Iran-backed militias in show of strength as Gaza war rages

The worse the war becomes for Hamas, the more Iran could pressure its allies to enter it

Hezbollah fighters stand guard on a building roof top to protect their supporters during a protest to show their solidarity with the Palestinians, in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, on October 13. AP
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Militias supported by Iran have attacked US forces across the region in the recent days as the Gaza war rages on.

Assaults by Iran-backed militias in Syria and Iraq, and Houthis in Yemen, have taken place in relative unison with Israel's continued bombardment of Gaza.

Observers say the attacks were designed to show Iran’s ability to wage a multipronged war to deter a decisive Israeli attack that could wipe out its ally Hamas.

But as long as the Palestinian armed faction is surviving, Iran will keep its proxy military actions below a threshold of violence that could ignite regional warfare, they told The National.

Most spectacular has been what the US military said were drones and missiles fired over the Red Sea by the Houthi movement in Yemen.

US navy defences brought them down before they reached their target, which was possibly Israel, Washington said.

The Red Sea episode followed drone and rocket barrages on US bases in Syria and Iraq, as well as missiles from Syria targeting Israeli positions in the occupied Golan Heights.

Meanwhile in the south of Lebanon, Hezbollah fighters have been trading border fire with the Israeli military in the days after the surprise attack by Hamas on Israel on October 7, which started the war.

Jordanian counter-terrorism specialist Saud Al Sharafat said Tehran wants to show it cannot be discounted in any arrangements related to the war in Gaza.

“The attacks, especially the last one by the Houthis, have been annoying for the Americans,” said Mr Al Sharafat, who heads the Shorufat Centre for Globalisation and Terrorism Studies in Amman.

Nonetheless, the hostilities initiated by Iran’s allies have failed to derail an American green light for an Israeli ground operation in Gaza “to be mounted as fast as possible”, he said.

The group is the most powerful Sunni member of a network of perceived Iranian proxies in the Middle East.

The destruction of Hamas would mean “Iran will have no longer a foothold in Palestine”, said a member of the Syrian opposition, an officer who defected from the Syrian army after the 2011 revolt.

“It means that its other allies could be next,” said the former intelligence specialist, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals.

Iran's militia allies include the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah in Lebanon, an array of coreligionist militias in Iraq and Syria, and the Houthi movement, whose creed has become significantly influenced by Shiism in the past decade.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian last week warned that Hezbollah could join the battle, expanding the war into other parts of the Middle East, unless Israel halted its attacks on Gaza.

In Baghdad, a Shiite parliamentarian close to one of the militia said Iran was “pressuring” Washington and Israel to stop the military operation in Gaza.

“We can escalate further if needed,” he said, adding that there is “co-ordination” with Hezbollah but no Iraqi participation in its missile attacks on Israel.

In Washington, Brig Gen Pat Ryder, the Pentagon Press Secretary, said: “Right now, this conflict is contained between Israel and Hamas.”

Hezbollah's influence in Iraq started the Shiite political ascendancy in the country, which was a result of the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Veteran Syrian political commentator Ayman Abdel Nour said Hezbollah would come under the most pressure among Iran's allies to engage Israel in open war.

This is despite lack of appetite among its domestic constituents and among the wider population in Lebanon, whose economy collapsed three years ago.

“The escalations led by Hezbollah so far has been minor, and calculated,” Mr Abdel Nour said. “Hezbollah would wage a wider war only if Israel attacks Lebanon, similar to 2006.”

In that year, Hezbollah fought a 34-day war with Israel.

The group started the war with a cross-border raid aimed at taking Israeli hostages. It was similar, but on a smaller scale, to the October 7 attack by Hamas on Israel.

A UN ceasefire stopped the 2006 conflict. Hezbollah claimed victory, although Israel devastated large parts of Lebanon's infrastructure.

Updated: October 22, 2023, 9:12 AM