By Riad Kahwaji*
The United States appears to be taking a more aggressive and direct approach in dealing with Iran in order to check its scheme of asserting its control over large parts of the Middle East and establishing a land corridor linking its western borders with the Mediterranean. However, after several years of free hand in the region without much efforts by President Barrak Obama Administration to stop Iran’s moves to spread its influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon as well as Yemen and other parts of the volatile Middle East region, Tehran today has a strong lead on the U.S. and is benefiting from its alliance with Russia to consolidate its regional gains. Thus, it will take more than simple U.S. efforts of containment to seriously affect Iran’s plans or intentions.
Most analysts and observers believe that the biggest beneficiary from the Obama Administration decision to pull out of Iraq was Iran because this enabled it to quickly fill the vacuum. Ever since the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Iran tried to undermine America’s role in the country. It utilized its control over several Iraqi opposition parties that became main players in Baghdad’s political scene to entrench itself capitalizing on the sectarian divisions within the country. Between 2003 and 2011, pro-Iranian Iraqi militias engaged U.S. troops in a bloody insurgency in the country that also saw the appearance of Al-Qaeda affiliated groups sneaked in the country by the Iranian-allied Syrian regime. Some 6,000 American troops were killed in an 8-year-long insurgency that most analysts and officials (in region and US) knew very well it was largely orchestrated by Tehran.
The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) provided Tehran with a golden opportunity to accelerate its military control over the country through the Shiite militias it helped organize into what has become to be known as the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF). The PMF swept through predominantly Sunni parts of central and western Iraq and even pushed north, sometime with the air cover provided by the U.S.-led International Alliance fighting ISIS. Now it has reached the borders with Syria and is waiting to link up with Iranian-backed militias from the other side.
In Syria, Iran has sent its Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) along with Hezbullah from Lebanon and thousands of Shiite militiamen from Pakistan and Afghanistan to help rescue the Syrian regime from collapse against Syrian opposition forces. Again, the rise of ISIS in Syria provided Tehran with the alibi to send in thousands of fighters to push back Syrian opposition forces under the air cover of Russian warplanes. The Obama Administration’s refusal to intervene against the Syrian regime after its use of chemical weapons and ignoring Iranian growing presence in the country enabled Tehran to become the main force in Syria sharing control there with the Russians who are also increasing their military footprint. Now, Iranian-backed militias and Syrian regime forces are trying to push through the Syrian desert to connect with their counterparts on the Iraqi side of the borders.
Iran’s use of proxy forces – usually Shiite militias – is a standard game successfully played on many occasions in parts of the region to spread Tehran’s influence across the Middle East. These militias have provided Iran with the element of deniability when needed and at the same time kept the theater of operations outside its national territory and within the scope of insurgency-like warfare between predominantly Shiite militias and the regular forces of the targeted state. So Iran helped Shiite communities (or offshoot Shiite groups like Zaidis in Yemen and Alawites in Syria) to create militias that took over the state itself. This method where a foreign power creates internal forces in another country to take over power is referred to by many theorists as the Fourth Generation Warfare. Iran was applying this ever since the revolution and the creation of the Islamic State in Iran in 1979. It tried to militarize Shiite communities in the region under the pretext of exporting the Islamic Revolution. However, this process took on a more aggressive approach after the U.S. invasion of Iraq that heightened Tehran’s threat perception of a possible American attack to topple the regime in Tehran.
Therefore, Iran has set its own rules of engaging the U.S. and its allies in the region. These rules of engagement are basically to subject the U.S. and its allies to wars of attrition through its proxy militias using hybrid warfare tactics on various fronts to exhaust its adversaries and compel them to recognize it as a regional super power and accept its hegemonic role in the region. The U.S. under the Obama Administration played according to the Iranian rules and gave in to Tehran on many fronts and on many issues including the controversial Iranian nuclear program and even ignored Iranian ballistic missile development.
However, America’s allies in the Arabian Gulf did not always play according to the Iranian’s rules of the game. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) intervention in Bahrain to help quell a Shiite opposition movement there was aimed at preventing Iranian proxies from taking over power in Manama. Also in 2015, Saudi Arabia led an Arab and Islamic alliance in an operation against the Iranian-backed Houthi forces in Yemen to help restore power to the legitimate Yemeni government. Although the Yemen war is not yet over, however the Saudi-led alliance has made big gains and contained the Houthi move to capture power.
