using the Syrian arena to take revenge on Washington, such as the weakness of Iran's force and its exposure in eastern Syria, the Russian presence, and most important of all, the existence of security and military missions for Iran in that region that it considers more important than carrying out a transitory retaliatory operation.
Consequently, it seems that Iran, which has been counting the hours until President Trump's departure from the White House, has been wishing, and hoping, that this stage would pass with the least possible losses.
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