In Iraq, Yemen, Syria … How the conflict between Iran and the United States risks being exported

Tehran and Washington are playing the appeasement card to avoid a larger armed conflict. However, many observers fear that the two powers will settle their accounts on other grounds in “wars by proxy”.

Will the conflict between the United States and Iran set fire to the Middle East? The death of General Qassem Soleimani, killed by an American drone fire, and the Iranian response against Iraqi bases housing the US Army raised fears of a military escalation. But after a week under stress, Tehran and Washington have played the card of appeasement.

At a press conference, Donald Trump finally opted, Wednesday, January 8, for new economic sanctions against Iran rather than for military intervention. And despite almost daily bellicose statements, the Iranian authorities have taken care not to kill American soldiers in their response.

However, many observers expect the two powers not to stop there and export their conflict to surrounding countries. In a message broadcast on Iranian television on January 6, General Soleimani's daughter summoned Syrian Bashar Al-Assad and leaders of Hezbollah, Hamas and the Houtie rebellion to avenge the death of his father by attacking the Americans or their two historic allies in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Franceinfo takes stock of the risks of proxy wars between Tehran and Washington in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Palestine.

In Iraq: the “most likely” conflict

• Who are the actors? After leaving the country in 2011 under Barack Obama's tenure, US forces have massively redeployed to Iraq as part of the international coalition against ISIS jihadists. They form the main contingent with 5,200 soldiers, according to the magazine Time (in English). The Trump administration has cast doubt on a possible withdrawal of its troops, before denying the information.

Historically, Iran has always exerted a strong influence on its neighbor, whether by infiltrating the government, as revealed by the “Iran Cables”, or by financially and militarily supporting Shiite militias. This influence was accentuated in 2014, when Tehran flew to the rescue of Baghdad after the conquest of a third of the country by the jihadists of the Islamic State. Today, a myriad of pro-Iran paramilitary groups are evolving in Iraq. Gathered under the banner of Hachd al-Chaabi, they were largely integrated into the Iraqi security forces.

What are the reactions? The assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Al-Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards and the main envoy from Tehran to Iraq, provoked the ire of these armed groups. Especially since during the American bombing, Abou Mehdi Al-Mouhandis, the military chief of the Hachd al-Chaabi, also lost his life.

All of these forces, divided in the past, have promised to unite against Washington. “We let's regroup the factions of the resistance into a single entity, said on January 7, Nasser Al-Chemmari, number 2 of Noujaba, one of the most radical pro-Iran factions in this coalition, pledging to lead a “War against the American presence in all the places in the region that we can touch.” Moqtada Al-Sadr also called to the union of “Iraqi resistance factions”. This Shiite military leader reactivated its Army of the Mahdi, an Islamist militia that had killed dozens of American soldiers during the second Gulf War, before being dismantled in 2008.

• What can happen? Iraqi chaos constitutes “the most likely option”, according to Bernard Hourcade, geographer specializing in Iran and emeritus research director at the CNRS. “This is the only area where Tehran can have American troops in its sights without directly engaging in an armed conflict.” Iran can rely on it “a myriad of militias, who are totally devoted to it”, keep on going Wassim Nasr, journalist for France 24 and observer of the Iraqi conflict.

Aside from the Iranian strikes on two American bases in Iraq in retaliation for the death of Soleimani, several rockets fell on the “green zone” of Baghdad where the American Embassy is. “In reality, American interests have already been targeted for several months”, remarks Thierry Coville, researcher at Iris and specialist in Iran.

In Syria: a risky conflict for Assad

Who are the actors? Since the start of the revolt against the Bashar Al-Assad regime in 2011, the conflict has become extremely complex. Officially mobilized to fight against the jihadists of the Islamic State who had taken control of the east of the country, a multitude of foreign powers are now intervening on Syrian terrain. The bloody regime of Al-Assad is supported militarily by Russia and Iran. On the ground, Lebanese Hezbollah and tens of thousands of pro-Iran militiamen are fighting alongside Damascus. A Western coalition, led by the United States and of which France is a part, is allied with the Kurdish combatants and rebel Arab factions formerly united under the banner of the Free Syrian Army. But the latter exploded, giving way to an endless game of alliances and fratricidal battles between Islamist groups and jihadists more or less close to Al-Qaeda.

