The Middle East Institute (MEI) hosted an on-the-record briefing to discuss Iran’s proxy network throughout Syria and Iraq.
Senior Fellow and Director of MEI’s Syria and Countering Terrorism and Extremism programs
Non-Resident Scholar and a decorated veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency’s clandestine service
The following transcript was automatically generated and may contain errors.
Courtney Lobel [00:00:03] Good morning or good afternoon everyone, depending on where you're joining from. My name is Courtney Lobel, and I'm the chief development officer here at the Middle East Institute. I'd like to welcome you all to another session in MEI's virtual briefing series on the ramifications of the Israel-Hamas war, which this week will focus on Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria. Since October, MEI has been working hard to provide you with expert analysis on every dimension of the ongoing conflict in the region, and we hope that they have been valuable resource to you and your colleagues. As of February 15th, invitations to join these live briefing calls will be restricted to better serve our members, MEI corporate members, and individual members of the patron level and above, along with members of the press, will continue to receive invitations to this series after February 15th. If you are not an MEI member and you found these briefings beneficial, we encourage you to consider joining. In addition to access to these briefings, MEI members receive many other benefits and you'll be supporting our work with your donation. Please reach out to my colleague Thomas Halvorsen, who sends out these weekly briefing invitations, and he'd be happy to assist you in exploring MEI membership.
Courtney Lobel [00:01:11] Without further ado, I'm happy to welcome two of MEI's top counterterrorism scholars today for a very timely briefing. On the line with us is Charles Lister, a senior fellow and director of MEI's Syria and Counterterrorism Programs. He is highly active on Twitter or X, and if you don't follow him already, I highly recommend it. Doug London is an MEI nonresident scholar and a decorated veteran of the Central Intelligence Agencies Clandestine Service. He is now an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of the book 'The Recruiter', which I also highly recommend. We'll start today's call with opening remarks from our speakers and then turn to Q&A. We encourage you on the line to use the raise hand function in zoom to ask a question, or you can put your question in the chat box at any time during our call, and I can read it aloud to our speakers during the Q&A. So now I'd like to invite Charles and Doug to lay out the current threat posed by Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria. Yesterday, two commanders of an Iranian backed militia were killed by a targeted U.S. airstrike while they drove their car down a busy street in Baghdad, Iraq. This assassination is part of the Biden administration's retaliation against the militia, which carried out a drone attack that led to the death of three American service members at tower 22, in Jordan last week. While these are the headlines currently in the news, these sorts of groups have been active for some time now in this part of the Middle East. Who are the key players? What are their objectives in a post October 7th environment? Charles, I'd like to turn it over to you.
Charles Lister [00:02:58] Courtney, thank you so much, and thank you to everyone who's tuned in for this, and of course, thanks to my esteemed colleague Doug, who I'm sure will say lots more interesting things than I will, but I'm happy to sort of kick off. I guess on the top line, first of all, this is a very timely topic, even more timely, perhaps, than we thought when we first planned this just a few days ago. But at the top line, I think it's important to say that the conditions that we currently see prevalent across the Middle East, the chaos, the multiple fronts of conflict, multiple theaters of conflict, and the fact that they're all overlapping and interconnected, are precisely why Iran has spent the last 40 plus years building a regional network of proxies, for precisely, the conditions that became prevalent after October the 7th, and in particular with Israel's campaign on Gaza, this is sort of prime operating ground for this regional network. And frankly, I think it's the first time we've seen the entirety of that regional network mobilized and activated to operate simultaneously and in parallel to each other. And I think it's important as I've already said two words which I want to sort of double down on. One is that it's a network and it is truly a network. Each of these militias, or proxies do operate within their own local environments, and they do obviously have their own local agendas, but they are very much, part and parcel of a regional network. I think it was interesting, indicative last night that within 90 minutes of the US strike, or the US missile hitting the vehicle in Baghdad, within 90 minutes of that strike there were public and official statements celebrating the martyrdom of Abu Baqir al-Saadi from proxy militias in Syria, in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Yemen, in Bahrain and in Gaza and in the West Bank within 90 minutes. And I think that, you know, that speaks in an indicative way of the extent to which this network sees itself as part and parcel of the same kind of campaign. And they are also proxies.
