ANALYSIS: What was behind Trump's decision not to strike Iran

Did the president have his own "Syria moment' as in Obama's mythical red line crossing, or is there more than meets the eye?

Yochanan Visser,

US drone being shot down over Strait of Hormuz
US drone being shot down over Strait of Hormuz
Reuters

Last Friday, US President Donald J. Trump announced he had called off a conventional attack on three Iranian military sites after the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps shot down a giant drone (UAV) which was flying over international waters in Strait of Hormuz.

Trump and insiders who claimed to be familiar with the internal deliberations in the White House prior to the intended attack, said the decision to call off the conventional strike was taken at the last moment and was motivated by fear that 150 Iranians would be killed during the operation.

According to this narrative, the President asked his generals “I want to know something before you go. How many people will be killed?”

One of the generals present during the discussions then answered that approx. 150 Iranians would lose their lives.

Trump later told ABC News the following:

“I thought about it for a second, and I said: ‘You know what? They shot down an unmanned drone, plane, whatever you want to call it. And here we are sitting with 150 dead people that would have taken place probably within a half an hour after I said go ahead.’ And I didn’t like it. I didn’t think, I didn’t think it was proportionate.”

The news about the aborted attack immediately triggered a discussion about Trump’s decision-making abilities with critics saying the President just had his ‘Syria moment’.

This was a reference to former President Obama’s failure to strike the Assad regime in 2013 after it again used chemical weapons against the civilian population, something Obama considered the crossing of a red line.

The critics claimed Trump’s decision had damaged America’s credibility and deterrence vis a vis Iran.

Others, however, highlighted the differences between Syria 2013 and the current stand-off with Iran and said the President was “going to keep his word” and would not “go down the path that Obama went down (in Syria).”

When we take a good look at what happened during and after the downing of the MQ-4C UAV we see more differences with the situation in Syria, 2013.

First of all, Obama in 2013 did nothing at all when Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad crossed his often-stated red line and used chemical agents to kill scores of Syrian civilians in a Damascus suburb.

Trump, on the other hand, did order a non-conventional strike that could have been more effective than the intended aerial bombardment of Iranian military sites.

The U.S. military reportedly carried out a degrading cyber attack on Iran’s military on Friday.

The cyberattack disabled Iranian computer systems which control missile and rocket launches in the Islamic Republic and targeted an Iranian intelligence unit which the U.S. believes was behind recent attacks on tankers in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.

This type of cyber attack is in many ways “more insidious and dangerous for the Iranian regime” because it makes clear that the United States is able to inflict a “cyber Pearl Harbour” on Iran, analysts claim.

Such an attack, when carried out on a large scale, could paralyze Iran and potentially kill thousands of people.

Then there is the fact that the current stand-off with Iran is much different from the situation in Syria where, at the time, various coalitions fought to gain control over territory and to defeat Islamic State.

Iran, however, had already activated some of its proxies in the Middle East which were threatening not only the US military but also US allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The Iranians threatened that an attack on the Islamic Republic would lead to conflict “no country would be able to manage it's scope and timing,” and must therefore be taken seriously.

To understand what could have happened if Trump had decided to hit Iran with airstrikes, one should take a look at what happened in the area of the Syrian-Iraqi border last weekend.

On Friday, the Quds Force of the IRGC activated its air defenses in Syria while putting its forces and Iranian-backed Shiite proxy militias on high alert in eastern Syria.

Apparently, the Iranians were preparing for an assault on the at-Tanf base of US Special Forces in the area, in case the American army bombed Iran.

In Israel, meanwhile, the security cabinet was discussing the possibility that Iran would use its Palestinian and Shiite proxies in both Lebanon and Syria to attack the Jewish state in case the Americans carried out pinpoint strikes on the Islamic Republic.

Western and Israeli intelligence earlier had warned that this was a real possibility.

Israeli media, furthermore, reported that Hezbollah is calling the shots on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights and is actively preparing for an assault on Israel from Syria.

In Yemen, information minister Moammar al-Eryani again warned that Iran’s threats against the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel should be taken seriously and that the IRGC could use the Ansar Allah or Houthi militia to close off international shipping lanes such as the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.

The U.S. now reportedly wants to copy tactics used by the IRGC in order to avoid all-out-war with Iran American officials told The New York Times.

So was the fear that approx. 150 Iranians would be killed in the intended pinpoint strikes against Iran the real reason for canceling the operation?

It seems that Trump used the fact that Iran refrained from shooting down a US P-8 spy plane with a crew of 35 servicemen which was accompanying the MQ-4C UAV as a carrot to convince Iran it better stop the provocations against the world’s leading superpower.

At the same time, the President reportedly also issued an ultimatum to Iran setting a deadline for renewed talks about the country’s nuclear program and its belligerent activities in the Middle East.

So far the strategy seems to work. Iran hasn’t provoked the US army or its allies again since last Friday.




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