After Kurdish fighters announced the dissolution of the Islamic State caliphate in March 2019, Western engagement has declined considerably. The United States has announced a partial withdrawal of its troops, leaving the Kurds in the grip of Turkey in the north of the country. In October, after a Turkish offensive against Kurdish positions in northern Syria, Ankara and Moscow signed a decisive agreement. Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan have since emerged as the two strong men of the Syrian conflict.

What were the reactions? As head of external affairs for the Revolutionary Guards, Qassem Soleimani was instrumental in supporting the Syrian regime. After the death of the Iranian general, Bashar Al-Assad denounced a “crime committed by the United States” who “will only ignite the determination of Syria and Iran to face the subversive American policy in the Middle East”.

Pro-regime protesters in Aleppo, Syria, January 7, 2020, in front of a poster showing the portrait of Qassem Soleimani and Bashar Al-Assad kissing Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (AFP)

Erdogan and Putin made a joint statement after the Iranian strikes. “We affirm our commitment to defuse tensions in the region and call on all parties to act with restraint and common sense and to prioritize diplomacy”, qualifying in passing the assassination of Soleimani “an act that undermines the security and stability of the region”.

What can happen? In the past, the US military and armed groups loyal to Tehran avoided confrontation to focus on their common enemy: the Islamic State group. Now that the jihadists have lost their territorial hold, this status quo is weakened. At the end of December, American F-15 fighters targeted two installations in Syria of the Hezbollah Brigades, one Iraqi Shiite militia linked to Iran whom Washington accuses of being responsible for rocket attacks against its soldiers. The armed group has also been the target of strikes attributed to Israel.

A conflagration in Syria seems however “very unlikely, at least in the short term”, according to Didier Billion, deputy director at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (Iris). “For the Iranians, the real issue on the Syrian terrain is to consolidate the regime in order to ensure access to the Mediterranean and to Israel, explains the specialist in the region. For this, their interest is to see the American troops leave quickly. Attacking them would have the opposite effect. “

In the Palestinian territories: Hamas has too much to lose

Who are the actors? “Great enemy” from Israel, Tehran has financially supported many Palestinian armed groups. This is the case of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas, who fought three wars with Israel in the Gaza Strip. Distant for a time, relations between the Islamist movement and Iran warmed up at the start of the year, Qassem Soleimani once again qualifying Hamas “friend of Tehran“according to Al-Monitor (in English). Dafter the Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds (in Arabic), Iran has even started funding the armed group to the tune of $ 15 million a year.

• What were the reactions? Ismaïl Haniyeh, the head of Hamas, went to Tehran to pay tribute to Qassem Soleimani. The Islamist party hailed the memory of a man who “played a major support role for the Palestinian resistance”. He denounced a orgy of american violence ” without however calling for revenge. For his part, the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas – who is not on good terms with Iran – has remained silent.

In the Gaza Strip, Palestinian protesters set fire to American and Israeli flags on January 8, 2020.
Palestinian demonstrators in the Gaza Strip set fire to American and Israeli flags on January 8, 2020. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

• What can happen? In November, the leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Bahaa Abu El-Atta, was killed in an Israeli strike. The Palestinian armed group responded by firing hundreds of rockets from Gaza into southern Israel.

“Iran supports Islamic Jihad in principle, but cannot afford to launch an armed conflict through them. As for the relations between Tehran and Hamas, they are not what they used to be”, believes Bernard Hourcade, specialist in Iran. The Islamist party that controls the Gaza Strip has a truce agreement with Israel and would have too much to lose if it waged a new war.

Interviewed by the Pan Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat (in English)Palestinian security sources say Hamas refused “Whether Gaza is turned into an arena for external conflicts or used to settle scores”. Herzi Halevi, Israeli military leader, said in the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth (in Hebrew) that he stood ready to respond to any offensive.

In Lebanon: the “least likely” option

Who are the actors? In Lebanon, Iran enjoys the support of its main ally in the region: Hezbollah. This powerful Shiite movement was created thanks to funding from Tehran in 1982, after the invasion of Lebanon by Israel. He has been advocating since “Elimination” of the Hebrew State.

Israel views Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, as does the United States, the main ally of the Hebrew state in the region, and the European Union. The IDF and Hezbollah clashed in several armed conflicts, including the second Lebanese War in 2006, and tensions are very high at the border.

