Faisal Al Yafai
apocalyptic warnings about Iran and the United States stumbling into a new war,
the response to America’s killing of Qasem Soleimani was, when it came, rather
muted: a dozen ballistic missiles slammed into US bases in western and northern
Iraq, causing no casualties, followed by an eerie political silence.
skirmish was over and both sides – remarkably, given the language of the White
House in the days before – stepped back. More than a week has now passed since
the Iranian retaliation, and the real response – on proxy battlefields across
the region – can now begin.
In the calm
after the storm, the muted response from Iran was taken in Western capitals as
an admission that Tehran was unable to respond forcefully and would simply
accept the death of its high-ranking commander as the cost of an undeclared
But in the
Middle East, which has witnessed first-hand the impact of Iran’s expansion over
the past two decades, nobody is naive enough to believe the strikes in Iraq
were the final word. They are only the first page. Like the strikes that
preceded them, Iran’s battle to avenge Soleimani’s death will be fought across
other people’s countries.
Iranian regime, the killing of Soleimani will have reinforced the belief that
proxy wars are its best hope for survival.
doctrine of proxy war began in the 1980s, in the midst of the bloody,
decade-long conventional Iran-Iraq War – a war that Iranians did not start and
that many believe was encouraged by the United States. By the early 1980s, the
war was at a stalemate and Tehran turned to proxy organizations to gain
leverage – first to the Badr Brigades, made up of defecting Iraqis and Iranian
fighters, and later Hezbollah in Lebanon.
real expansion of proxy power has come this century, starting with the US-led
invasion of Iraq, which opened up a country formerly closed to Tehran’s
intelligence network, and then the Arab Spring uprisings, which destabilized
Syria and Yemen. It is in those places that the real response will come.
The use of
these proxies by Iran is a gamble, designed primarily to keep its territory
safe. So far, the major strategic success of Iran has been its ability to
attack its enemies without retaliation finding its way to Iranian soil.
implicated in the sabotage of ships in the Persian Gulf over the summer, as
well as a drone strike on Saudi oil facilities, an attack that was claimed by
the Yemeni Houthi rebels. For months, from the spring of 2019 through to
December, Iran-backed militias targeted American bases all across Iraq. There
was retaliation, but none on Iranian soil.
long gambled on creating sufficient distance between the decisions made in
Tehran and the dead bodies left behind in Iraq, Yemen or Afghanistan to ensure
that the United States will not have the compelling proof it would need in
order to make the drastic decision to go to war. The killing of Soleimani has
altered that calculation. It demonstrated that US President Donald Trump
refuses to play by the rules of the proxy war that has been simmering inside
Iraq for years. Previously untouchable figures are now targets.
brinksmanship is risky. In the short term, raising the stakes so high has forced
Iran to step back from a costlier confrontation. But in the long term, there is
a limit to how often and how high the US can raise the stakes before the
conflict becomes unbearable for its allies in the region. It was noticeable in
the aftermath that even American allies like Israel distanced themselves from
the operation, wary of being caught up in the response.
for the Iraqis, it is their country that has become the established
battleground between the US and Iran, and as such Washington has few qualms
about attacking Iranian-backed forces there.
calculation Tehran will need to make now is this: If militias allied to Iran
but operating inside Iraq target US bases and forces, might a volatile occupant
of the White House order strikes inside Iran?
set off a conflict that would be unpredictable both for the region and for
Iran’s leaders who, as the protests currently gripping the country demonstrate,
still need to use violence to maintain law and order.
Iran will look to create other proxy battlefields, where it can extract secret
revenge. The two spaces ripe for this confrontation are Afghanistan and Yemen.
shares a long border with Iran, as well as a language (Farsi and Dari speakers
can easily understand each other). It has been well-reported that Iran’s
Revolutionary Guards mobilized tens of thousands of Afghans to fight for
President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria. As that war draws to a close,
those fighters have to go somewhere; the most obvious place would be into
recruitment as Iranian agents inside Afghanistan.
Yemen, Iranians are already present on that battlefield. On the same night a US
drone over Baghdad killed Soleimani, another drone over the Yemeni capital,
Sanaa, tried to kill Abdul Reza Shahlai, another Quds Force commander. The
strike missed and instead hit a different Iranian military official – but it
marked one of the first public strikes by the US against Iranian targets inside
Crescent” that Jordan’s King Abdullah warned of shortly after the 2003 invasion
of Iraq has come about. Iran is now in a position to take revenge for
Soleimani’s death, both against US troops and against America’s allies, far
from Iranian territory.
article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on
the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news
networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and
reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.
Headline: The real US-Iran war will be fought on proxy battlefields
Source: The Asia Times