Israeli efforts to thwart Iran’s regional influence have become more ambitious in recent weeks.
The Israeli Defence Force has carried out a number of tactical strikes to disable infrastructure, eliminate personnel, and stall the movement of resources that it claims are being used by Iranian proxies in neighbouring states.
A number of strikes last weekend were indicative of an escalation of Israeli security activity. Strikes carried out in Syria on Saturday killed 5 members of the Quds force, an extraterritorial unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who Israeli officials claimed were in possession of a so-called ‘killer drone’.
On Sunday morning, Israel renewed attacks on Hamas targets in Gaza, responding to the firing of three rockets into Israeli airspace. Later in the day, an alleged Israeli drone attack was reported on the media office of Hezbollah, an Islamist political party which Israel designates as a terrorist organisation, in the southern suburbs of Beirut. Whilst Israel refused to take official responsibility for these actions, officials claim that Hezbollah workshops in the city are being used to manufacture and assemble precision missile technology.
Nasrallah described Israeli incursions in Lebanon and ongoing actions against Hezbollah personnel in Syria as ‘very, very dangerous’ and warned ‘If Israel kills any of our brothers in Syria, we will respond in Lebanon’.
All of these actions will have important implications. In a public statement issued by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah late on Sunday, drone attacks on Beirut were alleged to be the first Israeli strikes in Lebanon since Hezbollah’s month-long war against Israel in 2006. Nasrallah described Israeli incursions in Lebanon and ongoing actions against Hezbollah personnel in Syria as ‘very, very dangerous’ and warned ‘If Israel kills any of our brothers in Syria, we will respond in Lebanon’.
Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Said Hariri declared Israeli aerial action in Lebanon a violation of national sovereignty and ‘an attempt to push the situation to further tension.' Further pressure in Gaza, which has experienced a 12-year Israeli blockade, may exacerbate the rising influence in the embattled territory of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an Islamist group regarded as more extremist in its methods and ambitions than Hamas.
Yet recent Israeli Air Force strikes in Iraq will perhaps prove the most consequential. Whilst Israeli operations have been suspected in Iraq since late last year, the Israeli Defence Force provided official confirmation of strikes in a statement last week. Israeli strikes in Iraq are far more uncommon than actions within the territory of its more immediate neighbours.
Though Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Syria during the country’s 8 year-long civil war, Israel has not launched an attack on Iraq since 1981, when an airstrike destroyed a nuclear reactor under construction near Baghdad.
Though Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Syria during the country’s 8 year-long civil war, Israel has not launched an attack on Iraq since 1981, when an airstrike destroyed a nuclear reactor under construction near Baghdad. Though airstrikes in Iraqi territory on its Syrian border could be seen as unintended spill-over from relatively common Israeli operations in Deir ez-Zor in Syria’s far East, attacks on military facilities in Iraq have occurred deep in the country’s interior.
Israeli F-16 fighter jets /AFP
Strikes hit Camp Ashraf on July 30, about 100 km, Camp Al-Saqr in southern Baghdad on August 12 and at Balad Air base in Saladin Governorate, 80 km North of the capital early last week. An attack at al-Qaim in Iraq’s West on Sunday, allegedly carried out by Israel, killed two members of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), including a senior commander. What is behind this significant extension in the scope of Israel’s security operations?
‘Israel has identified a growing Iranian presence in Iraq, including personnel and weapons, aimed to support Iranian interests in the region, particularly in Syria’.
- Dan Arbell
Dan Arbell, an expert on Arab-Israeli relations and Scholar in Residence at the American University in Washington argues that ‘Israel has identified a growing Iranian presence in Iraq, including personnel and weapons, aimed to support Iranian interests in the region, particularly in Syria’.
All of the positions attacked so far have been linked with Kataib Hezbollah, often known as the Hezbollah Brigades, a majority Shi’a militia and founding member of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), an umbrella organisation consisting of some 60 paramilitary groups that played a central role in defeating the Islamic state in Iraq.
