How US-Iran proxy wars are keeping the Middle East on edge

US forces face increased threat in Syria as a shadow war between Israel and IRGC takes its toll on proxy warriors. (AFP)
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Updated 24 February 2024
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How US-Iran proxy wars are keeping the Middle East on edge

  • Experts see militias backed by Iran as nothing more than “expendable pawns” in a chess game
  • Tehran strenuously denies any connection with the mainly Shiite militias

DUBAI: Iran and the US are engaged in outright proxy warfare, the effects of which are playing out across the Middle East region. Although neither side appears to be looking for a direct confrontation, vulnerable Arab countries with split political loyalties are paying the biggest price.

That seems to be the consensus view of Middle East experts as low-intensity wars rage on in several parts of the region in addition to the full-on Gaza conflict.

Since Oct. 7 last year, Iran-backed militias have mounted more than 170 attacks on US military bases and assets in Syria, Iraq and Jordan in response to US support for Israel in the Israel-Hamas war, prompting American retaliation.

Meanwhile, Iran’s Houthi allies in Yemen have launched repeated attacks on commercial and military shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, likewise prompting retaliatory strikes by the US and UK on militia targets.

While analysts believe the US and Iran are unlikely to become embroiled in a direct conflict, attacks by Iranian proxies are expected to occur for as long as Israel’s military campaign in Gaza continues.

Some experts think Iran is acutely aware of the Biden administration’s fear of a regional escalation and has sought to exploit this fact as a means of influencing the course of the war in Gaza.

Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, believes Iran is trying “to instrumentalize that fear by directly ordering, indirectly encouraging, or acquiescing to proxy attacks against Israel, the US, and international shipping.”




This photo released by the Houthi Media Center shows the Iran-backed Houthi forces boarding the cargo ship Galaxy Leader on Nov. 19, 2023, in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen. (Handout via AP)

In this way, Iran “hopes a terrified Biden administration will increase pressure on Israel to end the war before total destruction of Hamas,” he told Arab News.

However, this proxy war is playing out on the sovereign territories of Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Yemen — all nations that can ill afford to be swept up in a regional conflict. Some commentators say Arab lives in these countries are being treated as expendable.

“I think the attacks signal bloody bargaining between America and Israel on one side and Iran on the other,” Eyad Abu Shakra, a journalist at Asharq Al-Awsat, told Arab News.




US soldiers patrol the town of al-Qahtaniyah in Syria's northeastern Hasakeh province near the Turkish border. (AFP/File)

“I don’t think there is any ‘war of survival’ or a ‘war of elimination’ between the two camps, the Israeli-American camp and the Iranian camp. They are bargaining, as if in a bazaar, but with blood. The Iranians are fighting the Americans with Arab lives and vice versa.”

This bargaining, as it were, has the potential to get out of hand, however.

On Jan. 28, US forces stationed at Tower 22, a remote installation in Jordan, close to the Syrian and Iraqi borders, came under drone attack, leaving three US soldiers dead and 34 wounded.

US President Joe Biden said the drone attack was launched from Iraq by an Iran-backed militia. He vowed to retaliate at a time and in a manner of America’s choosing.

On Feb. 3, the US military launched an air assault on 85 targets at seven locations across Iraq and Syria including command and control headquarters and weapon storage sites used by Iran-backed militias and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

This was followed on Feb. 7 by a drone attack on eastern Baghdad that killed Abu Baqir Al-Saadi, commander of Kataib Hezbollah, the Iraqi militia that Washington had deemed responsible for the attack on US troops in Jordan.

Iran of course denies links to any militias in the Middle East. For instance, in a Jan. 29 letter to the UN Security Council, Amir Saeid Iravani, Iran’s ambassador to the UN, said: “There is no group affiliated with the Islamic Republic or Iran’s armed forces, whether in Iraq, Syria, or elsewhere that operates directly or indirectly under the control of the Islamic Republic of Iran or acts on its behalf.

“Therefore, the Islamic Republic of Iran is not responsible for the actions of any individual or group within the region.”




Iran denies links to any militias in the Middle East. But to fighters and supporters of Lebanon's Hezbollah, there is no hiding what is obvious. (AFP/File photo)

Some Republican lawmakers had exhorted the administration to authorize a direct strike against Iran, even if it risked sparking a wider escalation. Others accused Biden of responding too slowly and giving the enemy too much forewarning.

Wary about being dragged into another potentially open-ended Middle East war, especially during an election year, Biden has appeared keen to limit the scope of America’s retaliation.

“The Biden administration partially called the Islamic Republic’s bluff by harshly reacting to the killing of three American servicemen and women in Jordan, but publicly signaled that it would not target Iranian territory,” said Alfoneh.

