America and Shia Militias

So great is America’s identity crisis in this century of isolationism, that its citizens have spent last week and this one bickering among themselves about whether the United States should retaliate when it is attacked by an avowed enemy.

But first, a little background. On February 25, the United States bombed Shia militias operating in Abu Kamal, in the eastern Syrian desert. Although some more unreliable monitors claimed over 20 had been killed in the attack, it seems that only one man was.

The group that was hit is Kataib Hezbollah (also known as the Hezbollah Brigades). Kataib Hezbollah is nominally Iraqi but operates in Syria at the behest of, and with the intention to benefit, Iran. Its former commander, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was killed alongside Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps—Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani at the beginning of last year.

Iranian-sponsored militias use the Syrian desert as a staging post for their supplying of the regime of Bashar al-Assad; and the passage of weapons and material to their fellow militias in Lebanon and southern Syria, where militias threaten the Israeli border.

It is into this area that militias made up of imported Afghans and Pakistanis work. The area is a confluence of militias involved in furthering Iran’s regional strategy of proxy warfare.

The United States struck this particular militia for good reason. Iranian-sponsored militias inside Iraq have created merry hell for years.  They have killed protesters and political opponents. They have committed many war crimes hidden beneath the veil of the pan-national fight against ISIS. They have resolutely taken over the political and cultural institutions of the state, leaving Iraqi democracy a sham and many government departments operating like vestigial organs.

And they have repeatedly attacked the small American presence in Iraq with rockets – including this week, in the course of which one American died, and two weeks ago, in which one American was killed and nine others received wounds.

The militias are swaggering and violent. They murder without cost in Iraq and are more than content to perform acts of terrorism which cross borders. Strangely, this was missed or ignored by many commentators, who preferred to consider the American strike – the first of Biden’s young presidency – an act of aggression worthy of comment.

A corresponding American attack on the militias was warranted in order to re-establish some deterrence to ward off the militia’s unchecked aggression. A strike of this kind is wholly in keeping with the American fetish of striking back only within the bounds of proportionality.

One thing to distinguish this run of the mill action (of a piece with the attacks carried out by Israel against the very same groups all the time in Syria) was the pertinence and even irony of hitting a nominally Iraqi militia doing Iran’s bidding in the Syrian desert. This is akin to tapping an obvious interloper on the head to signal that his presence is both noticed and undesired.

 The hysteria with which all this was met was both predictable and dispiriting. Americans of an isolationist streak combine immense ignorance with striking self-obsession. To them no conflict exists before America participates in it. Every American action is part of a ‘forever war’ – a war distinct from, say, the gunning down of Iraqi protestors by Iranian agents and the decades-long battle of Afghans to resist Taliban domination independent of American involvement.

It does not matter that the American part of these wars are fought at great distance from the American homeland by a professional army which suffers strikingly few losses, and trundles along entirely without affecting the majority of the American population.

Naturally, many isolationists suggested that for Biden to fight back when America is attacked was akin to letting them down personally, and betraying the sensibilities of his voters.

But anyway – regardless of the huffing of this noisy domestic faction, this attack does not indicate that Biden’s foreign policy is likely to be more aggressive. Some analysts believe this attack was almost entirely gesture – the equivalent of bombing a couple of warehouses to show intent and calling it a day.

Phillip Smyth, a scholar of the militias, makes a valiant effort to argue that not only did this attack highlight the oddity of militias which are nominally part of the Iraqi armed forces freelancing for Iran in Syria; it also strengthens America’s hand in dealing with the array of militia groups which used to think they could pop up to take shots at America and not see their more overt side-lines affected.

Smyth believes that Biden has signalled he will not immediately resume the friendliness with Iran followed by Biden’s former superior, Barack Obama, representing ‘a welcome about-face from the errors of 2015’. One can only hope.

If true, this is indeed welcome, but it seems a little too much to derive from the deliberately limited if well-chosen bombing of an unpleasant collection of fighters in eastern Syria – whatever the histrionics of domestic American opinion.

This piece was originally published in The Critic.

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