Soleimani strike threatens UK ‘lives and interests’

Soleimani strike threatens UK ‘lives and interests’
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Britain ‘will not lament’ the loss of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, but fell short of supporting the attack. (File/AP)
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Updated 07 January 2020

Soleimani strike threatens UK ‘lives and interests’

Soleimani strike threatens UK ‘lives and interests’
  • British MP says US failure to share information ‘a matter of concern’

LONDON: When the sun rose on Jan. 3, the world woke to unprecedented contemporary tensions between the US and Iran. 

As an American drone fired missiles at the convoy of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad at around 1 a.m., most of Washington’s allies were in the dark.

British sources said the government was not informed ahead of the strike, despite the heavy UK presence in the region and Iraq.

Washington’s failure to forewarn London amid heightened regional tensions has caused confusion and concern among commentators and politicians. 

“I’ve long believed that the purpose of having allies is that we can surprise our enemies and not each other,” said Tom Tugendhat, a Conservative MP and chair of the foreign affairs committee in the previous UK Parliament.

The failure to share information has become “a pattern,” and it is “a bit of a shame that the US administration of late has not shared with us, and that is a matter of concern,” he added.

A source close to Downing Street told Arab News that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson — who is currently holidaying on the private Caribbean island of Mustique — was unaware that the strike was due to take place. 

As global leaders weighed in on the incident, Johnson remained silent until Jan. 5, when he was careful not to deliver a statement that was overly supportive of US President Donald Trump’s orders.

Johnson said Britain “will not lament” the loss of Iran’s top general, but fell short of supporting the attack.

A surprisingly short statement from Britain’s Foreign Office did not contain a line of support for Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani. 

In a statement, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Britain had “always recognized the aggressive threat posed by the Iranian Quds force,” but he called for de-escalation, adding: “Further conflict is in none of our interests.”

Lucy Fisher, defense editor at The Times, said Iran was “convinced of its status as a world superpower,” and the chance of it launching attacks on British interests was “very possible given the UK is inextricably linked with the US in the eyes of Iran.” 

A senior commander in the Quds Force — Iran’s international military force, responsible for supporting proxy militias — told The Times on Jan. 6: “Our forces will retaliate and target US troops in (the) Middle East without any concern about killing its allies, including UK troops, as this has turned into a fully fledged war with much collateral damage expected.”

The commander added: “We request (the) UK, the key US ally, and other Western allies … to not stand with this Trump regime.”

His inflammatory comments come as Iraqi police confirmed that two rockets had injured six people in Baghdad’s Green Zone, where the US Embassy is based.

Iraq’s Parliament has backed a resolution supported by Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to expel foreign forces — including British troops — from the country.

Raab responded by urging Baghdad to abandon the resolution. He told Iraq’s government that an ejection of NATO forces would allow Daesh to “exploit the vacuum” left behind.

Arab News understands that Britain’s Defense Ministry is preparing new plans to secure UK interests and personnel after the resolution. 

The 400 British armed forces personnel based in Iraq have shifted their mission from training local forces to fight Daesh, to defending NATO bases and high-value individuals. 

The Royal Navy now plans to resume its escort of merchant vessels through the Strait of Hormuz following the heightened tensions. 

HMS Montrose and HMS Defender, a frigate and a destroyer respectively, had ended their escorting duties in 2019, but will now return to their duties. 

But despite the widely perceived threat to British interests, and the predictable trouble this has brought to London, the US failed to consult or even brief
the UK ahead of the attack.

The diplomatic silence over an assassination that has huge ramifications for British security has led to some questioning the value of the “special relationship” between the two nations.

“We pride ourselves on the so-called ‘special relationship,’ yet there’s often little evidence that the US has a special relationship with anyone other than itself,” said Charlie Herbert, a former British Army major general.

Kyle Orton, an independent terrorism researcher, told Arab News: “British interests are at risk, arguably more than American interests if Iran is looking for a calibrated response that doesn’t provoke worse from Washington.”

But he added: “The need for speed and secrecy makes it imperative to keep the circle of people aware small.” 

According to reports from the Los Angeles Times, that circle was small but included Israel. Barak Ravid, a journalist with sources in Israel’s government, said on Jan. 4 that the “US informed Israel about this operation in Iraq apparently a few days ago.”

A well-informed Israeli army officer told the Los Angeles Times that the attack “did not come as a surprise.”

After decades of fighting alongside American troops, and with thousands of British military and governmental personnel deployed in the Middle East to work alongside US forces, many Britons will be wondering what more they must do to enjoy the kind of advance notice afforded to Israel.