The former Head of Turkey’s Military Intelligence: a turning point for the Middle East

The former Head of Turkey’s Military Intelligence: a turning point for the Middle East

What further developments will we see in the Middle East in the wake of the assassination of Qassem Soleimani? How will Iran respond, and how should Turkey relate to the killing?

We asked these questions and more to experts in the political field. The former Head of Turkey’s Military Intelligence, Retired Lt. General Ismail Hakki Pekin, Ankara Crisis and Political Research Center (ANKASAM) Chairman Professor Mehmet Seyfettin Erol and Journalist Ramazan Bursa, who has been observing the region closely, all came forward to express their opinions.

A turning point for the Middle East

Retired Lt. General Ismail Hakki Pekin:

This is not just another US murder followed by Iranian revenge, it’s a turning point. Qassem Soleimani traveled all over the Middle East and the US had been closely following him. Why did they decide to kill him now? I think a major change in the Middle East is being planned. A situation may arise where more violence, escalating chaos and the disintegration of Iraq and Syria are all potential outcomes. This was not just an assassination, we need to look more broadly. Could the United States be trying to pull Turkey over to its side with this attack?

Keep in mind that Trump had previously decided to withdraw all American troops from the area… it appears he may have been cornered by his impeachment process, and acted in order to assure that US troops are not withdrawn from the area. That is where the internal contradictions of the United States come in.

Therefore, I think with the murder of Qasem Soleimani, Washington is attempting to shift the balance of the region. Iran currently has active forces in the region fighting against the United States, and Washington trying to counteract their range and influence. I think, from now on, the US’ policies in the region are going to change dramatically. Turkey’s role is critical here.”

US’ sectarian provocation

The United States may try to lead countries in the region into a sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites. If the US goes with such a plan, it will likely try to pressurize Turkey to take its side. In this case, as was the case in regards to the sanctions against Iran, the US might threaten Turkey economically. Turkey should be very careful in this situation, engage in careful analysis and avoid Washington’s sectarian provocations. The US’ goal is to set the countries of the region against one another, especially the Gulf states and Iran. The US is hoping to set the countries of the region against each other in a proxy war to avoid having to go to war itself. Turkey needs to be very careful, but for now, Ankara’s message is quite positive and good. It is essentially saying “Iran is our neighbor, so we must get through this process by entering a dialog with Iran.” Turkey should not make Iran a target. It has so far avoided doing so, and should continue this process by entering into dialogue with Tehran.

The US tried to intimidate Iran

Professor Mehmet Seyfettin Erol, Chairman of ANKASAM:

Looking at the recent assassination of Soleimani, it is clear why the US’ and Iran’s Iraq-based power struggle is taking center stage. For a long time, Iran had been waging a proxy war against the United States in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and it is within this context that the United States declared the Quds Force, Hashd Shaabi and the Revolutionary Guards as terrorist organizations. In other words, this attack was no surprise.

With this course of action, the United States is showing its domestic community and the international community that they are still playing a leading role in “the fight against terrorism.” In reality, however, this is an effort to seriously intimidate Iran after the actions at the American embassy in Kirkuk. Washington is saying “I can eliminate your most powerful commander anywhere and anytime.” Moreover, the expression used by American officials is also important: “We have avenged the military contractor killed at Kirkuk.” This was a disproportionate answer that Iran will need to respond to in turn, especially in the event of another US attack on Iranian presence in the region.

Trump warns that “Iran never won a war, but never lost a negotiation!” suggesting that conflict might be the only way to get the upper hand. The attack may be an attempt to bring Iran to the negotiation table in a different way than before.

Israel is also an open target

How should Iran react to all of this? My opinion is that Iran will not carry out a direct attack. Iran will try to use its proxy elements and militia forces in Syria, Iraq and even in Afghanistan, regions where an American and Israeli proxies are present. Iran sees this assassination as an American and Israeli plot. Therefore, the Israeli targets are as legitimate as the American targets. Everywhere where the American’s are presence in the Middle East, especially in the immediate vicinity of Iran, is a possible target. In Lebanon in 1983, there were attacks by Hezbollah against the US Marines that resulted in hundreds of troops being killed. In this sense, an attack on American military bases is within the realm of possibility.

Turkey will be directly affected

How does this affect the region and Turkey? We know that, in the last few years, there have been clashes between The United States and Iran, particularly over Trump’s sanctions which target Iranian domestic policy, its economy and political stability.While we should be careful about calling Iran a “regime,” Washington’s actions are an attempt at forcing serious change in the Iranian regime’s attitude towards America and it’s foreign policies.

This assassination has further increased regional instability and uncertainty, although Iraq is the country which has been most directly affected. Although the two sides of the conflict seem to be Iran and the United States, Iraq has clearly become the frontline of that showdown. Turkey is certainly not as directly affected as Iraq, but it is among the countries that will be seriously affected. Turkey may have to make a choice: the United States will increase its pressure on Turkey around the issue. Economic threats may arise, as was the case when Turkey took a position in favor of Iran in light of the US’ sanctions. Turkey should invite both sides to cool down on this issue.

US’ plans for ‘Barzanistan’ continue

Journalist Ramazan Bursa:

It is not enough to say that this incident took place simply as a result of the US embassy raid in Baghdad. Qassem Soleimani carried out numerous actions aimed at breaking the US’ hold on the countries of the Middle East, especially in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. The United States wants revenge, not only the incident in Baghdad, but also for the other events he was involved in. The United States is particularly disturbed by the influence of the Hashd Shaabi. The United States wants the Hashd Shaabi’s brigades to be disbanded, its heavy weapons to be removed and their bases in the area to be closed.

In particular, their plans for Barzani in Kirkuk have been troubling the United States, but I do not think that the United States is delaying these plans, even though it backed down at the time to calm Russia down: it is still trying to advance its plans for Kirkuk. The recent events there are an indication of this.

Iran may take its revenge in Afghanistan

Yesterday, the Security Council convened in Iran, and Ayatollah Khamenei attended the meeting for the first time. There, a decision was made to take revenge for Soleimani’s assassination. Iran will, of course, avenge the killing. Qasem Soleimani replacement, Brig. General Esmail Ghaani, had previously focused on Asian countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, while Soleimani had been focused on the Middle East. We can also assume that Iran will choose a country like Afghanistan to take revenge.The targets could be a military base, US soldiers, or Israel, which the United States cares even more about. We will just have to wait and see.

Turkey must act together with Iran

This incident will affect the entire region. It will especially affect Turkey, Iran’s next door neighbor. Yesterday, Turkey called for common sense and stability in a statement and condemned the US’ attack. This was a very important step. In order for Turkey to get out of this situation with the least amount of harm, it is necessary to act with the countries of the region, and with Iran in the first place; it is also necessary to ensure the flow of information.

Elif İlhamoğlu

Elif İlhamoğlu is political scientist and  journalist (Turkey). She is studying for PHD on the political science and international relations department at Istanbul University. She visited Middle East countries, Syria, Lebanon, Iran several times and did interviews with the leaders as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hilal al-Hilal Secretary General of the Syrian Ba'ath Party.

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December 2022