January 04, 2020



Killing of Soleimani and other leaders of Shia militia groups in Iraq is a serious setback to Iran in the short run but will not alter the Islamic Republic’s regional strategic plans
By Prasad Nallapati
What has long been feared has happened.  Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Chief of the Al Quds (AQ), the external force of the Iranian Islamic Republic Guard Corps (IRGC), was killed in an American missile hit at the Baghdad airport in the early hours of Friday (January 3, 2020) along with Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi @ Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, leader of the pro-Iran Iraqi militia, Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH). A few hours later, six more commanders of the militia were killed in another missile attack on their car. More were picked up by the Marines.
The US and Iran had so far been engaged in very restrained and low-intense military exchanges since the Trump administration withdrew from the Iranian nuclear accord, the JCPOA, three years ago.  The US had chosen not to respond in kind when Iran shot down its drone, nor when a Saudi ARAMCO oil facility was badly crippled in a missile attack by Houthis, the Yemeni rebel group supported by Iran. Tehran too confined to measured proxy warfare and refrained from much threatened maritime adventures.
However, there had always been a dreaded feeling that this might quickly go wrong with catastrophic results in case either side makes a mis-judgement of the other’s intentions and capabilities.
That is precisely what happened.  Starting in October last, there were simultaneous “popular” uprisings in Iran over hike in oil prices and in Lebanon and Iraq demanding democratic reforms and change of the regimes. Iranian consulates in Iraq were attacked. Iran and its proxy militias have ruthlessly put down the unrest, which they blamed on the US. There were heavy casualties.
Kata’ib Hezbollah launched a rocket attack on a US military base in Iraq on December 28 in which one contractor was killed.  American retaliatory strikes next day on several KH sites killed several of its commanders. The militia crossed the red line and stormed into the US embassy in Baghdad on December 31, almost repeating Benghazi in Libya. They soon withdrew from the embassy on assurances of the Prime Minister, but the damage has been done.
Iran and its proxies have underestimated President Trump’s resolve. Even after the Embassy breach, Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei taunted Trump, “You can’t do anything, we will unhesitatingly confront and strike you.”
What he forgot was that the President is facing an impeachment trial in the election year.  His election in 2015 was largely due to opposition candidate, Hillary Clinton’s mishandling of the Benghazi mishap of 2012, when Islamist rebels in Libya stormed into US embassy and killed its ambassador. Clinton was then Secretary of State. Trump would have lost his re-election chance had Benghazi been re-enacted in Baghdad.
The Al-Quds leader was not a very difficult target for the Americans. Soleimani is on its `Terrorist’ list and he is a hated person among opposition groups in both Iraq and Syria.  His movements were being carefully monitored as he was personally supervising militia activities. American military reports stated that he was responsible for killing of over 500 US soldiers in militia attacks in Iraq between 2005-11.  He single-handedly oversaw Al-Quds operations in creating and mobilizing Shia militia forces in support of Bashar-al-Assad regime in Syria and against the terror groups of the ISIS and Al Qaida in the two countries.  He is believed to have visited Moscow and influenced President Putin to intervene in favour of Assad in early days of Syrian civil war.  He apparently convinced Putin that the US, under the Obama administration, would not object to Russian intervention nor would take any steps to undermine it.  He also stated in another context that the US had no appetite to attack Iran and was more eager to have a nuclear agreement with it.
The killing of Soleimani and other leaders of Shia militia groups in Iraq is a serious setback to Iran in the short run but will not alter the Islamic Republic’s regional strategic plans.  He was replaced within hours by his deputy for 20 years, Brigadier General Ismail Ka’ani (Ismail Ghaani). He oversaw weapon shipments and financial transfers to Shia militia groups and Al Quds elements in the Middle East and Africa.  He is, therefore, not a stranger to the game and seamlessly fits into his new position. The Iraqi Shia militias will soon have their new leaders.
Hence, President Trump’s statement that the killings are meant to “end the war and not to begin one” may prove to be short lived hope. The US is only likely to be pulled deeper into the Middle East vortex.
Meanwhile, Ayatollah Khamenei and most other Iranian leaders are threatening to take revenge against the US and its interests in the region.  As the funerals of Soleimani and other commanders take place during the weekend, there will be more rhetoric coming from Iran and Iraq.  But, their ability to launch any spectacular attacks is very limited.
Low level rocket attacks on US military targets in Iraq and Syria will not have much impact.  Washington my temporarily close its Embassy and consulates to limit any damage. Hezbollah may try attacking Israeli targets, but the latter’s response would be expensive for them. Saudi Arabia’s oil installations may possibly attract more attacks from Iranian proxies in Yemen unless adequate countermeasures are not taken. Commercial shipping through the Persian Gulf may prove to be soft targets. Cyber-attacks on US networks and its Gulf allies are a possibility although they are well prepared.  Iran otherwise has no major capability to attack targets inside the US or its interests in other countries of the region.
The uncanny beneficiaries of this imbroglio will be the Islamic State and the Al Qaida. The withdrawal of the US forces and its Kurdish allies from northern Syria and Turkish deployment there has already given a new lease of life to the IS, which made its first come back attack recently. It is found to be reactivating in Iraq too.  It will take no time to make a reappearance if the current political unrest and confusion continues there for long.
This has been the situation even before the killing of Soleimani and will continue to be so.  His elimination is unlikely to alter the situation in any significant way.  Oil prices have seen a 3 per cent surge but this may not sustain for long.  Although Iraqi supplies may have some difficulties in the shorter run, they are likely to remain unaffected as much of their supplies come from northern Kurdish areas, which are generally stable. Saudis may be better prepared now to protect their oil installations from Houthi attacks.  However, if Iran attempts to block the Strait of Hormuz to prevent shipping vessels passing through it, it may have significant impact on oil prices.
(Prasad Nallapati is President of the Hyderabad-based think tank, Centre for Asia-Africa Policy Research and former Additional Secretary to the Govt of India)

