Israel has been expanding the scope of its confrontations with Iran’s regional proxies and is now targeting them in Iraq as well as Syria and Lebanon in the framework of a strategy of “proactive deterrence” intended to keep Iran from attaining a military edge by building the capacities of its proxies in these countries.
However, there are questions as to whether the Israeli strategy could backfire, with the intensification of Israeli strikes compelling the other side to reassess its calculations in ways that could lead to retaliatory responses by the proxies concerned and even flare up into a full-scale multilateral military conflict in the region.
Israel has been using this strategy since the outbreak of the conflict in Syria, especially after Iran and its allies, such as the Lebanese Hizbullah group and the Iraqi Shia militias, increased their activities and consolidated their presence in Syria.
Israeli operations in Syria have targeted missile transfers into Syria and the Iranian military infrastructure there. The strikes have testified both to the precision of Israeli intelligence and to the success of the deterrent mechanisms.
According to US reports, notably on the Axios Website, it was Israeli intelligence that notified the Pentagon about Iranian missile transfers to Iraq in May, prompting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to cancel a visit to Berlin in order to make a previously unannounced visit to Baghdad.
Speaking to journalists at the time, Pompeo said the US was concerned for Iraqi sovereignty because of the increased Iranian activity in the country. Former Iraqi prime minister Ayad Allawi said at the time that the US Embassy in Baghdad had confirmed the Iranian missile transfers to Iraq.
The failure of efforts to halt these missile movements brought Iraq into anti-Iranian crosshairs. On 19 July, unidentified drones struck the Iraqi Hizbullah’s Al-Shuhada base near Amirli in the Saladdin governorate of the country, though Israel did not claim responsibility for the attack.
Investigations carried out by the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) concluded that there had not been a drone or missile strike, attributing the incident to a solid fuel fire as a result of internal defects and providing no further details.
However, all other assessments relied on eye-witness reports that two drones had struck the base, leading observers to conclude that perhaps the PMF wanted to cover up the fact that Iranian and Hizbullah missile and military experts might have been struck in the attack.
With the reccurrence of incidents of this sort in August, such as the blast that struck the Saqr military base in the Ewarij district south of Baghdad on 12 August and the strikes against the Balad airbase north of Baghdad on 20 August, suspicions have increasingly fallen on Israel.
On Thursday last week, the New York Times revealed that US officials had told the newspaper that “Israel is responsible for the strikes” and was “pushing the limits” of its actions.
Washington has been growing increasingly uncomfortable as it has come under the PMF’s glare for allegedly encouraging and logistically supporting Israel in the strikes.
The Iraqi Foreign Ministry summoned the chargé d’affairs at the US Embassy in Baghdad to remind him that the US must adhere to “the terms of the strategic partnership agreement with Iraq in the security and economic spheres.”
Israel has not officially acknowledged its responsibility for the attacks. However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has dropped hints that Israel carried them out. “We will act – and currently are acting – against [the Iranians], wherever it is necessary,” he said recently.
Despite repeated US denials that it was involved in the recent attacks and its assertions that it would like them to stop, the PMF continues to focus its anger on Washington and on the US role in Iraq.
Influential Iranian cleric Ayatollah Kazem Al-Hairi has issued a religious edict calling for “resistance” and “confrontation” against the US military presence in Iraq.
The fatwa sparked controversy among Shia circles in the country since Al-Hairi is based in Qum, whereas Iraqi Shia Muslims generally look to Najaf, the seat of the higher Shia authority in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, for guidance.
Ihsan Al-Shammari, director of the Iraq-based Political Thought Centre, a think tank, told Al-Ahram Weekly that Al-Hairi’s fatwa was not binding in general, but that some militias might abide by it because of their particular affiliation with him.
He said that only about ten per cent of the Shia militias in Iraq fell into this category and therefore the crisis could be contained.
Earlier this week, Israel also struck a military site in Syria and another site in Lebanon. The Israeli authorities claimed that they were preparing for a drone attack by Iranian Revolutionary Guards against the Golan Heights.
On Sunday, Lebanese Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah lashed out against the Israeli “aggression” and warned that his response to Israel would be different from that of his Iraqi counterparts, meaning that attempts to contain the situation in Iraq might not apply to all Iran’s proxies in the region.
The Iraqi Hizbullah and the Asaib Ahl Al-Haq militia have also indicated their willingness to take part in a confrontation against Israel on the Lebanese front where tensions are likely to escalate.
If this happens, then Israel’s strategy of “proactive deterrence” may indeed precipitate a conflagration on several fronts. Israel’s persistence in carrying out strikes in Iraq and elsewhere despite mounting US impatience increases this likelihood and the likelihood that these fronts will unite against Israel.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.