The Iran-backed joint command co-ordinating regional attacks against Israel and the US

A 'united' proxy front has emerged four years after the assassination of IRGC commander Qassem Suleimani

Iraqi clerics look on as they stand near a banner depicting senior Iranian military commander General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, during a gathering marking the one year anniversary of their killing in a U.S. attack, in Baghdad, Iraq January 3, 2021. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
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Iran-backed armed factions in the Middle East have established a daily co-ordination process through a joint command since the start of the Gaza war, mainly focused on picking up targets and the timings of attacks against Israel and US forces, officials and militants have told The National.

While regional militias have co-ordinated in the past, the level of co-operation has sharply increased during Israel's assault on the Palestinian enclave since October 7. This would have probably pleased the late Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander Qassem Suleimani, who was assassinated by the US.

Suleimani, who once claimed to have been present with Hezbollah in Lebanon during the 2006 war with Israel, commanded the Quds Force, a branch of the IRGC tasked with working with irregular militia forces across the region, building Iran's proxy units as a bulwark against Israel.

Four years after the drone strike that killed him and others near Baghdad airport on January 3, 2020, his vision of an Iranian-led “united front”, from Lebanon to Yemen, looks more sensible.

Representatives of Iraqi militia groups – mainly the powerful Kata’ib Hezbollah, Harakat Hezbollah Al Nujaba and Kataib Sayyid Al Shuhada – said they have been attending meetings inside a joint operation command in southern Lebanon with Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas and Iranians.

“The co-ordination with Iran was daily routine before October, but it has increased since then with the Islamic Resistance in Iraq and other factions in the region,” an Iraqi militia representative explained.

“Our role at this stage in our front is to focus on the US troops in Iraq and Syria, while our brothers in Yemen and Lebanon can do the other part,” he added.

“The co-ordination inside the joint command is mainly focusing on picking up the targets, the timing and on updating each other on developments in each area.”

Unlike other factions, the Iraqis have not been involved in direct military action with Israel. Instead their role has been limited to drone and missile attacks against US troops in Iraq and Syria, the officials said.

Although they have claimed minor attacks in the occupied Golan Heights and Eilat, their mission is to force US troops out of Iraq and Syria, a militia leader said. The US has about 2,500 troops in Iraq, training official Iraqi security forces, and around 9,000 in Syria.

They have come under a wave of rocket and drone attacks since the Gaza war erupted, provoking retaliatory US air strikes.

In a sign of co-ordination with Iran, the Islamic Resistance in Iraq honoured a seven-day ceasefire Hamas reached with Israel.

“The idea of the united front has become clearer and more evident than ever before,” said a lawmaker linked to the Co-ordination Framework, the biggest parliamentary bloc that includes representatives for militias.

“I think this level of co-ordination between Iran and the factions within the Resistance Axis will continue to grow,” he added. Iran’s power has “become stronger rather than weaker over time” as it sought to strengthen its various proxies across the region in the wake of Qassem Suleimani’s assassination.

The shadowy figure became a nemesis to coalition forces in Iraq during the US-led occupation of the country, helping to smuggle weapons such as the specially made roadside bomb, the Explosively Formed Penetrator (EEP), into the country, while closely co-ordinating with allied Iraqi politicians to undermine US goals.

Iranian influence

Analysts say the EFP – one of a number of Iranian weapons smuggled to Iraqi and other regional militias – has been used by Lebanese Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen, Iraqi militias and now Hamas in Gaza.

“In the years following Suleimani’s death, Iran hasn’t budged to the several pressures imposed or created against its ambitions in the region … demonstrating significant force and might in its latest events in the fight between Hamas and Israel,” said Imad Salamey, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at the Lebanese American University in Beirut.

The war in Gaza revealed the extent to which Iran had strengthened itself through its proxies, acting as an “orchestrator” of the multiple fronts supporting Hamas in the fight against Israel, according to Mr Salamey. Its dispersal of strength throughout its various regional allies and proxies has made it “difficult for the US or Israel to concentrate military efforts on one front”.

“Rather, it has been able to distract the campaigns by initiating multiple attacks on US forces.”

Lebanon, where the powerful political party and paramilitary Hezbollah is active, has emerged as the seat of power for co-ordinating Iran’s proxies. The powerful Iran-backed group is commonly thought to rival the Lebanese army in strength.

The leadership of each group is responsible for orchestrating details with the aim of supporting the resistance in Palestine
Kassem Kassir, Lebanese political analyst

Hezbollah has engaged Lebanese neighbour Israel in a cross-border conflict since October 8, in an attempt to draw Israel away from its assault on the Gaza Strip and in support of its strategic ally, Hamas, which also receives Iranian backing.

Since the start of the war in Gaza, Lebanon has by default – owing to proximity – become the hub of political co-ordination between Hezbollah, Iranian officials and representatives of Palestinian groups in exile – such as Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Kassem Kassir, a Lebanese political analyst close to Hezbollah, said Iran-backed groups did not always necessarily co-ordinate in Lebanon through a physical operation room.

“Communication and co-ordination are controlled by multiple means. The leadership of each group is responsible for orchestrating details with the aim of supporting the resistance in Palestine,” he explained.

Still, while groups such as Hezbollah, the Iraqi Kataeb Hezbollah, or the Yemeni Houthis retain domestic autonomy over their affairs, “when it comes to regional calculations and strategies, that’s when their autonomy becomes limited and beholden to Iran’s interest”, Mr Salamey said.

Beyond Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, Iran's proxies have also flourished in Yemen, where Houthi rebels have taken over much of the east and north. After Suleimani's killing, the group said the US had committed a “war crime” and vowed revenge.

A Yemeni government official told The National: “Houthis' co-ordination with Iran proxies has been ongoing for a long time. They don't act without Tehran's blessing.”

After years of co-operation with the IRGC's Quds Force, Houthi militias now boast an arsenal of ballistic missiles, including anti-ship missiles, and drones, which they have launched at regional rivals.

Now they threaten to disrupt shipping in the Red Sea, a transit point for up to 15 per cent of global trade, aiming to damage Israel's economy.

The Yemeni official told The National: “Iran allies instructed Houthis leaders in Sanaa to refrain from making public appearances and avoid using the same mobile phones in fear of being targeted by the US and Israel.”

“This is an Iran-led front.”

Updated: January 03, 2024, 4:39 AM