It’s possible that the most important strategic event of 2020 in the Middle East occurred a few days before the year even began. The United States attacked the pro-Iranian Shi’ite Kataib Hezbollah militia early Sunday morning. American drones hit five targets of the militia in western Iraq and eastern Syria.
A Pentagon spokesman said 25 militia members were killed. It was a massive attack, and one of the largest by the United States in the region in the past year. The question that interests most of the actors operating in the region at the moment – including, and maybe especially Israel – is whether the attack points to a change in U.S. policy.
Kataib Hezbollah is one of the most important pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias operating in Iraq. The group accepts the religious legal authority of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the principle of “Velayat-e Faqih,” the supreme rule of the Islamic jurist. This is the guiding principle of the Iranian political system, according to which the political ruler is also the senior religious leader. The militia’s political ideology is expressed in its extreme opposition to the United States, the West in general, and Israel.
The militia is under the auspices of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' al-Quds Force, under the command of general Qassem Soleimani, whose men direct the militia’s soldiers, as well as training and arming them. No precise figures exist on the militia’s manpower, but according to intelligence assessments from Israel and Western countries, the group’s soldiers and support personnel numbered a few thousand in the past – and in recent years its strength has grown to 25,000 people.
The United States has a long and bloody history with Kataib Hezbollah. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq under George W. Bush in 2003, Kataib Hezbollah fighters adopted guerilla hit-and-run tactics. They fired rockets, most of them improvised, against U.S. troops and specialized in setting improvised explosive devices and mines. They were trained to do so by Soleimani’s subordinates, adopting the methods of Hezbollah in its fighting against the Israel Defense Forces in Lebanon. The Pentagon and State Department estimate that the militia was responsible for the deaths of over 600 U.S. troops during the war in Iraq from 2003 through 2011.
With the beginning of the civil war in Syria in 2011, Kataib Hezbollah transferred most of its efforts to Syria and focused on aiding the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the fight against ISIS and other opposition groups.
The militia is led by 65-year-old Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, who was born in Basra in southern Iraq and is an engineer by training, and who is also known as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (“The Engineer”). The Western intelligence community attributes to him direct involvement – at the orders of the al-Quds Force – in the terror attacks against the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait. In response, he fled to Iran, married an Iranian woman and received Iranian citizenship. He was sentenced to death in absentia by a court in Kuwait. On Tuesday, al-Muhandis’ militia led the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes.
Al-Muhandis is also the deputy commander of Popular Mobilization Forces (al-Hashd al-Sa’bi), the umbrella movement of Shi’ite militias in Iraq that coordinated – under Soleimani’s direction – the war against the Islamic State. It includes the Badr Organiztion, Kataib Hezbollah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and other groups. Al-Muhandis was also the deputy national security adviser of Iraq.
Even though most of his and Kataib Hezbollah’s attention is focused on the fight against the United States in Iraq, they are also keeping an eye on Israel. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Israeli Air Force bombed a house on the Syria-Iraq border in June 2018, while al-Quds forces were trying to move Iranian weapons into Syria.
In August 2019, al-Muhandis accused Israel and the United States of coordinating secret operations between them and of acting jointly against his militia. In an official statement, he claimed that Israel flew drones from Azerbaijan and used them to bomb targets in Iraq. Al-Muhandis said this operation was conducted with the knowledge and help of the United States.
An expression of Israel’s growing interest in Iraq is evident in the proliferation of warnings sounded by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Time after time he has repeated that he will not allow Iran and its proxies to establish themselves militarily – not just in Syria but also in Iraq, where Iran is deploying missiles that can reach Israel.
By the way, for a decade and a half, reports have appeared about the strategic and military cooperation between Israel, Azerbaijan and the United States. According to some of these reports, Israel built a military and intelligence base in Azerbaijan that is for intelligence gathering, penetration and attacks on Iran. One of the claims is that the Mossad officers who carried out the theft of the Iranian nuclear archive in Tehran fled afterward to Azerbaijan.
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The recent American attack against Kataib Hezbollah came after the Trump administration suffered a number of severe blows from Iran over the past year. The Iranians shot down an American drone, their most advanced and expensive model. Western oil tankers were attacked in the Persian (Arabian) Gulf. Missiles and rockets from Iran and the pro-Iranian Houthi militia in Yemen hit Saudi oil production sites in September 2019 and caused very heavy damage to the Saudi Aramco oil company.
U.S. President Donald Trump not only ordered restraint in the face of the Iranian aggression – except for cyberattacks against Iranian targets – but he also continued his efforts at conciliation and his show of weakness toward the Iranian leadership. In 2019, Trump called time after time for Iran to come to the negotiating table with him to reach a “deal.”
The phrase “speak softly and carry a big stick” is attributed to Teddy Roosevelt. It will be interesting to see over the next year whether the volatile and unpredictable Trump decides to implement another zigzag in his Middle East policy. If the latest attack does not turn out to be a one-time proposition and has a follow-on, then it will be possible to say that in 2020, an election year, Trump is changing his approach and not making do with just imposing economic sanctions on Iran – but is also backing them up with military action. If that is what happens, it will be good news for Israel, which during the past year found itself in double distress. It alone bore the burden of attempting to stop the Iranian military build-up in Syria, and it was also abandoned by Trump when he decided to pull his forces out of Syria.
But even if Trump really does change direction concerning Iran, Iraq and Syria – and this is a huge question mark in its own right – there is no reason to believe that Iran will give up on its attempts to build up its influence and hegemony in the region. The war of attrition that Israel and Iran have been waging – sometimes directly and sometimes through proxies – is expected to continue.