The recent missile strikes against Iran-backed Al-Hashd Al-Sha’abi militants in Iraq may have been one of America’s largest military interventions in years, but they were just one maneuver in a rapidly escalating conflict across many states, encompassing increasingly fierce military exchanges with the Houthis in Yemen.
Israel has simultaneously been carrying out a succession of targeted killings of Revolutionary Guard officers in Syria. Tehran invariably fulminates that such assassinations “will not go unanswered” — although, if that is true, we are still awaiting retribution for the US killing of Qassem Soleimani in 2020.
The US attacks were retaliation for the drone strike that killed three US soldiers in a military base at the strategically crucial intersection between Jordan, Syria and Iraq. US troops there have labored to prevent Daesh from reestablishing transregional networks, while obstructing Tehran-backed paramilitaries from consolidating a corridor of control through to the Mediterranean.
So, it is not surprising that these proxies have incessantly attacked this location, seeking to compel the Americans to leave altogether, with more than 160 attacks on US targets since Oct. 7 alone. An Iraqi spokesman accused the US of turning Iraqi territory into a “battleground for settling scores,” perfectly encapsulating how Iraq has been exploited for too many years.
Iraqi factions such as Harakat Hezbollah Al-Nujaba and Kata’ib Hezbollah have been dangerously goading each other
The Al-Hashd Al-Sha’abi umbrella coalition of Iran-backed militants was constituted in 2014, supposedly to fight Daesh. But since Daesh’s defeat, these forces have doubled in size to about 240,000 personnel, with a commensurate expansion of their budget, generously provided by the Iraqi state. This entity’s “axis of resistance” pretentions highlight its aspiration to dominate not just Iraq and Syria, but the entire region. As with the Houthis, many of the Hashd’s component factions were established, armed and trained under the tutelage of the Quds Force and Lebanese Hezbollah.
While these militias operate at Iran’s behest, they are like a sack of wildcats, uncertainly wielded by Quds Force Commander Esmael Ghaani and engaging in fierce rivalry to dominate their respective mafia fiefdoms. Iraqi factions such as Harakat Hezbollah Al-Nujaba and Kata’ib Hezbollah have been dangerously goading each other into which can most brazenly attack foreign forces.
However, at the first sign of a more serious American response, a rapidly backpedaling Kata’ib Hezbollah leader Abu Hussein Al-Hamidawi said the group was halting missile attacks. Even though the group has Quds Force personnel in its leadership council, Al-Hamidawi vigorously denied any Iranian coordination. Meanwhile, Harakat Hezbollah Al-Nujaba mocked its rival’s “cowardice” and pledged to continue its attacks.
Kata’ib Hezbollah’s assertion that it had halted attacks to “prevent embarrassment to the Iraqi government” was risible, given how the group has forged a career out of undermining Iraqi sovereignty. It was also an acknowledgment of tensions among these paramilitary groups that hold seats in government at the same time as staging attacks against a superpower that Iraq is highly dependent on.
Ayatollah Khomeini once said that maintaining the Islamic Republic was a duty “above all duties.” And, as CIA director William Burns aptly noted, this regime is “ready to fight to its last regional proxy” in the cause of self-preservation, even if it must incinerate its paramilitary armies and the entire region in the process.
Lebanon particularly fears being dragged into a regionwide war that would displace and kill hundreds of thousands. Even if the worst-case scenario is avoided, the conflict has already chronically destabilized this bankrupt, crisis-ridden nation, with widespread use of phosphorus bombs further crippling agriculture in southern areas that are still impacted by unexploded cluster ordnance from 2006.
The only route out of this inexorable hour-by-hour escalation is to bring the Gaza war to an end
The Gaza conflict has made US President Joe Biden deeply unpopular among young, multiethnic pro-Palestinian demographics in crucial swing constituencies: hence the ludicrous announcement of sanctions on a grand total of four Israeli settlers complicit in the tsunami of violence against West Bank Palestinians.
On the subject of strikes on US forces in Iraq and America’s response, White House security spokesman John Kirby said: “The goal here is to get these attacks to stop. We’re not looking for a war with Iran.” But regionwide attacks will not stop without Tehran being held definitively to account.
At the risk of stating the obvious, the only route out of this inexorable hour-by-hour escalation is to bring the Gaza war to an end. Israel has spectacularly failed to eradicate Hamas, so operations there now appear solely designed to retain Benjamin Netanyahu in power at the cost of tens of thousands of Palestinian lives — but they could easily trigger something infinitely worse.
By all accounts, the US has been engaged in frantic high-level diplomacy to achieve comprehensive Arab rapprochement with Israel in exchange for Israel’s recognition of a two-state solution, along with Hamas releasing its hostages. The success of such a grandiose scheme would indeed be transformative, though it requires Netanyahu to halt the bloodshed and waive his hostility to a Palestinian state. It also relies on Tehran not deploying its proxies in a blocking role.
Consequently, as well as taking decisive action to demonstrate to the ayatollahs that warmongering will only bring catastrophe to the gates of Tehran, Biden must bend Israel to his will in a manner America has never done before. It is not as if Washington lacks the levers: Israel is dependent on US military aid, American support at the UN Security Council and the US’ ability to mobilize global support. It is also not as if Biden has much to lose from falling out with a politically dead in the water Netanyahu.
Conversely, if the conflict was allowed to worsen and Iran’s proxy militias, with their hundreds of thousands of soldiers and vast missile arsenals, did decide to embark on war, the US and its allies would be instantly drawn into this morass to prevent Israel being utterly destroyed.
If not for the sake of humanity, Biden certainly wishes to avoid this doomsday scenario in an election year. He must therefore jettison the ludicrous half measures that only create the illusion of doing something and use all levers at his disposal to compel Netanyahu to immediately halt this futile, genocidal war.