Israel and the USA claim that Kataib Hezbollah and a number of other PMF affiliated militias in Iraq serve as proxies for Iran in the region. Strikes may therefore be aimed at reducing Iranian influence in a strategically important area, reducing the capacity of its allies to move personnel, weapons, and resources between themselves.
Israel and the USA claim Kataib Hezbollah and a number of other PMF
affiliated militias in Iraq serve as proxies for Iran - Ahmad Al-Rubaye /AFP
Gil Murciano, an Israel Expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs suggests that Israel’s targeting of alleged Iranian proxies has stepped up as Iran’s direct presence in Syria and Iraq has decreased.
Mr Murciano suggests that in the last year, Iran has tried to ‘lower the number of boots on the ground and looked for spaces in which its influence can survive without a direct military presence.’ Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon and Syria and pro-Iranian militias in Iraq can be used to retain Iranian influence without the risks of a more active military presence.
Iran has tried to ‘lower the number of boots on the ground and looked for spaces in which its influence can survive without a direct military presence.’
- Gil Murciano
Acknowledging Iran’s increasing support for regional allies, Israel has therefore redirected its campaign against the Islamic Republic in the region. According to Joe Macaron, a Fellow at the Arab Centre in Washington, Israel sees ‘Lebanon, Syria and Iraq as three interconnected fronts against Iran’.
Central to Israel’s position on regional security is the notion that Iran is attempting to construct a ‘land bridge’, strategically linking Iranian linked military bases, security infrastructure, missile instillations and weapons caches stretching between Israeli’s northern borders with Lebanon through Syria and Iraq to Iran.
According to Joe Macaron, a Fellow at the Arab Centre in Washington, Israel sees ‘Lebanon, Syria and Iraq as three interconnected fronts against Iran’.
Using data from ImageSat International, an Israeli monitoring service, officials have pointed to the existence of a large network of alleged Iranian military infrastructure in Iraq. Mr Murciano notes that whilst allegations of the construction of a ‘land bridge’ once had echoes of conspiratorialism to them, they now appear more credible.
He cites Iranian efforts to demographically secure control of strategic areas much as the town of al-Mayadin in Syria’s West and al-Qusayr near the Syrian Lebanese border through the instillation of pro-Iranian militias as indicative of Iran’s ambitions. Israel justifies strikes as pre-emptive actions to deny pro-Iranian forces a stronger foothold in tactically significant locations.
Domestic political considerations may also be informing Israeli strategy. This is certainly the opinion of Mr Nasrallah, who argued on Sunday to his supporters that ‘Netanyahu is preparing his elections with your blood’.
As the Israeli Prime Minister prepares for elections in September, tough stances on national security may play well with voters who analysts have argued are at risk of defecting from Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party to groups further to the right on Israel’s political spectrum.
As Mr Arbell acknowledges, ‘Israeli audiences support a tough approach vis-à-vis Iran. Such actions remind many of what Israel is capable of’. Yet Mr Murciano suggests that focusing on countering Iranian influence in the region will unlikely confer any specific advantages on Mr Netanyahu. Whilst security issues have long played a central role in Israeli political life, ‘a remarkable degree of consensus exists between parties on the need to take a tough stance against Iranian influence in the region’. For that reason, the primary audience for Israeli strikes is likely to go beyond the region - to Mr Murciano, they ‘encapsulate an important political meaning and are a way to expose Iranian involvement in a sensitive area internationally’.
the primary audience for Israeli strikes is likely to go beyond the region - to Mr Murciano, they ‘encapsulate an important political meaning and are a way to expose Iranian involvement in a sensitive area internationally’.
A number of important questions remain unanswered about the nature of Iran’s regional influence. Though Israeli officials and some Western analysts argue that Iran’s efforts to build supply lines across the region are sophisticated and pose a genuine threat to Israeli security, the strength of existing logistical arrangements is unclear.