Charles Lister [00:05:16] There's been a significant debate in the US recently about to what extent does Iran control these actors? Has it lost control of them? I think it's kind of a useless debate. They are Iranian proxies. They were not designed to be controlled 24/7, 365 days of the year. They were designed to do their own bidding, but in so doing, to further Iran's regional agenda. And ultimately, the IRGC and the Quds Force are their patron, their guide, their armorer, their trainer, their financier, and more. And in 2024, today, these proxies in the network in its entirety, I think, frankly, are, extraordinarily well equipped, highly motivated and continue to share that ideological and geopolitical vision. And I think more than ever, they are truly fueled by a sense of momentum, like they are on the winning side here. Another point to make, I suppose, is that Iran's significant surge that we saw to develop, you know, 20 years ago or so, domestically into missile and then latterly into drone technology is reaping rewards. That is precisely, the mechanism that it has chosen to specifically invest the most in, through these proxies. These weapons systems that we've now see play out are being utilized in Ukraine, are highly transportable, they're replicable, they're highly cost effective. For most of these proxies, they come in components, and so they're easy to transport domestically, put together at the site of an attack, and almost to fire and forget system, but highly effective in a campaign like this.
Charles Lister [00:07:02] From a US perspective, I think some of the challenges that we're facing dealing with these proxies, particularly in Syria, in Iraq, but also region wide, is the fact that they are engaged in a campaign of attrition. They see themselves as engaged in a long-term campaign, ultimately, in their eyes, to expel the US from the Middle East and also in their eyes, to destroy the state of Israel. That's a long-term campaign. Being local actors gives them the inherent advantage against us as the United States, that in many ways which we can come on to talk about. In terms of the US actions, we've seen since the attack on tower 22, whether it was the expansive volley of 85 individual targets being hit in Syria and Iraq on February the 2nd, or last night's precision drone strike in Baghdad. Ultimately, from the perspective of these proxies, those actions bind themselves, like a hiccup, in a 20- or 40-year campaign, against the United States. From Iran's perspective, local manpower is intrinsically expendable. The weapons systems that we blew up in various depots and arms caches are expendable and replaceable. And when you place things into like a five-year perspective, and I know Doug has mentioned this recently in a piece for MEI, the America's failure to respond decisively to attacks like occurred in 2019 on Abqaiq the Aramco facility, you know, it again gives Iran and these proxies an indication that the US just isn't in this for the fight that Iran has been in and has been in for 40 plus years. And again, that kind of fuels that sense of internal momentum.
Charles Lister [00:09:00] The other sort of extraordinary challenge from a US perspective in terms of trying to reassert deterrence post October the 7th, is that we're dealing with proxies, not a nation state, or perhaps more specifically we've chosen to deal with proxies and not, a nation state, i.e., Iran. The Biden administration has made it very clear, in public statements and quote unquote anonymous signaling that it is determined not to present this current crisis, as one in which Iran is an adversary, but that the adversary is these proxy groups. I think, frankly, and we can come on to talk about this, there is an increasingly strong argument to be made that perhaps by targeting Iran, but not necessarily in Iran. We stand a far better chance of asserting deterrence than we do by targeting these proxy actors. A few more points. In Syria, in Iraq, specifically, the main adversary we're facing right now, call themselves the Islamic Resistance in Iraq. This is an umbrella of Iranian militant proxies, almost all of which have been around since 2003 and the invasion of Iraq and the Shia militant insurgency that developed in Iraq. Kata'ib Hezbollah, Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, Kata'ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, Harakat al Nujaba, and others, are all very familiar adversaries for the United States. Frankly speaking, these militias were all trying to and, in many cases, successfully killing American soldiers on Iraqi soil between 2003 and 2010. There was a strange period between 2015 and 17 when U.S. troops were deployed to Iraq to fight ISIS, where we found ourselves suddenly having to coordinate and in some rare cases, even collaborate with some of these militias. And now we're back in 2023 and 2024, facing their wrath, yet again, including in deadly ways. I think it's really interesting in an observation that the fact that they present themselves as this united umbrella for me, is a clear indicator of IRGC Quds force involvement right to the top.
