Two years ago, almost to the day, a convoy of 20 vehicles drove toward a stretch of desert in southern Syria, near the Jordanian border.
This terrain was unremarkable but for the fact that it encircled a military base known as al-Tanf where 200 American soldiers, most of them Marines and Special Forces, were garrisoned alongside British counterparts and an Arab counterinsurgency group.
Drawn from the ranks of Syrian rebels who first took up arms to fight Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the fighters of Maghawir al-Thawra, or the Revolutionary Commandos Army, were repurposed with the sole mission of helping the U.S.-led coalition hunt and kill ISIS jihadists. But the enemy convoy headed toward al-Tanf didn’t belong to ISIS; it belonged to a consortium of Shia militias, led by Lebanese Hezbollah, which were fighting on behalf of Assad.
Al-Tanf was technically within a 55-kilometer “de-confliction” zone meant to keep out allies of Damascus.
Two U.S. aircraft were dispatched as a “show of force,” to use the Pentagon’s term of art, to dissuade the approaching militias. But the vehicles didn’t stop. So the warplanes next fired warning shots. The vehicles remain undeterred and five of them drove within 29 kilometers of al-Tanf. The warplanes finally opened fire, destroying a tank and a bulldozer.
The United States had just killed members of Iran’s most formidable terrorist proxy in an airstrike. Yet war with Iran didn’t break out. If anything, Washington went out of its way to emphasize that its presence in Syria was to fight only ISIS and that its attack was waged purely in “self-defense,” as one coalition official told the press.
Hezbollah, “The Party of God,” took no retaliatory action. Immediate de-escalation, in other words, was practically built right into this brief sortie, which was later dismissed as a very minor installment in an off-again, on-again proxy war between America and Iran in the Middle East.
As long as the caliphate existed, that proxy war was a sideshow in the greater struggle against Sunni jihad. But now, after the collapse of the caliphate and the attendant rise of Shia jihad, that sideshow threatens to become the main event, a full-scale reprise of the last time the U.S. and Iran fought each other on foreign soil. Only this time, the confrontation will take place in a much bigger arena, spanning two countries, and with a much larger and more well-equipped Iranian adversary.
Three weeks ago Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s expeditionary Qods Force, instructed Shia militias to “prepare for proxy war,” according to the Guardian. “It wasn’t quite a call to arms, but it wasn’t far off,” one official told the British broadsheet.
Evidently this intelligence, which other reports said originated with the Israelis, led the White House to make another “show of force”—dispatching a naval battle group and B-52 squadron to the region—as well as a display of caution with the removal of all non-essential diplomatic staff from Iraq. There were varying claims within the U.S. executive as to the urgency of this Iranian threat, also said to include missiles deployed to Damascus and fishing boats in the Gulf.
Soleimani is America’s most dangerous enemy in the region, and he has relished his role bleeding the Great Satan on terrain he knows intimately, home to governments he’s infiltrated with a machiavellian admixture of coercion, bribery and violence. His overriding sales pitch to everyone is that he’s a far more reliable and enduring ally than the U.S. will ever be. Everyone has begun to believe him.
Credited with being responsible for more American deaths in Iraq than any party other than al-Qaeda, his militias were once a movable target for Joint Special Operations Command, back when there were 120,000 U.S. servicemen in Iraq.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal even inaugurated a special task force for “countering Iranian influence.” Thus began the era of Black Hawk raids on Shia militiamen and even a handful of their Iranian superiors, the most notable of whom was Gen. Mohsen Chizari, the Qods Force’s head of operations. (Soleimani himself very narrowly escaped being arrested in a JSOC dragnet in Iraqi Kurdistan.)
“Iranian influence” largely consisted of rockets launched at U.S. positions and personnel and highly lethal bombs, known as Explosively Formed Penetrators, which pierced the armor plating of Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles, killing or maiming the passengers inside. (EFPs were also known as “Persian bombs” because they were manufactured in a petroleum factory in the Iranian city of Mehran and smuggled across the border by the Badr Corps, one of Soleimani’s oldest and most trusted fifth columns in Iraq. Members of the Bush administration at one point gave serious consideration to blowing up the factory.)
Most notoriously, in 2006, agents of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or the League of the Righteous, another of Soleimani’s militias, killed five U.S. soldiers in Karbala. One of the planners of this operation, later caught by McChrystal, was Hezbollah operative Ali Musa Daqduq, nicknamed Hamid the Mute owing to his initial reluctance to talk to his captors — until he did and confessed that the whole thing had been cooked up by Iranian overseers.
The total butcher’s bill from Soleimani’s first proxy war against U.S. forces: 603 dead Americans. And since the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 he has had eight years to consolidate interests across what’s sometimes referred to as the Shia crescent.
Lately, Soleimani has grown ever more ambitious. Plans for an Iranian “land-bridge,” or a direct line of communication running from Tehran to the Mediterranean, have long been underway, their only obstacle being U.S. garrisons such as the one at al-Tanf, which is probably why Hezbollah and company tested its defenses in 2017. Small price to pay to see if the Yanks fought back.
To give you a sense of where we are in 2019, it pays to consider that Soleimani is now the one with an occupying army. There are an estimated 100,000 men (and boys) under his command and not all are Persian or Arab. They include Pakistanis and Hazara Afghans, refugees from the Taliban who have been dragooned into acting as cannon fodder in Aleppo and Mosul. The ones that lived have gained valuable tactical experience fighting a hodgepodge of Syrian rebels, al-Qaeda, ISIS and in some instances even soldiers of the Iraqi and Syrian armies they didn’t get on with.
Yet, many of these militias have also had their eye on a much bigger prize.
Hardly a week has passed since Operation Inherent Resolve got underway in 2014 in which some scrofulous Shia warrior hasn’t publicly threatened to shoot down a U.S. plane or open fire on American personnel. More often than not, these threats are accompanied by the feverish conspiracy theory, already quite popular in Iraq, that the U.S. is re-supplying ISIS with aid or weaponry. On other occasions they’re simply intended to relay a not-so-gentle reminder on behalf of their Iranian commander that America’s presence in Iraq continues solely at his pleasure and discretion, which is not unlimited.
Indeed, it seems to have run out now, owing perhaps to America’s newfound hawkishness or Soleimani’s long-held plans for his expanding his zone of hegemony, or both. Sources within Iran say that he is busy consolidating his interests at home, too. He’s never held with the so-called “reformists” who opted for diplomacy on nuclear weapons, if not creeping rapprochement with the West, only to come away with egg on their faces. The U.S. wants to expel Soleimani’s assets from Syria where they’re responsible for saving what’s left of the Assad regime? Bring it on, he’ll say, and already has done, answering Trump’s Game of Thrones meme with his own.
The timing couldn’t be better. He stands the undisputed military hero of the Islamic Republic, with a growing personality cult within the Qods Force and the broader Revolutionary Guards Corps. He’s conducted half a dozen simultaneous conflicts, hopping from war zone to war zone and taking selfies in the trenches with moist-eyed acolytes of varying insignias. Most important, he is seen as the one man who outsmarted three U.S. presidents, using their own myopic policies to his farsighted advantage, starting with the invasion of Iraq, continuing onto the failure to confront Assad, and culminating in the fixation on ISIS as the sole security challenge in the neighborhood. Withal, Iran has gained in stature even as its economy implode and its people take to the streets asking for food, jobs and hospitals at home rather than revolutionary adventurism abroad.
If Soleimani’s behavior is prelude to something, it’s probably not retirement but a future political career. And if he is telling his fanatical loyalists to stand at the ready, then even a country led by so disastrous a figure as our president should probably be prepared for proxy war, too.