January 03, 2020

How Russia is reading the killing of Qasem Soleimaini

Moscow weighs the implications of the elimination of one of the Middle East's most powerful men.

The assassination of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, by a US airstrike at the airport in Baghdad sent shock waves across the region. In Moscow, the news raised eyebrows of policymakers and diplomats as Russia has been fighting for more than four years now in Syria alongside Iran and the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad.

Condemning what it called “an adventurist act,” a Foreign Ministry statement said, "The move by Washington is fraught with grave consequences for regional peace and stability. We regard such actions as detrimental to finding solutions to complex problems of the Middle East and rather contributing to escalation in violence." 

Later, the ministry also said, “Soleimani devotedly served the national interests of Iran.” 

Russian Senate Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Konstantin Kosachev wrote on Facebook about what the assassination might mean for President Donald Trump, the United States and the region. “The killing of Gen. Soleimani in Baghdad in no way contributes to the improvement of the situation in Iraq and the entire Middle East. Its negative implications, however, are already obvious,” Kosachev said.

He added, "First, retaliation by Iran will inevitably follow. I wouldn’t want to prophesize but American citizens may get killed. No wonder the Congress is concerned and [House] Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi demands Trump report why the strikes were not authorized by the Congress. Second, this means Trump falls short of solving his domestic issues — should the escalation result in [American] casualties, his ratings will go down. Third, US allies in the region are concerned — Israel is already discussing the implications of the operation for itself. Finally, the bleak hopes that still existed for the JCPOA have now been bombed altogether. Iran may now boost its production of nuclear weapons even if it didn’t have such plans before.” The JCPOA is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran nuclear deal Trump withdrew from in 2018.

In late July 2015, Soleimani arrived in Moscow for a confidential visit with a critical mission to get Russia involved militarily in the Syrian crisis. By that point, the Syrian army was seemingly on its last legs. The Quds Force, Lebanese Hezbollah and other Iran-aided Shiite militias were aiding Damascus, but they all lacked the air power to bring about a decisive shift on the ground.

Soleimani's trip is seen as a milestone for Russia’s pro-active involvement in the region.

Soleimani would make at least one more trip to Moscow, in February 2017. This reportedly was to discuss Russia’s bilateral cooperation with Sunni monarchies of the Persian Gulf. His meetings with the top Russian military intelligence leadership gained him a reputation in Moscow of being a shrewd strategic thinker and doer.