Charles Lister [00:11:14] These militias, whilst they do continue to pursue this shared kind of Iranian geopolitical agenda, they have increasingly developed their own internal differences, rivalries within the Iraqi political spectrum. But the fact that they have been willing since October the 8th, to fold under this shared umbrella, and not claim individual responsibility for actions against the United States, tells me that the Quds Force is playing a central role in coordinating that umbrella and their actions. Even more than that, right after the attack on tower 22, because, of course, Chief Ismail Khani was in Baghdad and within hours, the most potent player within the Islamic Resistance umbrella, Kataib Hezbollah, announced publicly that it was going to stand down from attacks. But that statement was kind of interesting, it almost laid the blame at Iran's footsteps. It suggested that it wasn't particularly happy at having to stand down, but in so doing, made it pretty clear that this had been an Iranian instruction. At the same time, several other constituent groups within the Islamic Resistance umbrella publicly refused to stand down, and claimed that they would continue to conduct attacks, and all of those have sort of followed on those threats just overnight after the drone strike in Iraq. So, I got lots of other interesting things to say about where things are going with regards to troop deployments in Iraq and Syria, and where those things stand. But we can come to that in the Q&A.
Courtney Lobel [00:12:42] Thanks so much, Charles. We'll definitely dig into those things in the Q&A. But right now, let's turn to Doug. What's your assessment, Doug, of these militia groups? And from your experience, what should we be on the lookout for in the coming weeks?
Douglas London [00:12:55] Thanks, Courtney. It's great to be with everybody today. It's always a bit humbling to be paired with Charles. He's like the play-by-play expert at a sports match, and I'm the color commentator, so I'll try to compliment and provide value added as I can. I'm a liberal arts major from education, but I think my math says it's 45 years since the Iranian Revolution, and we celebrate that this month in February. And it's always, curious to me how little we understand Iran, that we've been in conflict, whereas the Iranians have been at war. From the Iranian perspective, they are very much at war. They've been at war for 45 years. And as much as we like to say, well, they have no appetite for a bigger war, I don't really think they're on the same sheet of music. The Iranians strategy of an axis of resistance is, in a way, really geared to support their internal stability. Iran is not the happiest place to be. It's not doing particularly well, but it's a whole lot cheaper to fund groups and fund aggression externally as sort of a preemptive defense against what they think is most likely to undermine them at home, and that would be the United States and other liberal democracies being more aggressive and more active and being proponents in one way or another for those groups who are in opposition or otherwise, suffering from the Iranians.
Douglas London [00:14:15] I think that the United States approach to Iran is we pay attention when we think we have to, but we really don't want to, where we are a day-to-day existential threat to the Iranians, and they invest most heavily in that. And again, it's cheaper to, you know, be in confrontation with the United States than to deal with their problems at home, which would require them to surrender some of their powers and in fact, put themselves in jeopardy. So, I don't see this going away anytime soon, particularly with the approach the United States continues to take, which is trying to deal with the symptoms rather than disease. And looking at these proxies as individual groups and threats, like Charles was stating to you all, I do not believe they act autonomously. I think it's an unfair evaluation even to suggest, oh well, these groups, you know, they all have their own interests, and they all do what they all want. I mean, it's far more cohesive than NATO, and it's really, you know, NATO does what the United States essentially influences them to do, particularly partners like the Brits and our most major, you know, allies like the Germans and such like that. So in the case of the Iranians and their proxies, I don't think we can imagine a world where we could selectively cool down the hostilities between ourselves and those groups without it being part of a more cohesive approach to Iran, which is going to need to recalculate their redlines and their cycle of escalation, because the Iranians do believe they understand us very well, and they read very clearly our actions and our actions far more than our words.