“Retaliating for the loss of American life was a correct response, but the US would perhaps be better off keeping the Islamic Republic guessing about America’s retaliation, which may include Iranian territory in the future.”




US President Joe Biden has warned Iran to rein in its proxy militias or face American retaliation. (AFP/File)

Iran is likewise mindful of the potential blowback from its activities. But by operating through its network of proxies throughout the region, Tehran feels it can deny any involvement in attacks on Israel or US targets while reaping the benefits.

“After 1979, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared the export of the Islamic revolution, Iranians formed the IRGC,” said Abu Shakra.

“It was almost an open secret that they would fight their wars of negotiations with the Americans and Israelis in Arab cities rather than fight them in Iran’s cities.

“They eventually took over Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus and Sanaa, and now they are negotiating with the Americans and the Israelis through massacres, in which the Arabs are paying the price, not the Iranians.”




Hossein Salami, head of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. (AFP)

Nevertheless, according to analysts, Iran has sometimes overplayed its hand, leading to a more aggressive US response, as was the case when the administration of former President Donald Trump ordered the killing of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in Jan. 2020, allegedly to stave off a planned attack on US forces in Iraq.

“They are reminded of the accepted bargaining limits,” said Abu Shakra. “The assassination of Qassem Soleimani, for example, was such a reminder and a big hit. Both America and Iran are still respecting ‘the rules of engagement.’”

The latest US retaliation does appear to have had an impact. On Feb. 12, the Pentagon announced there had been 186 US casualties in Iraq, Syria and Jordan since Oct. 18. A day later, on Feb. 13, it declared there had been no further attacks on US forces.




The killing of major general Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran's Quds Force, by US forces in early 2020 has served notice to Iran's authorities that it does not pay to overplay their hands. (Tasnim News photo via AFP/File)

Washington is also likely in no hurry to attack Iran directly because the survival of the Islamic Republic has other uses. “It’s important to note that Iran is a sizable player whom the West can ‘use’ in any role,” said Abu Shakra.

“Whether Washington admits it or not, Iran is a very important bulwark against the rise of Sunni militant Islam. Iran is also a potential counterbalance against a nuclear Pakistan. Iran is an important bulwark against the expansion of the Chinese in the Gulf.

“No one has the strategic interest of destroying Iran. Neither America, nor Russia, nor India can ignore the role or influence of Iran.”

Critics of the Biden administration say its hesitance about a direct confrontation with Iran was demonstrated by its response to the Hamas-led attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7, including efforts through media leaks to play down an Iranian link and prevent a regional escalation.

INNUMBERS

269 People killed in Lebanon since violence erupted in October 2023.

40 Civilians are believed to be among the dead in Lebanon.

16 Israeli nationals were killed in the north, including 6 civilians.


When Israel began its retaliatory campaign in Gaza, the US said there was no proof that Iran was behind the Oct. 7 attack, said Abu Shakra. Then, within a week or two, the US said it did not want the conflict to spread.

“They wanted it to be limited,” he said. “The Americans did not want any involvement with the Iranian militias in Lebanon and Iraq. I think unless the Iranians overplay their cards and become too arrogant, the current fighting will remain limited to Iran’s Arab appendages.

“I think neither the US nor Israel nor the pro-Tehran Iraqi regime or Iran itself has any real interest in direct confrontation, which would be apocalyptic if it were to happen.”




Iran has little to gain from a direct conflict with the US and so it outsources its activities to proxies to tilt regional affairs in its favor.. (AFP/File)

Likewise, Alfoneh believes Iran has little to gain from a direct conflict with the US. Instead, it can outsource its activities to proxies to tilt regional affairs in its favor.

“The Islamic Republic achieved all of its objectives on Oct. 7,” said Alfoneh. “Hamas’ terrorist incursion into Israel shattered the myth of Israel’s invulnerability.

“Iran got even with Israel, which for years has bombed Iranian and allied positions in Syria, and even engaged in operations on Iranian soil, and the attack sabotaged diplomatic normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel.”




The fate of Hamas and Palestinian civilians is of no interest to Iran, which perceives them as expendable pawns, says Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. (AFP photo)

The interests of the Palestinians, and indeed the populations of the wider Arab region caught in the crossfire, are thereby secondary to these geopolitical goals.

“The fate of Hamas and Palestinian civilians is of no interest to the Islamic Republic, which perceives them as expendable pawns in a grander chess game in the region,” said Alfoneh.

“Therefore, the Islamic Republic is not interested in spreading the war in Gaza, which may directly entangle Iran in a war with Israel and, possibly, with the US.”

