Aside from sending US-Iran tensions to all-time highs, the assassination of top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani in an American drone strike has set the stage for a whole range of developments in the Middle East. To avenge the death of the powerful and popular Soleimani, Iran hopes to realize a long-standing aspiration: ousting the US military from the region.
The drone attack targeting Soleimani outside Baghdad International Airport could have huge consequences in the region. Following the initial shock, Iran's government quickly outlined and made public its foreign policy agenda for retaliation. Esmail Ghaani was named as Soleimani's replacement as chief of Iran's Quds Force, the overseas branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The new commander told reporters following a Jan. 6 prayer service for Soleimani that true punishment will be exacted only if the United States withdraws from the region. Other generals and civilian authorities echoed the same stance, an indication that Tehran is not hesitating to accomplish the mission.
Over the past few years, Iran has sidelined the United States in the Syria crisis by shaping the Astana process and further engaging Turkey and Russia. This successful precedent may serve as Iran's model to expel the United States from the region. Nonetheless, while favored by Iran's regional allies, the project faces multiple tough changes.
Russia, which has come to play a more dominant role in the Middle East's security and military calculations, would be pleased to see the back of its main rival, the United States. Turkey has pressed ahead with its own objectives in Syria, shifting its policy from cooperation with the United States to engagement with Iran and Russia.
Notwithstanding, Ankara does not seem to favor escalation with Washington. Turkey and Russia both fell short of officially condemning the assassination of Soleimani, merely expressing concern over potential consequences. In a phone conversation with Donald Trump, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan conveyed his worry that the Soleimani killing "aggravated regional tensions" and had come as "a shock."
Elsewhere, in a televised interview, Erdogan highlighted his country's capacity to resolve the crisis: "As Turkey, we had and have been making many efforts in order to control and halt this conflict via diplomacy." The Turkish president stressed the need for de-escalation, warning that protracted US-Iran tensions could be dangerous to Iraq and the wider Middle East.
But to what extent could a US pullout direct Turkey toward its policy objectives and desired security framework in the region?
"There is no certainty as to whether a US withdrawal will serve Ankara's interests," former Iranian Ambassador to Jordan Nosratallah Tajik told Al-Monitor. "Due to its membership in NATO and the close ties it maintains with the US, Turkey is reluctant to be part of this game."
Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, discussing the assassination with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron, said the exacerbation of regional tensions was an immediate outcome of such a move. Russia's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova criticized the United States for "the killing of a representative of a government of a sovereign state," noting that the attack was devoid of any legal basis.
"I am not sure whether Turkey will benefit from the US withdrawal from the region, and because of different reasons like its membership in NATO and its proximity to the United States, it may not be interested in the game," Tajik said.
He continued, "Russia adjusts and balances its interactions with the US to a different level, not necessarily with Iran. It seems the US withdrawal from Iraq and Syria will be acceptable only through the will of the people of these two countries and consolidating their territorial unity and strengthening the government in their country not by a foreign coalition."
"This pattern," Tajik said, "will bring a greater chance to winning support from the public and the international community as well as the leading players, including the United States and such countries in the region as Saudi Arabia."
In the aftermath of the assassination, Iranian officials have highlighted the importance of a US pullout from Iraq and Syria. Only hours after Iran's retaliatory missile strikes against two US bases in Iraq Jan. 8, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described the operation as a "slap" in the face of the United States. "But what matters more in this confrontation is that the US presence in the region must come to an end, and this won't be achieved merely through military means," Khamenei said. The same day, President Hassan Rouhani told a Cabinet meeting in Tehran that true revenge comes when the "US feet are cut off from the region."
If revenge is to be carried out through non-military channels, Iran will have to cooperate with its regional friends. Journalist Siavash Fallahpour argued that although Russia and Turkey possess the capacity to help Tehran spearhead a US exit from the region, they have not demonstrated a willingness to do so. "In fact, Moscow and Ankara both have a long way ahead before getting to the point where they would oppose the US presence in the Middle East," he told Al-Monitor. "Yet it is indisputable that the Astana process laid bare Washington's incompetence in resolving Middle East crises. And this is an opportunity to be grabbed by the regional countries."
A top Iranian diplomat told Al-Monitor that Iran is exhausting diplomacy with its regional allies to materialize a US departure. "In the aftermath of Gen. Soleimani's assassination, Iran has been in close contact with allies such as Iraq, Turkey and Russia, firmly underscoring the need for the US withdrawal," the source said. "Also, the Astana process proved to those countries that regional problems can be solved through regional cooperation rather than US interference. A conclusion at the moment would be immature to draw, but the Islamic Republic is engaged in diplomatic activities to implement its diplomatic patterns for a US exit from the region."
The path to avenge Soleimani's assassination is not smooth. If such an objective is to be attained through non-military channels, Iran cannot rely entirely on like-minded Shiite forces in Iraq and Lebanon, or the government of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. Tehran will have to win the support of Ankara and Moscow as well. From a different angle, Soleimani's death could deal a severe blow to Iran's regional influence, which is not, perhaps, sad news for Turkey and Russia.