As the drawn-out confrontation between the United States and Iran continues and becomes seemingly more intense, the thoughts of many have turned to war.
Politicians in both countries and generals in one have threatened open conflict. Meanwhile others have deplored the possibility. In Syria, as elsewhere, deploring possible direct conflict misses something significant: the war being fought between groups allied to Iran and the United States – and the growing proxy conflict this represents and could spur.
Iran’s network of militias in Syria is extensive. Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese ally, has contributed tens of thousands of troops to the defence of Bashar Assad, Syria’s president and Iran’s client.
As depicted in The Shia Mapping Project, an interactive map produced by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Iran’s militias fit into a pattern of Shia military-religious activity. In Syria, groups in Iran’s orbit include Iraqi militias that crossed the border to fight for Assad and Afghan fighters, some of them children, sent to the regime’s aid.
Last year, with the capitulation and reconciliation of much of Syria’s southern rebels, Iran-affiliated proxy forces took their place near Syria’s border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, extending their and Iran’s reach and influence in southern Syria.
Groups of this kind permeate Syria’s war and have featured in wider proxy conflicts. Israeli air strikes have targeted Iran’s proxies and allies in Syria. US have fought Iranian proxies who encroached on a base occupied by Syrian rebels armed by the Americans, and, separately, on territory of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
With the United States reportedly planning to send thousands more troops to the Middle East to increase pressure against Iran and to counteract Tehran’s increasing regional strength, the possibility of violence between the United States and Iran’s proxies, as well as Iran itself, has been greatly talked up.
Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah said that ‘if America launches war on Iran, it will not be alone in the confrontation, because the fate of our region is tied to the Islamic Republic’.
This suggests willingness on the part of Iran’s proxies and allies to fight the United States and to continue guaranteeing the Assad regime’s survival in Syria.
Willingness to fight, however, is not the same as the capacity to do so.
The capacity of these groups is being lessened by US sanctions re-imposed after the United States withdrew from the nuclear deal it and other world powers signed with Iran.
The Washington Post reported that this seems to be seriously affecting Hezbollah’s finances and its capacity to act in Syria and Lebanon.
Analyst Ryan O’Farrell said: ‘Hezbollah has been cutting benefits, asking for donations and is probably looking to expand [its] international business empire, though the latter is more difficult given anti-terror financing regulations and the time it takes for returns to come in’.
Nonetheless, sanctions are incapable of weakening Hezbollah and other proxy forces irretrievably. They are resilient and have substantial traction in the communities from which they come and whom their members live among.
‘Most of Iran’s proxies are financed by both Iran and more self-sustaining business networks, so while capabilities may be constrained, I don’t think the Trump administration is going to see the kind of hard cut-off it’s looking for’, O’Farrell noted.
In Syria, Iran’s militias not only prop up the Assad regime, they have also established influences among Syrian communities, entrenching themselves vis-a-vis Israel and increasingly dominating local affairs.
Phillip Smyth, author of The Shia Mapping Project, said the success of the United States’ sanctions policy remains to be seen.
‘I think it depends on the sanctions’, he said. ‘It also depends on what the American response is. There are a lot of other issues that one has to deal with in order to see how it affects different groups that are there.’
In Syria, the short-term goal of Iran’s proxies is clear: the survival of the Assad regime in the face of internal and external pressures. Sanctions and international pressure will not alter or diminish this activity or the militias’ and proxies’ commitment to it.
Much of the talk about direct violence between Iran and the United States seems overheated. Even the recent increase in fighting rhetoric and plans to move more forces into contentious areas are unlikely to lead to direct war.
However, indirect warfare is already being fought and, despite the success of US sanctions in making life leaner for Iran’s proxies in Syria, nothing yet seen threatens to diminish their capacity to defend the Assad regime and entrench themselves.
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.