Douglas London [00:15:55] And as Charles was referring to, we've had a cycle of now about five years since the heavy attacks on the Aramco facilities in 2019, where the Iranians, I think we're rolling the dice there because I think most in the region would think we would take a more decisive approach to dealing with that threat, based on our relationship with the Saudis, our concern with the other Gulf states, and yet we did not. We send to Saudi some air defense and that was a bit it. And I think we've seen that escalation continue then where the Iranians believe they can push the envelope further and further and at what cost? I think even Director Burns, accuse him of stealing for me because I said this, we'll fight to the last proxy. And as Charles has said, these casualties, the American retaliatory attacks against the Houthis or the Iraqi PM groups or whatever, like that only plays into Iranian messaging. When we speak about the Quds force and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard force, it's important to look at what the name of that group is. It's not the Iranian Revolutionary Guard force, it is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard force. And the Iranians very well see themselves as the vanguard of this movement, this Shia movement, which they bring under their envelope, and they direct largely. So, I don't believe there's great value in just treating the symptoms. I think we can effectively hope to degrade some of the capabilities of the Houthis or the Iraqi groups, but it's not really hard or costly to fund them. Manpower is there. The Iranians are not worried about complaints at home when Iraqis are killed, or Houthis are killed.
Douglas London [00:17:36] You’re also dealing with groups that have normalized violence and normalized the effects on their communities. These people have been in war for so long and have suffered these losses for so long that it's not like as it is might be for us where you go, oh my gosh, how can they keep putting up the violence and the losses and people dying? Charles was talking about the celebratory announcements of, you know, the martyrdom of the latest targets of U.S. attacks, and I just fear that the United States is playing a different game than the Iranians, and it allows for more room for escalation, where we're going to be further drawn into this conflict. The attack on Jordan. That was yet another example of the Iranians use of asymmetrical warfare. They're always looking where we're weakest. They're not going to go exactly tit for tat, are they? They're going to strike us to, you know, make their statement, try to undermine US perseverance for staying in the region, support their own messaging, but they're always going to be working asymmetrically where we feel we have to as well. If were hit by the Houthis, we hit the Houthis, if were hit by you know AAH or Kataib Hezbollah, we hit them, and proportionately. That does not impact the Iranian threat calculus.
Douglas London [00:18:53] There has to in my opinion, be some consequence for the Iranians, and I'm not talking about, you know, going and blowing up things in Iran. At least not yet, unless they escalate though. I would love to see strikes on like their drone and munitions factories, but I don't think we should be there yet. But there are certainly asymmetrical things we could do to hurt the Iranians. The United States has extensive capabilities, far greater capabilities than the Iranians do, and that's everything from cyber to the economy. And I'm not talking about sanctions, but I'm talking about things in the covert realm that would hurt the Iranians, that would embarrass the Iranians. If suddenly port facilities weren't working in Iran, oil wasn't being moved along pipelines that would not only hurt them, but that would just absolutely embarrass them, that the United States, those denying it at its will, at any time in place, can simply push buttons and impact the Iranian world. We haven't done that yet. And again, without getting into details of what we can and can't do, I think there's a whole lot more we can do. But I'd rather kind of welcome questions and go from there. So, I think I'll pause there.
Courtney Lobel [00:20:00] Thank you so much, Doug. This is really a world class briefing from the two of you at a very timely moment. So, thanks for your time today. At this time, I would like to open up the discussion to callers on the line to ask a question. Please use the raise hand function in zoom. Keep your hand raised until I call on you and then unmute yourself. Then kindly state your name and affiliation and direct your question to one or both of our MEI scholars. Questions can also be submitted in writing via the Q&A chat box on zoom at any time, and I'd be happy to read them to our scholars. While we wait for people to queue up with their questions. I'd love to start with one. What do the current events that we've been discussing today mean for the continued presence of U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria? Maybe, Charles, kick that one to you and then to Doug.
Charles Lister [00:20:54] Okay. Sure. Yes. So obviously a really timely issue. I mean, at the 40,000-foot level, I'd come back to sort of reassert a point I made in my opening remarks, which is that from the perspective of Iran and its regional network, and specifically the network that exists in Syria and Iraq. They're engaged in a long-term campaign to expel us from that immediate region, and as far as they're concerned, their campaign is working. You know, questions and doubt are swirling within conversations in Washington more than they have been at any time over the past several years, about the sustainability of our troop presence in Syria or in Iraq, the mandate upon which we should or shouldn't be acting in Syria and Iraq. Internal policy reviews have been ongoing in a way that hasn't been seen for a long time as now accepting that our presence, particularly in Syria, but also to a large extent in Iraq, is not going to be there forever and certainly not in the shape and the form that it currently is. And so, again, from Iraq, from the perspective of the proxies, that's enough. And the fact that they're engaged in a campaign of attrition is enough.
