(December 31, 2019 / Israel Hayom) The unusual American attack on Sunday evening on the Shi’ite militia known as the Hezbollah Brigades in Iraq has put the various militias that Iran has established in recent years in Syria and Iraq on edge and on alert. These are new and independent units unconnected to Hezbollah in Lebanon, but which certainly represent a fighting force.
Israel Hayom turned to defense experts to understand the significance of these forces. To what degree do they threaten Israel and how much do the U.S. airstrikes indicate a shift in terms of its conflict with Iran?
According to Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, the former head of the IDF Intelligence Directorate’s Research Division and now a senior scholar at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Iran is trying to sway the United States via attrition to lift economic sanctions.
“Iran is working by way of these militias to persuade the Americans that it’s not worth it for them to continue with economic sanctions. In Iran there are elements that want to take tougher action and there are moderate elements, and the bottom line is that Iran has activated these militias, which are lesser trained, quasi-military forces,” said Kupperwasser.
The Iranians may see attacking Israel as a “convenient” way of sending the United States a message in this regard, he warned.
“Now it’s possible that Iran will ultimately take things even further and attack the U.S. in a more painful manner. In other words, it will harm American civilians; although it appears that for now [Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei doesn’t want this. On the other hand, it could be that in order to hurt the Americans, the Iranians will suddenly look to us. Until now, in Syria they haven’t sustained too many casualties in their fight with us, and it is very convenient for them to attack us as a message to the United States.”
Kupperwasser noted that “already today, pretty close to the border with Israel, there are multinational militias comprised of Shi’ites that receive money from Iran. It’s not a lot of money because in the Middle East you get paid like you’re in the Middle East, not like in a Western army. Hence Iran is spending several billions on militias which consist of tens of thousands of soldiers. From this perspective, it benefits Iran to activate these forces.”
It should be kept in mind, he said, that at least in its own eyes Iran “is fighting for its life. The regime feels threatened, ergo the extremely violent suppression of protests in Iran itself and in Iraq. In Lebanon, too, the Iranians would like to use live fire to kill as many protesters as possible, but the rules of the game [there] are different. In any case, we shouldn’t be surprised if we are also attacked within the framework of Iran’s fight against the United States.”
According to IDF Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad, these Shi’ite militias are “military units in every way,” even though they are not officially part of the Iranian army.
“Iran uses a system of subcontractors, who carry out terrorist and military acts on its behalf in places where Iran isn’t comfortable acting directly, due to fears over responses that would harm Iran itself. These are military units in every way, albeit weaker than a regular army.”
He emphasized, however, that the main job of these militias is to carry out terrorist attacks, and that they must be treated with “utmost seriousness.”
“For example, the people firing from Yemen at Saudi Arabia are not the Iranians themselves, rather members of a militia led and inspired by Iran. Therefore, also as far as Israel is concerned, these militias must be treated with the utmost seriousness, regardless of the framework they are operating under.”
“If Iran wants to harm us,” added Gilad, the easiest way for it to do so would be to “order these militias to fire precision missiles at us.”
Turning to the U.S. attack in Iraq on Sunday, Gilad said, “Now, the recent American attack on these forces was because an American defense contractor was killed in Iraq. This is why the Americans attacked that specific force [the Hezbollah Brigades in Iraq]. Beyond that, it’s hard to believe the U.S. will attack Iran directly. This is mainly because the Americans have already said and reiterated that they won’t attack Iran militarily; rather, only use economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation to which they are sticking to for the time being.”
Sima Shine, currently a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies and a former head of the Mossad’s Research and Evaluation Division, believes that the Iranian militias in Iraq represent a clear and present danger to Israel.
“This is not a regular Iranian military force. The entire advantage of such a force is that its actions can be denied, such that Iran itself isn’t directly responsible. Therefore, they are not an actual military force. But we cannot be mistaken and think [these militias] are weak. The Iranians train them all the time, and the more training and experience these fighters get the greater the threat they pose,” said Shine.
Shine stressed that from the perspective of these militias’ capabilities, “Iran can certainly decide to give them precision weapons, including missiles, and then if it gives the order, these missiles will also be turned on us. This danger most definitely needs to be taken into account. Another way for Iran to use these militias against us is to deploy them in very large numbers to Syria, from where they will move toward the Israeli border on the Golan Heights to more easily act against Israel. This is a very realistic scenario which requires tracking.”
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.
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