• What were the reactions? Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was among those close to Qassem Soleimani. In October, the Iranian general had recounted having saved himself Nasrallah when he was caught in an Israeli bombardment during the second Lebanon war. A few days before his death, he also went to Beirut to talk to the head of Hezbollah.

During a televised speech broadcast on giant screens in the southern suburbs of Beirut, Hassan Nasrallah called for “revenge” the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, who concerns (…) the entire Muslim nation. “ However, he called for only US military interests in the region, without directly threatening Israel.

For his part, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, welcomed the death of Qassem Soleimani, calling him “chief terrorist”. Tel Aviv accused the Iranian general of being the eminence of a project to convert Hezbollah rockets into precision missiles that could cause significant damage to Israel.

Hezbollah activists follow a speech by their leader, Hassan Nasrallah, who reacts to the death of Qassem Soleimani, on January 5, 2020, in Beirut (Lebanon).
Hezbollah activists follow a speech by their leader, Hassan Nasrallah, who reacts to the death of Qassem Soleimani, on January 5, 2020, in Beirut (Lebanon). (ANWAR AMRO / AFP)

• What can happen? For Bernard Hourcade, du CNRS, an armed conflict between Hezbollah and Israel is “very unlikely given the internal situation in Lebanon”. In recent months, the country has faced an unprecedented popular protest movement that has led to the resignation of the government of Saad Hariri, replaced by Hassan Diab, an academic close to the Shiite movement. “Politically, Hezbollah is in a position of strength and has no interest in engaging in a new conflict with Israel”, analyzes Bernard Hourcade.

“If Tehran relies on Hezbollah to target the Americans, it is more likely to be done on Syrian territory where they are very present, even if it seems unlikely., Completes Thierry Coville, researcher at Iris and specialist in Iran. Tehran is well aware that uncontrolled reprisals against Israel via its supporters would have the effect of an immediate explosion “, continues Didier Billion, Deputy Director of Iris.

Yemen: already a proxy war

Who are the actors? For five years, a bloody war has been fought in Yemen where two camps clash: le government, supported by an Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia, and Houti rebels, supported by Iran. On the religious level, the Houtis are zaydis, a Shiite current different from Iranian Shiism, while the majority of the country is Sunni.

This conflict, which generates a terrible humanitarian catastrophe, is already considered by many observers as “a war by proxy”. The United States, Riyadh's historic allies in the Gulf, provides arms and military intelligence to Saudi Arabia, which leads the pro-government coalition. Opposite, the Houthis used drones and missiles made in Iran to bomb Saudi airports.

• What were the reactions? In Yemen, Houthi rebels have demanded “quick and direct reprisals” after the assassination of Qassem Soleimani. “The aggression will not go unanswered”, promised Mohammed Al-Bukhaiti, a member of the rebel political bureau interviewed by AFP. When, how and where the response will be determined by Iraq and Iran and we will be with them because we are a center of resistance. ”

A Houti embracing a portrait of Qassem Soleimani, & nbsp; killed in Iraq by the American army, on January 6, 2020, in Sanaa (Yemen). & Nbsp;
A Houti embracing a portrait of Qassem Soleimani, killed in Iraq by the American army, January 6, 2020, in Sanaa (Yemen). (MOHAMMED HAMOUD / ANADOLU AGENCY)

After the Iranian reprisals which targeted the American positions in Iraq, Saudi Arabia “denounced and condemned the Iranian violations of Iraqi sovereignty”. Riyadh, however, has distanced itself from Washington: a Saudi official told AFP that his country “was not consulted” before the American strike. Monday January 6, Saudi Foreign Minister Fayçal Ben Farhane described the situation as “very dangerous”.

• What can happen?By supporting the Houtis, Iran could attack its sworn enemy, Saudi Arabia, without having to assume it diplomatically. Today is no longer the priority “, estimates Thierry Coville, specialist of Iran. “Things are calming down between Tehran and Riyadh. In this context of conflict with the United States, Iran has little interest in opening a new front, but rather in maintaining security in the Persian Gulf”, continues Bernard Hourcade.

For its part, Riyadh announced that it wanted to maintain the channel of discussions with the newly established Houthi rebels. “It is pretty clear that the Saudis are not happy about this crisis, even if they should be happy about the murder of Soleimani, Analysis from AFP Hussein Ibish, from the Arab Gulf Institute, based in Washington. They know they would be caught in a crossfire if war broke out and they are doing everything to lower the temperature. “


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