Charles Lister [00:22:07] In many ways, I look at the attack on T22 as an exception. Until then, there had been roughly 180 attacks launched by these proxies against US troop positions in Iraq and Syria, and almost all of them, looking at them, were not intended to kill. They were intended to just chip away, like millimeter by millimeter, at the credibility of the US deployment in both of those countries. And taken into that wider term, long term perspective, that kind of campaign of attrition is very effective. And the T22 attack in lots of different ways was the exception to the norm, there's been some public reporting indicating a significant increase in the level of sophistication of that attack. In terms of, allegations at least, that the drone, was flown on a certain trajectory and with certain timing to fly directly behind a landing American drone, which would definitely suggest a level of kind of signals of intelligence and sort of radar and air space awareness that these proxies would not otherwise generally be apprised of. At the same time, weaknesses as I think Doug was implying, weaknesses in defense within that particular facility, would not necessarily be immediately known by proxy actors, but certainly would have been by the IRGC itself.
Charles Lister [00:23:32] Ultimately, there's lots of questions. It has strengthened the hand of those in Iraq, who want to see the US either fully withdraw, or significantly downgrade our presence. I think unquestionably what we're going to see is that the current mandate for the US presence in Iraq is countering ISIS, and from their perspective, Iran's proxies, they see that as a kind of more kinetic, more hostile mandate, and they want that finished. They want the counter ISIS campaign, out of Iraq. So, I think at a minimum, that is likely what we're going to see, and potentially also at least a reduction in the number of forces we have there. But that has ripple effects on our ability to sustain the mission in Syria, in which I think, frankly, the consequences of an American withdrawal are even more significant. As I wrote recently, ISIS is primed to recover and resurge in Syria the moment US troops leave. And I think in many ways, allowing a messy, chaotic Syria to get a little bit worse may actually, frankly, be in the favor and the advantage of Iran and its proxies in this immediate region. But interested in where Doug lands on this.
Douglas London [00:24:49] You know, there's already talk out there about the United States considering withdrawing its forces, right? I don’t know much of that is rumors or messaging or maybe preparing the battlefield? But for the Iranians, they've been conditioned to expect that. Going back to Beirut in the early 80s, the messaging to Iran has always been, if you make things costly enough in the United States and there's blood, and there's no real political support for it, the United States will withdraw. And today, I don't know that there is significant political support for the United States presence in the Middle East and specifically Syria and Iraq. We've already turned the page as Americans on the Islamic State, despite Charles's very accurate and concerning warnings that the Islamic State is primed to research and continue to threaten us. But until something happens, there's not going to be political pressure. There is political pressure when American service members die, and the administration does not effectively message why we need to pay that cost, why we need to be there, what it does for national security, and the Iranians are attentive to this. And as I said in my opening remarks, I think there's unfortunately plenty of room in Iran's own understanding of the United States, but they understand enough, and they seem to at times understand better than we what levers they can lift and what buttons they can push.
Douglas London [00:26:13] I think Charles's points are spot on, that more messiness in Syria, because it's a little bit further away, might actually work to Iran's favor. What they don't want there was a type of resurgence, which is going to cost him internally, where there's going to be additional tax, because all of those things make the Iranian regime look weak, and the Iranian regime depends on looking omniscient, omnipotent, in order to counter any rebellion, right, that people are so afraid that they can't do anything. But if there are an increase in those attacks from Islamic State or whatever groups that are threatening the Iranian regime, it'll be harder for the Iranians as a regime to spin that, particularly with the sacrifices that the Iranian people are already accepting. So, I think, again, as Charles was mentioning, there would be devastating consequences for the United States to withdraw its troops because, you know, I think while the Iranians that I've seen press about, well, the Iranians really wants to go, and they want us to stay. I don't think that's true. I think they just want to make sure that they get a better handle on the Islamic State. But I think that would play into their belief that they could push the envelope further.