The United States under the new administration of Donald Trump announced from day one that will adopt a much tougher policy on Iran. It vowed to renegotiate the nuclear deal and has demanded Iran halts its ballistic missile program. Last week the U.S. Senate voted 98-2 to pass new Iran sanctions targeting Iran’s ballistic missile program and the IRGC. The Treasury Department had already been ramping up some measures against both entities. The Iranians say the new Senate sanctions against ballistic missiles violate the 2015 nuclear deal.
The Trump Administration finds itself facing a very tough situation today on various fronts in the Middle East. The common denominator between all these fronts is that almost all of the opposing forces (militias) on these front answer to Tehran. The question that presents itself is that: Shall the U.S. continue to play by Iranian rules or shall it as the much bigger power enforces its own rules of the game? The growing Russian military presence in Syria that is benefiting Iran will certainly further complicate the matter. It is true that the U.S. is now using its own proxy forces – the Kurds and moderate Syrian opposition forces – to capture and hold ISIS territory in Syria in order to prevent Iran and the Syrian regime forces from capturing them and controlling the area along the borders with Iraq. However, Iran has much bigger militias and is using more resources in Iraq and Syria.
Attempts by joint Syrian-Iranian forces to advance past the position of U.S. troops and their allied Syrian opposition forces at the Tanf crossing point with Iraq were intercepted by the Americans with force. Also an attempt by the Syrian regime forces to advance toward Raqqa was stopped by U.S. backed forces and a Syrian warplane was shot down in the process by American jetfighters.
However, Iran seems adamant on pursuing its policies and objectives in the region and even introduced new weapons to the Syrian-Iraqi theater. On June 17, the IRGC fired six Zolfaghar ballistic missiles from its western borders into eastern Syria. Iran said the missile strike was against a group it holds responsible for recent terrorist attacks in Tehran. The Iranians unveiled the Zolfaghar in September, with a banner saying Iran could destroy the Israeli cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa. Iranian officials say the missile can carry multiple warheads and has a range of 700km. That puts CENTCOM’s forward headquarters in the Middle East and Arab Coalition capitals in range.
Moreover, Iran seems set on achieving its objective in creating the land corridor across Iraq and Syria, and hence it will continue to challenge the U.S. on this point. If its attempts hit a snag in Syria it will try from Iraq’s side where PMF leaders already announced their intent to push into Syrian territories under the pretext of fighting ISIS. This presents the U.S. with another question related to the future of the PMF in Iraq. How will the U.S. deal with them the day after ISIS is defeated and uprooted from Iraq? What will Washington do whenever Iran ups the game and directs its proxy militias to attack the U.S. personnel directly in Iraq and Syria?
Fighting a proxy war is not easy. For democracies these wars take too long and cost too much, while for authoritarian regimes proxy wars are cheap and buy them needed time to build their own conventional and non-conventional capabilities. For example, the U.S. retaliates against an attack by an Iranian proxy force by sending an F-15 or F-18 to bomb missile launchers or armored vehicles. The air raid – if only one smart bomb is used – will cost the U.S. at least half a million dollars while for Iran the vehicle or launcher costs less than ten thousand dollars and the militiamen can be easily be replaced for five thousand dollars. Moreover, loss of a U.S. soldier will generate public reaction at home while for Iran losing a militiaman and even an IRGC officer will have little impact on public opinion at home. Therefore, a prolonged proxy war with Iran, especially on many regional fronts, will be a losing game to the U.S. and its Western allies.
Too many questions face the current U.S. Administration, especially the new leadership at the Pentagon. How to deal with an empowered Iran that is well entrenched in the region and is now posing a threat to U.S. interests? Of course the political divisions in Washington after the recent presidential elections and the Russia investigations haunting the Trump Administration will only embolden Iran that will interpret the situation as a sign of American weakness. Whether in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, or the Arabian Gulf waters the U.S. faces Iran and its proxies, and weighs in its options on which approach to adopt. Continue to play according to Iranian game rules or up the stakes and apply new rules and play a whole different game? Early indications from the recent U.S.-Arab-Muslim summit in Riyadh and the encounters in Syria indicate that Washington is headed towards an escalation, which means the region will likely see new U.S. game-rules.
*Riad Kahwaji, is the founder and director of INEGMA with a 28 years of experience as a journalist and a Middle East security analyst.