 


Thousands of Lebanese mourn slain Christian political official

Updated 56 min 16 sec ago
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Thousands of Lebanese mourn slain Christian political official

  • The army said that Sleiman was killed in a carjacking by Syrian gang members who then took his body across the border
  • His party said it would consider Sleiman’s death a “political assassination until proven otherwise“

BYBLOS, Lebanon: Thousands of Lebanese on Friday mourned a slain Christian political official authorities said was killed by a Syrian gang, with supporters pointing the finger at Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah group.
Pascal Sleiman was a coordinator in the Byblos (Jbeil) area north of Beirut for the Lebanese Forces (LF) Christian party, which opposes the government in neighboring Syria and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah.
On Monday, the army said that Sleiman, who had gone missing the day before, was killed in a carjacking by Syrian gang members who then took his body across the border.
His party said it would consider Sleiman’s death a “political assassination until proven otherwise.”
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has denied that his party was involved.
Speaking after Sleiman’s funeral, LF leader Samir Geagea called for the “failed, corrupt” authorities in Lebanon to be changed.
Geagea blamed their failure, among other things, on “illegal weapons” — a barely veiled reference to Hezbollah.
The Iran-backed group is the only party in Lebanon that has kept its weapons arsenal after the end of the 1975-1990 civil war, and it wields great influence on the country’s political life.
Since the Israel-Hamas war broke out on October 7, Hezbollah has traded near-daily cross-border fire with Israeli forces in actions opposed by the LF and other parties.
“We don’t want to wake up one day, as we did now, and find ourselves involved in a never-ending war,” Geagea said Friday.
Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai, spiritual leader of Lebanon’s largest Christian sect, held back tears as he presided over Sleiman’s funeral in Byblos.
Outside the St. Georges church, LF supporters waved the party’s white flag with its cedar tree — the symbol of Lebanon — circled in red.
Mourners told AFP they were unconvinced by the army’s version that car thieves killed Sleiman.
“This story never convinced me. It is not coherent at all,” said Jean Habshi, 50, who came to pay his respects.
“Enough with Hezbollah, enough with the illegal weapons,” Roba Hajjal, 24, told AFP outside the church.
“If they (Hezbollah) did not kill him, at the very least they allowed the Syrians in. We are all at risk of meeting Pascal’s fate,” she said.
Lebanon has a long history of political assassinations that have taken place with impunity.
Years of economic meltdown have further strained a weak judiciary that has been widely accused of succumbing to political interference.
Ziad Hawat, an LF lawmaker from Byblos, on Friday called for a “serious, transparent” probe into Sleiman’s murder, adding that the party had concerns “based on past experiences.”
“We do not want the killer to be known to all,” he added, while “remaining unknown to the judiciary.”
On Tuesday, Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi vowed to get tough on Syrians after several were arrested on suspicion of involvement in Sleiman’s killing.


Dozens of Palestinians killed in Gaza as Hamas official vows to ‘break’ Israel

Updated 12 April 2024
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Dozens of Palestinians killed in Gaza as Hamas official vows to ‘break’ Israel

  • Residents of Al-Nusseirat camp in central Gaza said dozens were dead or wounded after Israeli bombardment from air, land and sea
  • Meshaal said: “It is an important round on the path of liberating Palestine and defeating the Zionist project“

GAZA: Israeli forces fought Palestinian militants in the north and center of the Gaza Strip on Friday as Khaled Meshaal, a senior official in Gaza’s ruling Hamas movement, said its six-month-old battle with Israel would “break the enemy soon.”
Most Israeli troops have been pulled out of Gaza in preparation for an assault on the southern city of Rafah, where more than 1 million Palestinians are sheltering, but fighting has continued in various areas.
Residents of Al-Nusseirat camp in central Gaza said dozens were dead or wounded after Israeli bombardment from air, land and sea that had followed a surprise ground offensive on Thursday, and that houses and two mosques had been destroyed.
Health officials said earlier that six people had been killed in strikes on the camp, and around 70 wounded, including three Palestinian journalists.
In Gaza City, Palestinian health officials said at least 25 people had been killed and several wounded in an Israeli air strike on a house in Al-Daraj neighborhood. Gaza’s health ministry said 89 Palestinians had been killed by Israeli military strikes in the space of 24 hours.
The Israel military (IDF) said it was pursuing “a precise intelligence-based operation” against militants and their infrastructure in central Gaza.
“Over the past day, IDF fighter jets struck over 60 terror targets in the Gaza Strip, including underground launch posts, military infrastructure and sites in which armed terrorists operated,” a military statement said. “In parallel, IDF artillery struck terrorist infrastructure in the central Gaza Strip.”
Meshaal spoke at an event in Doha, Qatar, to mourn members of Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh’s family killed in an Israeli air strike in Gaza on Wednesday.
“This is not the final round,” he said. “It is an important round on the path of liberating Palestine and defeating the Zionist project.”
At least 33,545 Palestinians have now been killed since the Israeli offensive began, Gaza’s health ministry said, with most of the 2.3 million population displaced and much of the enclave laid to waste.
The war began when Hamas led an attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7 in which 1,200 people were killed and 253 taken hostage. Around 130 are still being held incommunicado in Gaza, Israel says.