Douglas London [00:27:30] When the Iranians think axis of resistance, it is not just the Middle East, it is not just Syria, it not just Iraq. It is attacks on American interests worldwide that they could flip a switch and resume at any time. The Iranians are always casing. I was in the CIA for a long time, there was no period of time where we did not identify activities on the part of the Iranians and their proxies to at least have plans on the shelf. Looking at our embassies, looking at American interest, both official and non-official and civilian, that if they wanted to, when they wanted to, they could go forward with a plan, and I think that's a danger if we invite the Iranians to do that, by appearing like were withdrawing. It's not going to be like, oh, the Americans withdrawing, we're getting away, so we'll back down. The worst attacks against the American troop presence in Iraq came after we began our withdrawal. Those last few months, the last year, groups like Kataib Hezbollah and AAH, we're just relentless, and we suffered very high casualties, and that was after we were going. So, the Iranians are not going to think, oh, logically, like we might want to see them believe that, oh, they're getting their way, so they'll back down. They can't back down. They need the war with the United States. They need that hostility to justify everything the regime does back at home.
Courtney Lobel [00:28:49] Thank you both. Just as a reminder, if you'd like to ask a question, please use the raise Hand function in zoom, or you can put a question in the chat, and I can read it to our scholars. Our first question comes from Laura Rozen of Al-Monitor. My understanding is that there was not a single Iran backed proxy attack on U.S. forces in Iraq or Syria from last March, after the reaching of an alleged de-escalation understanding until after October 7th, following Israel's war, responding to the Hamas massacre. Can you speak to that, that Iran and its proxies seem to be responding mostly to the Israel Gaza theater and turned it off during the one week pause in November? Charles, do you want to start?
Charles Lister [00:29:37] Yeah. So, it's a good question. Again, I'd come back to, first of all, the framing structure of how to understand this is that these proxies have been engaged in an on and off campaign, for over 20 years. So brief periods like we did see from March to October of not a full stop. And I'll come to that, but certainly a calming of attacks, are sort of blip in a very long campaign where, taken together, they've been extraordinarily active and entirely hostile. From March to October, there were a handful of attacks, mostly in Syria by Iranian proxy militias. So, it wasn't a complete stop. From January 2020 to the end of March 2023, there were 78 attacks. So, in the period of just over two years, there were 78 Iranian proxy militia attacks on US troops in Syria and Iraq. And Centcom commander General Kurilla, made that clear in his public posture statement to Congress at the end of March. And the de-escalation agreement was, of course, as a result of an Iranian fatal proxy attack on a US base in northeastern Syria in March 2023, which didn't draw the kind of significant kinetic response that we've seen over the last few days. It killed a US contractor, and that was when an Iranian proxy in Iraq launched a suicide drone, a kamikaze drone across the border, into northeastern Syria and flew it straight into the Rumalyn landing zone, which is one of the most important bases that we have in Syria. In a four hour window in which all of our air defenses had been switched off for maintenance, lots of important questions to the journalists on the line to dig into, how on earth that Iranian proxy happened to know across the border in Iraq, that at precisely that moment, it was the right time to launch that drone into that specific facility, because these systems had been turned off and they hadn't, I understand, for at least six months, for maintenance. So, an extraordinary coincidence, or there was some quite significant direction involved. But that was the trigger for the calming for six months.
Charles Lister [00:32:08] But they didn't stop their kind of hostile activities throughout all of that time, what the Iranians invested in very aggressively from March to October 2023, well, was two things. They were, or two areas of the Syrian front in particular. They began to establish new Sunni, commanded Sunni constituted, but Iranian funded and Iranian armed and Iranian directed militias whose only purpose, was to create a front and to expand the front against the United States, part of that was in Qamishli in the northeast, and part of that was in Deir ez-Zor. And we're continuing to see those Sunni tribal, Iranian backed militias in Deir ez-Zor, sustaining an active front against the SDF, our Syrian partners. Throughout that March to October period and still to today, there were clashes just the other night, by these militias, they crossed the Euphrates launch attacks against the SDF, and then boat back across the other side of the river to regime-controlled areas. So again, from a framing perspective, it's all part of this long campaign. Can they afford for 5 or 6 months to pivot attention away from the US and towards our local partners? Yes, unquestionably. That's exactly what they did. But also, their kinetic activity against us didn't entirely stop.
