Boston, Jan. 03, 2020 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- During night-time hours (local time in Iraq) of 2nd January, US President Donald Trump sanctioned drone strikes near Baghdad International Airport (BGW) that killed General Qassem Soleimani, the leader of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC). The US claimed Soleimani was planning attacks on US diplomatic staff throughout the region.
Soleimani was killed alongside Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, the leader of Kata’ib Hezbollah, an influential Iranian proxy in Iraq.
Soleimani’s death comes amid escalating tensions between the US and Iran. Supporters of Kata’ib Hezbollah stormed the US embassy on 31st December, with militiamen burning guard towers and entering the compound’s reception area, which resulted in US forces using tear gas to disperse the crowds. The incident occurred following US airstrikes Kata’ib Hezbollah facilities in al-Qaim and across the border in Syria on 29th December.
The United States Department of Defense has stated that Soleimani was killed as a “defensive action” to protect US personnel. The US has issued an evacuation notice for all its citizens in Iraq and numerous western embassies have also released statements warning their citizens to avoid large crowds.
Soleimani’s killing has sparked bellicose rhetoric from the Iranian leadership, with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif all calling the US actions “criminal”’ and calling for severe retaliation. The influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has reactivated his “Mahdi Army,” which waged an insurgency against US troops in 2007. Foreign oil companies are evacuating personnel through Iraq’s Basra airport.
Healix/HX Global Assessment
Soleimani’s killing is a major escalation in tensions between the US and Iran. Soleimani was arguably the second most powerful man in Iran behind Ayatollah Khameini and was responsible for providing training, weapons and organisational guidance to Iranian proxy groups throughout the Middle East.
Hostilities between Iran and the US in recent months have primarily been limited to “tit-for-tat” attacks, such as tanker seizures and rockets fired at the US embassy in Iraq that were not intended to cause any damage. The killing of Soleimani, however, is a staunch departure from the previously limited nature of hostilities.
While the timing of Soleimani’s killing was likely decided following the storming of the US embassy, Soleimani’s position as a key conductor of attacks on Saudi and American infrastructure made him a high priority target for the US. Israel had been pressing for Soleimani to be killed for several years. Soleimani’s killing is an undeniable setback for the IRGC.
His killing not only significantly raises the prospect of direct conflict between the US and Iran, but Iran is likely to utilise its proxy groups to carry out significant attacks on the US and its allies interests throughout the region. This includes US military bases in the Gulf states, tankers and US ships in the Gulf waters such as the Strait of Hormuz, US embassies and bases in Iraq and across the region, the US embassy in Lebanon and Israel’s northern border with Lebanon.
The Israel Defence Force (IDF) are reportedly on high alert on the northern border and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has cut short a visit abroad, demonstrating that there is a concern of potential reprisal attacks by Hezbollah militants on Israeli soil. The deployment of troops is likely to be pre-emptive.
Soleimani’s killing may also exacerbate prevalent anti-government protests currently occurring in Baghdad and southern governorates in Iraq. One of the protest movement’s key demands was an end to foreign influence, be it Iranian or American, and the incident raises the chance of increased attendance at demonstrations. Foreign interests are liable to be targeted.
While Iran’s response is unpredictable, it is most likely that direct conflict between the US and Iran on Iranian soil remains unlikely. Proxy attacks will increase significantly over the coming months, which will trigger American drone and airstrikes on Iranian proxy groups’ positions
The Healix/HX Global team does not anticipate threats emerging to foreign interests in the UAE and Kuwait.
- Iran will also restart its maritime attacks on tankers in the Strait of Hormuz.
- Iran will wield its significant influence on Iraq’s parliament to pass a motion that US troops should leave Iraq, in hope of making any remaining US soldiers seem like an occupying force.
- The US will send small troop deployments to its facilities and military bases across the region in order to secure them.
- Houthi strikes on Saudi Arabia are likely to resume in the coming months.
- Cyber-attacks on US assets are likely.
A worst-case scenario would mean that Iran responds by killing US military personnel in Iraq or another Middle Eastern country. This leads President Trump to conduct airstrikes on Iranian military bases within Iran. This scenario would also mean that the US issues evacuation notices for its staff in other embassies throughout the region, such as Lebanon. It may also mean that Western interests are attacked throughout the Middle East, which includes terrorist attacks on US embassies throughout the region.
Advice for travellers from HX Global/Healix International Security Experts
If you or any of your employees are currently traveling in this area, our team of security experts have put together the following advice on how to stay safe. Healix has extensive experience operating in the Middle East; if you have a need for a more in-depth conversation or believe you may require a security evacuation, please reach out to email@example.com for additional information.
Security managers with assets throughout the Middle East should ensure that evacuation plans are current, actionable and regularly tested in case of a rapid deterioration in the security environment.
Escalatory triggers to look out for include:
- Death of US military personnel/contractors
- Further US assassinations of top Iranian military generals.
- Attack on US infrastructure in a gulf country such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or Bahrain.
- Large US troop deployment to the Middle East (50k+).
Monitor independent news sources for updates, as local media in the Middle East can often be skewed and favourable towards a specific government. Reliable sources include western media outlets such as the BBC, NYT, the Guardian, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal and Middle East-focused websites such as Al-Monitor, Al-Jazeera, the Middle East Eye, the Jordan Times and Haaretz.
Ensure that employees being deployed to the region are fully briefed on the political and security developments in Iraq and any other potential destinations.
Ensure employees are staying in secure and accredited accommodation that can double-up as a stand-fast location for at least 96 hours in case of a rapid deterioration in the security environment in their country of deployment.
- Defer all inbound travel to Iraq throughout January.
- Travel across the Middle East can continue under our current travel advice; US citizens should be extremely cautious and maintain a low profile.
- Contact the Healix GSOC for itinerary- and profile-specific advice for travel throughout the Middle East.
- All demonstrations and public gatherings related to Soleimani’s death should be avoided owing to the risk of unrest.
- Monitor the Healix Travel Oracle App and US embassy alerts for updated travel advice and security alerts.
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