The two primary takeaways for Moscow from the killing of Soleimani so far are whether Tehran is able to find an adequate replacement for him and who will now steer a dozen militia groups operating in Syria.

Konstantin Bogdanov, a fellow at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Al-Monitor, “Soleimani was in charge of Iranian military and clandestine operations across the Middle East. But one of his prime tasks was to coordinate and manage rather loose and diverse groups of Iranian militias fighting in Syria on the side of President Assad. Soleimani made a name for himself as an effective and a reliable leader with whom the Russian military could solve practical issues on the ground.” 

Bogdanov added, “It should be noted that a cumulative number of fighters in pro-Iranian militias almost equals the Syrian Arab Army and in their combat qualities, perhaps, even excels the SAA. The presence of these militias complicates issues of Syrian sovereignty and the freedom of movement for Damascus. But at least for some time it [the loss of Soleimani] is likely to complicate Iran’s own ability to influence Assad. In these circumstances, Russia, perhaps, should take a more pro-active stance by establishing itself as the leading mediator in the Syrian settlement and a sponsor of agreements between the warring parties.” 

Retired Col. Viktor Mukrakhovsky, editor of the military journal Arsenal Otechestva (National Arsenal), said Trump's decision to kill Soleimani opens a new chapter in the confrontation between Iran and the United States. “A statesman is killed, an official representative of his country that is a member of the UN and with which the US is not officially in a state of war. He was killed on the territory of a third country. This is not an undercover struggle of intelligence services. The US has thus openly committed an act of vengeance and is taking pride in this 'achievement.' It is testing the reaction of the international community in general and Iranian leadership in particular. Following failures in Venezuela, Syria and over talks with North Korea, after losing control of the situation in Afghanistan and ceding Iraq to Iranian militias, the US leadership has moved to raise the stakes,” Mukrakhovsky said.

Maxim Shepovalenko, deputy director at the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, told Al-Monitor, “What the United States failed to understand, at its own peril and risk, is the fact that the late Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani was neither a warlord nor a chieftain, but rather a sovereign-empowered man. Whether it disliked him or not.” 

Shepovalenko added, “Iranians are smart enough to understand that 'revenge is a dish best served cold.'” 

Russia is calculating the possible fallout for both its regional presence and its own confrontation with the United States in possible future conflicts.

Kosachev made reference to US confrontations over the years with strongmen in various countries such as Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic, Ukraine's Viktor Yanukovych and Libya's Col. Moammar Gadhafi in writing about the killing of Soleimani. “This is a big mistake stemming out of a typical American habit of personalizing any problem. Saddam (Milosevic, Yanukovych, Gadhafi …) should be removed and things will settle down. But this is a logic of a show, not that of politics. It doesn’t work in the long run but may boomerang against the directors of the 'show,'” Kosachev concluded.

Maxim A. Suchkov, is editor of Al-Monitor’s Russia / Mideast coverage. He is a non-resident expert at the Russian International Affairs Council and at the Valdai International Discussion Club. He was a Fulbright visiting fellow at Georgetown University (2010-11) and New York University (2015). On Twitter: @MSuchkov_ALM Email: msuchkov@al-monitor.com

Read more: https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2020/01/russia-soleimani-iran-us-strikes-iraq.html#ixzz6A2l6BB00

December 29, 2019


Mar 26, 2019


   The Swedish Institute—a public diplomacy organization working under the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA)—has worked with digital media tools that monitor social media and other digital conversations about Sweden since 2016. The purpose of what is more commonly referred to as social listening is for organizations to stay updated on relevant discussions, articles and other digital posts that are relevant to, in our case, Sweden.

Social listening tools garner data from the stream of open-source platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, blogs, forums such as Reddit, news sites and other platforms.

There are at least three reasons for public diplomacy organizations to incorporate social listening in their work:

  1. Perceive long-term trends in the digital discussions concerning a specific country;
  2. Track conversations in real time in order to stay updated on current discussions, articles and posts; and
  3. Identify communicative opportunities.

1. Perceive long-term trends

Social listening is a good tool for analyzing trends and volumes related to a specific country over long periods of time.