Courtney Lobel [00:33:36] Did you want to add anything? Or should I ask our next question?
Douglas London [00:33:39] Just a couple of small points. One thing I think is important for the audience to realize is the Palestinian issue is an important component of the political agenda for the Iranians and a number of Sunni extremists, terrorist groups. But the Iranians are again, Shia, and my experience with them is they really don't give a damn about the Palestinians. Palestinians are Sunni, and they provide them, you know, useful fodder for their political campaign. But the reason the Iranians ratcheted things up after Gaza, was the opportunity to do so, and how it facilitated their opportunity to launch 160 attacks, of which just a handful were answered. They understood United States, they understood, you know, what the world opinion was going to be, that a lot of opinion was going to be in support of these from the Muslim diaspora for them to do it. But this is not genuinely because of Gaza. So clearly, if Gaza and God willing, Gaza gets, you know, de-escalated and there's some path forward, it's going to make it harder for the Iranians to persist, and that will reduce the hostility, but only because of the opportunity it provides. And again, you know, Charles makes a great point. The attacks against the SDF, those are Kurds, which for the Iranians are a threat to them. They have their own internal Kurdish population, which they're very concerned about. So, they're never going to just stand by and be happy with an increasingly strong Kurdish presence, regardless of if they're Syrian Kurds, Iraqi Kurds, because there's plenty of Iranian Kurds, you know, and I'll pause there.
Courtney Lobel [00:35:11] Our next question is from Christoph Reuter. Christoph. Please go ahead.
Christoph Reuter [00:35:21] Okay. Well, I agree it's a question mostly for Charles. I agree with your analysis of this multinational network of militias in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, ultra-loyal to the Quds forces, to Iran, in general. But the one thing I wonder is what fuels this loyalty, since it is not money, at least not only?
Charles Lister [00:35:49] That's a great question and good to hear from you, Christoph. I think Doug would definitely have something to add here. I mean, for me, it's relevance. I mean, first of all, most of these groups wouldn't have existed, wouldn't have been created had it not been for the Iranians, and specifically the IRGC and the Quds Force. So, the very fact that they exist at all is thanks to the strategic direction, the seed funding, the weapons, the training, the strategic relationship, the guidance that Iran has offered them since day one of their existence, and that's the same can be said for Hezbollah, dating back all the way to the to the early 80s and then all the way up until the more recent groupings, the militias that we see. So, for starters, it's the history, and then second of all, there's the relevance. These groups have remained as relevant as they are because they have that kind of Iranian force multiplier effect, whether it be looking at the groups that we've talked about here, the Iraqi militias, who came into existence with Iranian backing to kill Americans, frankly, in Iraq, and citizens of America's allies, who now happen to have prime seats in the Iraqi parliament, who happen to be fully integrated into the Iraqi security structure. No large part thanks to Iranian encouragement and direction in Baghdad and in Iraq itself. So, relevance is significant. And of course, the weapons systems, there's no way these proxies would have access to the sheer number of suicide drones, rockets and missile systems, had it not been for the continuing Iranian assistance. Plus, the training effect that we know happens in Lebanon, in Yemen, in Iran itself. The ferrying of fighters and commanders for IRGC training is, of course, something very well known. And I know it's something you know plenty about. So, it's the complete package. If these groups were entirely independent, they'd be a shadow of their current selves.
Courtney Lobel [00:38:04] Doug?
