Iranian Proxies Increase Operational Tempo in Syria and Iraq
In early January 2022, a series of attacks targeting U.S. assets and allies in Iraq and Syria were conducted by Iranian-backed militias. On January 5, for example, two weaponized drones were fired towards the Ain al-Asad airbase in Anbar Governorate, west of Baghdad, which hosts U.S. military and logistic convoys. The drones were intercepted by U.S. defenses, however, and caused no damage.
One day later, five Katushya rockets were fired towards the same airbase, landing two kilometers away and causing no damage or casualties. U.S.-led coalition forces also responded to indirect fire towards the “Green Village” in the Euphrates valley in Syria on January 5 (al-Mashareq, January 5). Two days prior, two drones were also downed when approaching a base hosting U.S. forces close to Baghdad International Airport (Anadolu Agency, January 3).
In the aftermath of the attacks, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby stated the incidents were demonstrative of the continued threat towards U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria from Iranian-backed forces (Iran International, January 6). The attack on the Ain al-Asad airbase, for instance, was claimed by a shadowy organization known as Qasim al-Jabbarin (al-Mayadeen, January 5). Its actions were typical of the modus operandi undertaken by Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria.
Profiling Qasim al-Jabbarin and Other “Splintering Militias”
Qasim al-Jabbarin is widely considered to be directed by Kataib Hezbollah, which is a Shia paramilitary group and part of the wider Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) in Iraq. The PMF themselves have material and tactical ties to Iran. Qasim al-Jabbarin traditionally favors attacks using improvised explosive devices (IEDS), so the rocket strike on the Ain al-Asad airbase was the first instance of a munitions-based attack by the group (New Arab, June 14, 2021). Qasim al-Jabbarin is just one of numerous others which have claimed attacks against Western interests in Iraq and Syria since late 2021, and is one of many façade organizations under the control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force.
Groups which have claimed similar attacks in Iraq include Usbat al-Thaereen, Saraya al Muntaqim, and Thar Muhandis, among others (al-Mashareq, July 5 2021). These organizations only came into prominence after the killing of IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani in January 2020, and little is known about their hierarchy or territorial presence. Their primary responsibility is to obfuscate the involvement of larger organizations, such as Kataib Hezbollah, in tactical operations. In Iraq, in particular, this allows larger organizations like Kataib Hezbollah to continue in their roles as ‘legitimate’ actors within the PMF while making it harder to hold any larger militias, individuals, or even governments to account. When groups such as Qasim al-Jabbarin claim responsibility for attacks, it creates another layer of separation between Kataib Hezbollah, the Quds Force, and, ultimately, Tehran.
This tactic of splintering militias to obscure involvement is not only reserved for attacks targeting U.S. interests. In January 2022, a little-known Iranian-backed group in Iraq called Awliyat al-waad al-Haq claimed responsibility for a drone attack targeting facilities in Abu Dhabi, reportedly as retaliation for the United Arab Emirates’ policies in Iraq and Yemen (Jordan News, February 7). The group is widely regarded as being under the direction of the Quds Force and has been praised on Kataib Hezbollah’s social media channels.
The usage of weaponized drones in Qasim al-Jabbarin attacks is notable, as these are increasingly becoming the primary attack method for Iranian-backed proxies. The drones utilized by Iran are relatively unsophisticated, with some created using commercially-available materials, but they retain the ability to hit close to an intended target from a distance. Among the Iranian-backed militias, drones are easy to modify and weaponize, while remaining inexpensive and easy to distribute. Both the IRGC aerospace commander, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, and the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have outwardly praised Iran’s efforts to increase its drone arsenal (Middle East Eye, September 2 2021).
Despite an increase in the frequency and operational tempo of Iranian-backed drone strikes in early 2022, there has been no uptick in casualties of U.S. service personnel, nor significant damage to military infrastructure, installations, or equipment. This could, however, be part of Tehran’s broader strategy. Iran has to strike a balance between pursuing its long-standing agenda of applying pressure on the U.S. in the Middle East while avoiding any sort of major military retaliation. It is possible that the primary intention for these drone attacks is not to cause fatalities or significant material damage, but to further Tehran’s campaign of regional intimidation.
The two-year anniversary of the assassination of the commander of the Quds Force head, Qassem Soleimani, is certainly a catalyst for the increased operational tempo of Iranian-backed militias in eastern Syria and Iraq. Soleimani was regarded as the second most powerful figure in Iran, and on January 6 the current Quds Force commander, Esmail Qaani, reiterated Iran’s desire to stage revenge on the U.S. for Soleimani’s assassination (al-Monitor, 5 January). Drone Attacks, which pose only a minimal risk to U.S. military personnel in the Middle East, are still a fundamental part of this narrative.
A further motivation is the change to the U.S. mission in Iraq. The number of U.S. forces in Iraq has declined from 150,000 at its peak to 2,500 presently, with these remaining troops acting in a training and advisory capacity to Iraqi forces (al-Arabiya, December 9, 2021). In the eyes of Tehran, this is still 2,500 too many, and the U.S. presence is an impediment to Iran consolidating regional power. It is possible that Tehran has been emboldened by the rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and believes a similar withdrawal from Iraq could be facilitated if attacks threatening U.S. service personnel continue unabated.
The question remains open as to how much control Tehran, and particularly the Quds Force, retains over the numerous militias operating in Iraq and Syria. Following Iraqi elections in October 2021, in which political forces supported by Iran, particularly the Fatah coalition, performed poorly, Esmail Qaani travelled to Baghdad and pledged to help bring political stability to Iraq (Tehran Times, November 13, 2021). The assassination attempt on Iraqi Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, in November 2021 was blamed on Shia militias, but both Tehran and Qaani instantly distanced themselves from the thwarted attempt on al-Kadhimi’s life. Qaani does not hold the same influence over Iranian proxies as his predecessor, Soleimani, because he lacks Soleimani’s cult of personality and is constrained by a lack of operational experience in Iraq and Syria. Based on this, it is credible to believe groups are conducting attacks without direction from the Quds Force at all. At the very least, increasing attacks in Iraq does not aid the political stability Qaani has pledged to engender.
In reality, the motivations for the uptick in proxy-militia attacks in Iraq and Syria are myriad and underpinned by the long-standing ideological goals of increasing Iran’s strategic regional influence. Since the death of Soleimani, the Iranian government has endured domestic setbacks, such as a severe economic contraction, labor strikes, and continued U.S. sanctions. Attacks against the U.S. are a welcome distraction from these domestic issues.
With Iranian-backed parties in the Iraqi parliament marginalized, Iran is unlikely to pursue more aggressive military activities outside of targeting U.S. assets. They do not want to risk losing further domestic political support in Iraq. Advancing foreign policy interests in Iraq nevertheless remains a key pillar of Tehran’s agenda. Therefore, the continued use of its proxy apparatus to project influence in Iraq and Syria will remain a cornerstone of that pursuit.