Since the start of the Swedish Institute’s work with social listening, we have followed discussions about Sweden in four languages: English, Spanish, Russian and Arabic. The amount of posts in English about Sweden is about ten times more than Spanish- and Russian-speaking platforms and about 20 times more than Arabic-speaking platforms. Compared to 2017, the volume of discussions about Sweden increased on Spanish- as well as on Arabic-speaking platforms in 2018, but there is a downward trend on English- and Russian- speaking platforms.

The use of social listening as a tool to follow digital discussions about a country is of importance for public diplomacy organizations to truly turn toward more proactive forms of digital diplomacy.

In order to reveal shifts in the discussion, however, it is more rewarding to conduct more fine-tuned analyses of specific discussions that surround Sweden. The Swedish Institute follows a number of issues that are of relevance to our public diplomacy work.

Not only do we follow everything that is published about Sweden, but also everything that is published about, for instance, sustainability, innovation, gender equality and migration in relation to discussions about Sweden. If someone posts something about “climate change” or “green energy” and Sweden is mentioned in that same post, our digital tool registers this as being part of a larger discussion about sustainability and Sweden. It is important to keep in mind that individual posts do not necessarily matter—but when larger chunks of data are collected, it is possible to register patterns and trends for a specific topic.

2. Tracking conversations in real time

Social listening tools give the user an overview of current trends and discussions about specific events. Without this tool, it might be difficult to know how individual news articles or single tweets concerning Sweden, for instance, fit into the overall discussions about the country.

In our recently published report on the image of Sweden abroad, we show the volume of discussions about Sweden from 2015–2018. The report reveals that the discussions concerning Sweden are somewhat volatile, meaning that specific events trigger high discussion volumes (e.g., Trump’s remarks in 2017 on what became known as “Last Night in Sweden,” the Swedish election, and the passing of Swedish musician Avicii).

To understand what is being talked about during some of these peaks is important. Social listening tools place the high discussion volumes in perspective as the tool reveals for the user a timeline of all of posts concerning Sweden.

Social listening is thus a good tool for capturing how much people and publishers post about a country. However, it is less agile at sorting through the millions of posts and reveal underlying themes about the country. Social listening tools try to overcome this by including analysis tools such as word clouds or cluster functions, but they are fairly blunt instruments.

There are a number of ways to get an overview of what thousands or millions of posts concern:

  • Social listening tools give insights into the top articles that are shared and rank them in order of engagement level (the amount of shares on social media platforms).
  • Most social listening tools also provide some form of sentiment analysis, which is an AI-developed tool that analyzes the tonality of discussions. It can show, for instance, whether the posts are positive, negative or neutral in tone based on what words and sentences are used in the post.
  • The Swedish Institute conducts manual analysis, in which we cluster posts in order to convey the underlying themes that are discussed.
  • It is also possible to perceive where the posts are stemming from: Are the discussions on social media and blogs only, or did news outlets publish stories on the topic as well?

3. Identify communicative opportunities

Through social listening tools, the Swedish Institute receives weekly reports on what is published about Sweden on all four languages that it follows. These reports are valuable for assessing what the Institute can use in our own digital channels. They contain the most shared articles on Sweden, relevant issues that the Institute is interested in, where the discussions take place, and the weekly volume pertaining to these discussions.

To distill from the vast amount of data which issues are salient in discussions about Sweden, it also points to what social media users, publishers or bloggers find interesting about the country. Through social listening, we have tracked how certain subjects related to Sweden keep reappearing—something that indicates interest.

In some cases, the Swedish Institute has used these findings to create digital communication projects of our own. We have also conducted target group analysis that explores our target groups’ interests and digital activities. It is also possible to install alarm functions that notify you via email when the volumes of discussions are on the rise.

To conclude, the use of social listening as a tool to follow digital discussions about a country is of importance for public diplomacy organizations to truly turn toward more proactive forms of digital diplomacy. Considering the rate at which the media landscape and social media platforms are evolving, to stay updated on the possibilities (as well as threats) that the digital environment enables for countries cannot be ignored. Social listening can bring some control in a digitally volatile world.