A representation of Iran's potential 'land bridge' connections with Iraq, Syria and Lebanon /Al Bawaba
Mr Macaron argues that whilst a form of ‘land bridge’ certainly exists, ‘it is not fully functional and operational’. Though Iran’s links with its regional partners are undeniably strengthening, it remains to be seen how integrated such networks truly are.
Additionally, Iran’s true intentions in the region remain opaque. Mr Murciano suggests that much remains to be done to fully document and understand the true strategic interests behind the alleged ‘land bridge’. In popular commentary, Iranian foreign policy is often explained in relation to the Islamic Republic’s ideological presuppositions.
much remains to be done to fully document and understand the true strategic interests behind the alleged ‘land bridge’
A recent report from the conservative Washington based think tank, the Foundation for the Defence of Democracy argues that ‘Iran’s efforts to establish a land bridge across Syria and Iraq is connected to a four-decade long proxy war that Iran is waging to pursue its revolutionary agenda’, a key part of which is militant opposition to the Israeli state.
Though Iranian officials often refer to the importance of a regional ‘Axis of Resistance’ against American and Israeli influence and stress their solidarity with certain movements that share an Islamist political agenda, it may be strategic and economic benefits that are at the forefront of decision maker’s minds in Tehran.
Iran has a range of potential interests in extending their presence in Iraq and Syria. Given the state’s increasing diplomatic isolation in the West, reconsolidating and strengthening alliances with the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and PMF militias in Iraq may compensate for a diminished role internationally.
Economically, Iran may hope to secure lucrative reconstruction contracts in Iraq and Syria as these states attempt to rebuild after years of conflict, and secure access to rents associated with ongoing mining and drilling activities in the Levant.
Crucially, an ongoing presence in the region may be calculated to thwart the interests of Iran’s primary strategic rival, Saudi Arabia. Economically, Iran may hope to secure lucrative reconstruction contracts in Iraq and Syria as these states attempt to rebuild after years of conflict, and secure access to rents associated with ongoing mining and drilling activities in the Levant.
The Iranian Quds force, in particular has substantial interests in the economic reconstruction of Iraq and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps owns a vast empire of businesses and foundations, from construction firms to petrochemical and cement companies. Though Iran’s regional footprint may be significant, its alliance building efforts may not be straightforwardly directed towards engaging Israel.
Israeli strikes on Iraq may have a deleterious effect on the political situation of an already volatile state. Members of the Fatah Alliance, a majority Shi’a coalition formed to contest the 2018 general election consider Israeli actions a ‘declaration of war, a sentiment echoed by Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi who announced that ‘Iraqi sovereignty and the wellbeing of its people are a red line’.
Strikes on PMF militias may have particularly complex implications, given that 2016 legislation in Iraq institutionalised the PMF as an official branch of the country’s defence forces. To some in Iraq, attacks on militias are therefore akin to attacks on the Iraqi state.
Tensions may yet flare in Iraq over the presence of American troops in the country. A statement by the Fatah Alliance held ‘the international coalition, particularly the United States fully responsible for this aggression’. Many senior officials in Iraq regard Israeli actions as having been authorised by Washington, a decision which would chime with recent anti-Tehran posturing from US President Donald Trump.
Mr Macaron notes that ‘it remains unclear to what extent the US shared intelligence on the Israeli strike in Iraq’, yet rash decision making in Baghdad may yield an expulsion of American forces, a move that would jeopardise ongoing efforts to extinguish pockets of Islamic state resistance. Intra-Iraqi tensions could be inflamed as various political actors blame the presence of Iran and the USA respectively for bringing further conflict to the country.
‘it remains unclear to what extent the US shared intelligence on the Israeli strike in Iraq’ - Joe Macaron
As Mr Macaron notes, Israel sees itself as engaged in a multi-front campaign against Iranian influence in a sensitive region. Whilst Middle East observers will closely watch regular pressure points in Gaza, Southern Lebanon and the Golan Heights for the next moves in a tense geopolitical struggle, it is an expansion of conflict in Iraq that should have them most worried.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.
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