France urges no travel to Iran, Lebanon, Israel and Palestinian territories

Updated 12 April 2024
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France urges no travel to Iran, Lebanon, Israel and Palestinian territories

  • Iran has threatened reprisals against Israel over a strike on the Iranian consulate in Syria
  • France’s Foreign Minister asked that family members of French diplomats in Iran be evacuated

PARIS: France on Friday warned its citizens to “imperatively refrain from travel in the coming days to Iran, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories,” the foreign minister’s entourage told AFP.
Iran has threatened reprisals against Israel over a strike on the Iranian consulate in Syria on April 1 that killed seven Revolutionary Guards including two generals, sparking fears of an escalation of violence in the Middle East.
France’s Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne at a crisis meeting also asked that family members of French diplomats in Iran be evacuated, and no French civil servants be sent on missions to the listed countries.
Israel has bombarded the Gaza Strip since an unprecedented attack by Palestinian militant group Hamas against Israel on October 7. It has also stepped up strikes against Iranian personnel and allies in Syria and Lebanon.
Israel has traded near-daily cross-border fire with Iran-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah since the start of the latest Gaza conflict.


Israeli forces kill two Palestinians including Hamas gunman

Updated 12 April 2024
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Israeli forces kill two Palestinians including Hamas gunman

  • Hamas confirms Mohammad Omar Daraghmeh’s death and his membership of its armed Al-Qassem Brigades

RAMALLAH: Israeli forces shot dead two Palestinians, including a member of the armed wing of Hamas, near Tubas in the occupied West Bank on Friday following a raid on the town earlier in the morning, the military said.
It said Mohammad Omar Daraghmeh, whom it described as the head of Hamas infrastructure in the Tubas area of the Jordan valley was killed during an exchange of fire with security forces. It said a number of weapons and military-style equipment, including automatic rifles were found in his vehicle.
Hamas confirmed Daraghmeh’s death and his membership of its armed Al-Qassem Brigades.
The official Palestinian news agency WAFA said another man was killed by Israeli forces conducting a raid in the Al-Fara refugee camp in Tubas. Hamas said it mourned the man’s death but did not claim him as a member.
The military said forces carrying out the operation opened fire on Palestinians who threw explosive devices and killed one man it said was attempting to attack them.
The incident was the latest in a wave of confrontations in the West Bank between Israeli security forces and Palestinians, including both armed militants and unarmed protesters, since the start of the war in Gaza last October.
Hundreds of Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces, most of them armed fighters but some of them unarmed civilians, and thousands have been arrested or detained. In the same period more than a dozen Israelis have been killed by Palestinian attackers.


US does not expect to be drawn into war but predicts attack by Iran against Israel

The North Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC. (AFP)
Updated 12 April 2024
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US does not expect to be drawn into war but predicts attack by Iran against Israel

  • The White House said it warned Iran to not use that attack as a pretext to escalate further in the region

WASHINGTON: The United States expects an attack by Iran against Israel but one that would not be big enough to draw Washington into war, a US official said late on Thursday.
The White House said earlier Washington did not want conflict to spread in the Middle East and the US had told Iran it was not involved in an air strike against a top Iranian military commander in Damascus.
The White House added it warned Iran to not use that attack as a pretext to escalate further in the region.
Suspected Israeli warplanes bombed Iran’s embassy in Damascus on Monday in a strike for which Iran has vowed revenge and in which a top Iranian general and six other Iranian military officers were killed, ratcheting up tension in a region already strained by the Gaza war.
Iranian sources told Reuters Tehran has signalled to Washington that it will respond to Israel’s attack on its Syrian embassy in a way that aims to avoid major escalation and it will not act hastily, as Tehran presses demands including a Gaza truce.
The United States has been on high alert about possible retaliatory strikes from Iran and US envoys have been working to lower tensions.
Palestinian group Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200, according to Israeli tallies. Israel’s military assault on Hamas-governed Gaza has since killed over 33,000 according to the local health ministry, displaced nearly all of Gaza’s 2.3 million population, caused a humanitarian crisis and led to genocide allegations that Israeli denies.
Iran-backed groups have declared support for Palestinians, waging attacks from Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq. Tehran has avoided direct confrontation with Israel or the United States, while declaring support for its allies.

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