Defanging Iran’s Proxies in the Middle East

The Quds Force reports directly to the Supreme leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamanei thus has high degree of independence to carry out operations.

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Brigadier General Esmail Qaani, centre, attending the memorial for Qassem Soleimani, former commander of IRGC's Quds Force [File: Anadolu]

The ongoing crisis in the Middle East has escalated horizontally as well as vertically beyond Gaza with the Houthi in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon undertaking multiple rocket, drone and missile attacks at global maritime shipping and Israeli assets in the North respectively.

Simultaneously militant groups in Iraq and Syria supported by Iran have directed attacks against US interests in the region, with reports of as many as 170 attacks against US forces over the course of four months.

The impact of the strikes by the Hezbollah has been limited to that of Israel’s Northern Front with 218 people have been killed in Lebanon, mostly Hezbollah fighters but also at least 26 civilians, according to an AFP tally. In northern Israel, nine Israeli soldiers and six civilians have been killed as per media reports.

While this conflict is limited in nature possibly due to the presence of the UNIFIL – peacekeeping contingent deployed on the Blue Line separating Israel and Lebanon, the challenge by the Houthis to global shipping has disrupted the global supply chains and led to considerable threat to merchant shipping.

The United States and the UK have launched several attacks on the Houthi positions thereby destroying missile and drone infrastructure but have failed to completely neutralize the capability of the Yemen based group a proxy of the Iranian regime.

While Iran denies the same vehemently it is believed that actions by the Houthi and Hezbollah are coordinated and carried out by Iran. 

These are seen as Iranian proxies who have been promoted and their capabilities built over decades as a part of the so called Axis of Resistance by Iran to counter the advantage of the United States and Gulf Arabs in conventional arms.

While so far Iran has been careful not to let these groups escalate tensions with the US leading to an all out attack, but this red line was crossed when 3 US soldiers were killed and 47 injured in a strike by the Iraqi group affiliated to Iran on the Syria Jordan border at Tower 22, in Rukban, Rwaished District, Jordan.

Iraqi armed faction Kataib Hezbollah, a member of the pro-Iranian Hashd Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Force) was responsible for the strike.

Such strikes on US bases in Iraq and Syria have been ongoing but fatalities had been avoided and the US had been taking limited response actions against the proxies. The attack in Jordan which saw three US soldiers killed however has been the tipping point.

The Iranian proxies are controlled by Quds Force, part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) which has a network spread across the region which provides training, weaponry, and funds and directs many of the operations.

The most famous commander of the Quds Force Qassem Soleimani was killed in an US air strike ordered by the Trump administration on 03 January 2020 in the belief that this would lead to curbing of activities of the force.

However, the successor of Soleimani – Qani has been equally effective while remaining below the radar of publicity that had been the bane of his predecessor. The Quds Force reports directly to the Supreme leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamanei thus has high degree of independence to carry out operations. These actions are provided diplomatic cover by Iran’s Foreign Ministry, thus the Quds Force could be seen as the sword arm of Iran’s regional foreign policy.

Recent escalation in the Middle East indicates that the Quds Force under Qani remains as effective as under Soleimani in controlling actions of the proxies, thus targeting these is essential for a safe and secure Middle East and Sea Lanes in the area.

Defanging Iran’s Proxies

Defanging implying in military terms disarming Iran’s proxies through diplomacy and neutralization assumes importance for regional  stability and sustenance of maritime security in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea.

While sporadic actions as the assassination of Soleimani were taken in the past and sanctions have also been imposed on these groups as well as the IRGC, these have not been effective in curbing what is a direct threat to regional security in the Middle East which has now permeated beyond to a global level given the challenges to merchant shipping passing through the Red Sea.

Towards this end, the United States is undertaking some measures apart from the much publicized strikes on the Houthi in Yemen.

In terms of diplomacy, US special envoy Amos Hochstein is holding talks with Israel and Lebanon to keep Hezbollah, away from Israel’s northern border. The proposal includes three phases: an interim agreement that for an 8-kilometer (4.9-mile) to 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) withdrawal followed by  an increase in the deployment of UN forces and the Lebanese army in the area and finally  return of evacuated residents to their homes in northern Israel and south Lebanon. However Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib has reportedly rejected the proposal on February 08 thus becoming a non-starter.

Nevertheless this needs to be pursued while the larger objective of disarming the Hezbollah remains highly uncertain, unless either Iran is on board or the links between the two are sutured.

Similar options need to be worked out for disarming other militias in Iraq and even the Houthi and if this does not work out than neutralization through sustained military strikes is essential.

Jake Sullivan the United States National Security Adviser appeared to indicate willingness to pursue this option.  “We are prepared to deal with anything that any group or any country tries to come at us with,” said Sullivan,  including striking Iran.

This will require a campaign over many months and in a Presidential election year in the United States will be hazardous for the current administration to say the least.

An option of diplomacy cum destruction would have to be undertaken leveraging state authorities as Iraq to act against the Kataib Hezbollah as well as on Tehran though outcome may be difficult to estimate for now.

Yet a sustained campaign is essential for regional security in the Middle East which will also contribute to secure maritime trade.

Rahul K Bhonsle

Brigadier (Retired) Rahul K Bhonsle, MSc, MPhil, MBA is an Indian army military veteran with 30 years active field experience in counter militancy and terrorism operations. He is presently Director of Sasia, a South Asian security risk and knowledge management consultancy which specializes in future scenarios, military capacity building and conflict trends in South Asia.

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