Two Scalps Are Better Than One

America and Islam

Nobody remembers al-Baghdadi. The head of ISIS, who was killed by American commandos in a nighttime raid in Syria, in October, was nowhere to be found.

Remember me? ISIS leader Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi, in Turin.
Remember me? Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in Turin.

Blame it on the body count. With so many casualties piling up in the Middle East these days, what’s one more jihadist? So what if he led one of the most brutal guerrilla wars against the Americans since Ho Chi Minh. As far as local leaders go, the Islamist fighter was still no Muammar Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein. At least not yet.

Still, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s absence from press coverage of the targeted killing last week of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) chief Qassem Soleimani was noteworthy. The second Muslim extremist, from a designated terrorist organisation, to be liquidated by the US military in three months, the White House had neglected to burnish its hit list of Islamist VIPs.

Not only had they knocked off the most important Shi’ite military commander in the region – something that the president’s cheerleaders trumpeted loudly, to whoever would listen. Al-Baghdadi was also Soleimani’s Sunni other. The message was clear. No brand of Islamic militancy was safe.

The denominational significance of these killings is obviously huge. Not just because of the intensely sectarian character of Muslim politics, both within the Middle East, and in fighting the West. But, also to the US, where the religious identities of Islamic terrorists play an enormous role in inspiring Americans to war.

Ever since 1979’s Islamic Revolution, in which the Shah was overthrown, Iranian Muslims have served as caricatures of Islamists, for American conservatives. Not just Shi’ites, but Sunnis, too.

Nothing was a better reminder of that than the 52 Iranian targets tweeted by Trump, following Soleimani’s killing. Announced by the president, in reference to the 52 hostages seized by Iranian students, at the US embassy, in November 1979, the fact that Trump even remembered it, was, of course, a surprise.

In some American quarters, there are those for whom the Iran hostage crisis, which lasted until January 1981, when the embassy personnel were released, remains an event of intense national humiliation. Coming on the heels of the fall of Saigon four years earlier, the loss of Iran, to Shia revolutionaries, was like revisiting the US defeat in Vietnam.

Even worse, was the fact that an American client regime had been routed by Muslims, at a time of growing religious conservatism in the United States. To say that the Islamic Republic had arrived at the right time in American politics would be an understatement. The emergence of the religion, as a potential adversary, and stand-in for communism was highly unnerving. Particularly given its overly anti-imperialist, anti-US politics.

Still reeling from the war in Southeast Asia, which had claimed nearly 60,000 US lives,  as a force against American power, this was too much to process, too soon. There was no way that Washington could multitask against two kinds of enemies like that. Fear of what that might mean haunted American conservatives, who spent the next two decades slowly gearing up for the fight to come.

In the interim, Washington could delay the inevitable, subcontracting a war with Iran to a proxy regime Iraq, and to a lesser degree, Israel, both of whom fought to contain Tehran, to varying degrees, until the September 11th attacks, in 2001. But, tellingly Iran won both wars.

A Western-backed Saddam Hussein failed to realise any of his objectives in his eight-year conflict with Iran, most significantly, regime change. And Iranian-backed Shi’ite guerrillas, in Lebanon, forced Israel out of the country by 1999, ending a 17-year-long military occupation.

Worse, Washinton came to regard the rise of Palestinian Hamas and its immiserated statelet in Gaza, to be an expression of Iranian influence, too. Nevermind that the organisation’s origins are far more complex than that. What mattered is that Iranian support helps keep it alive.

Israel’s struggles with Sunni militancy were never those of the United States. At least until the attacks on the World Trade Centre. But, with the rise of Al-Qaeda and their Islamic vanguardism, in the Beltway, everything started to look the same. Once the ISIS insurgency began in earnest in Iraq, the circle finally closed. America was, for all intents and purposes, at war with Islam.

That Washington would spend the next decade cooperating with Iran in Iraq and Afghanistan, against ISIS and the Taliban would prove to be of little importance to this worldview.

Why anyone remains surprised by the Trump Administration’s hostility to the Iranian nuclear deal or chalks it up to Israeli and Saudi influence, misses this fundamental point about American politics.

Yes, Israel’s ‘War Between the Wars‘ in Syria matters to the United States. Particularly the defence establishment, who see Israeli military activity in the country as a proxy deterrent against Russia as much as Iran.

Yes, Riyadh’s war in Yemen matters to Washington, too. Particularly its impact on the country’s oil industry, which cannot operate properly without foreign technical and military support.

But, the US badly needs enemies, too. Especially this government, with its far-right cabinet members, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whose strong Christian faith has a strong impact on US foreign policy.

That Israeli attacks on Iranian-allied forces in Iraq might play a role in recent attacks against US bases in the country has not been given adequate consideration, though it is something that American military commanders have expressed anxiety about.

Hence, Washington’s need to send a strong signal to Tehran that it will treat Iraq much as Israel treats Syria. One cannot exclude the killing of Qasem Soleimani from this context, as though it were part of the expansion of the Syrian conflict.

That’s why it’s important to not oversimplify Soleimani’s assassination as being an extension of US efforts to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The reasons for taking out the IRGC chief are much bigger than that.

The conflict in Syria is worsening and affecting everything in the Middle East, in no small part due to American policy in the country. One day it’s withdrawing its forces. The next day it’s seizing Syria’s oil fields.

There is no way that the chaos the Americans have sowed in Syria, and the openings it has made for Moscow and Tehran, would not, at some point, put Iraq into renewed crisis.

This is why it’s so important to remember the killing of al-Baghdadi, in October. He may have been long sought after, but the ISIS leader’s assassination was a harbinger for how US foreign policy in the Middle East would evolve.

At the very least, killing his Shi’ite equivalent would promote the illusion that the White House was taking the initiative and getting rid of the bad guys.

Who better to do that with than another designated terrorist, with strong extremist credentials, from the other half of the Islamic world.

The Levant may be going to hell in a handbasket. But at least Americans could feel that for a brief moment, their country was still a force for good.

Never mind, of course, the humiliation these assassinations have instilled in Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims. The damage will take decades to undo.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.