Douglas London [00:38:05] Yeah. I mean, it's power. So, in January 2020, the United States killed Qasem Soleimani, riding that car was the head of Kataib Hezbollah, the group that we believe was behind the attacks on Jordan. He was general secretary of al-Muhandis. He was a Sadrist, Muqtada al-Sadr person, but he left Sadr because he was able to cut a deal with the Iranians and was able to form his own group. And, you know, you can have money without power, but if you have power, you can have that and wealth and comfort as well. So, I think these groups are motivated by what they get from the Iranians, at positions over their competitors, because all of these folks are competing for power and influence within their own groups, and those who are closest to the Iranian throne, obviously are going to have the most power and influence. Look at Qais al-Khazali, he the head of AAH. He's, you know, a proper politician. He's, you know, well dressed and, you know, tries to play the role of, you know, the religious scholar and politician and such like that. I mean, essentially, I know him as a thug who I targeted and who we actually captured, only to have the Iraqis release him a couple of years, or actually sooner than a couple of years later. So, it's really about power, and that power is what they need for their own influence and control, and that's very seductive, and that's also not going away.
Courtney Lobel [00:39:22] Our next question is from the chat. Is the Iraqi government a valuable partner of the United States in countering the Iranian threat? How have we leveraged this relationship so far, and are there ways we could better leverage this relationship? Doug, you're smiling, so you want to go first?
Douglas London [00:39:40] I was going to say the Iraqis are between a rock and a hard place, but that's actually a comfortable position to be in compared to the reality of what they deal with. The Iraq's have actually been, I would say, very constructive, very useful partners. But they have limitations like constraints. They live in a tough neighborhood. They've got all sorts of internal problems. They govern by the thinnest possible thread, by trying to coalesce all these groups, which includes the many that Iran supported. So, the relationship we have with the Iraqis, despite all of this has, I think, been surprisingly good and productive. And they’re in a tough place, and they, you know, they have to call for the departure of American troops and they have to, you know, slam their fists about, oh we're, you know, undermining their autonomy and such, and none of that's fault. For the same time, these PMC groups are theoretically part of the Iraqi government. They have official positions, they have official charters, and you have the Iraqi leadership saying, you know, we don't want these two sides going at each other, but it's Iraqis, on behalf of the Iranians who are doing this. So, I think we continue to kind of walk that very delicate path, and also remembering that Iraq is not the most cohesive place. We have relationships with the central government in Baghdad, and then we have a whole different set of relationships with the Kurdish regional autonomous groups that are, you know, in Sulaymaniyah and Erbil who would like to be even more cooperative, but they live even closer to the Iranians, and they are subject to a lot of the Iranian wrath. So, I don't think we should be quick to just cut ties and say, oh, the Iraqis are not good partners and not doing what they can. There's very little they can do, and it's mostly what they don't say and don't do that shows you their support, because they could be a lot quicker to just say, get out of here. There is, what, 2500 troops, I think U.S. forces in Iraq who they're also providing protection to. They have guards and bases and such like that in their interest, of course, but I think they're in a really tough position, and I think we have to be a bit indulgent on what their limitations are.
Courtney Lobel [00:41:56] Charles, anything to add before our next question?
Charles Lister [00:41:59] Yeah, I think between a rock and a hard place, all squeezed in a very tight corner is basically the best way to describe it. I mean, riven with many different interests, most of which, both overlap and contradict each other. I think it's really important to read very precisely the statements coming from, like the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, which came out this morning, condemning the strike last night and calling for not a withdrawal of U.S. forces, but a withdrawal of the mission that we are currently in. There's very precise, you know, choice of language, which is seeking to both placate the furious critics who are, you know, loyal to more the Iranian proxy militias, the PMF, and placate those who are more perhaps more strategic thinkers within the Iraqi government system, who believe in maintaining the relationship with the US. But, you know, as both Doug and I both said, I mean, it is important not to understate the extent to which almost all of the attacks that have targeted US bases in Iraq and Syria over the past several months, have been conducted by militia groups that are, as Doug just said, part of the Iraqi government and security force structure. The Islamic Resistance of Iraq is almost entirely part of the PMF, which is part of the Iraqi government. You know, the Iraqi prime minister Sudani paid a visit, you know, the day after 85 American strikes hit, in our language, targets associated with Iranian, you know, terrorism, or Iranian sponsored terrorism in Iraq and Syria. The Iraqi prime minister then went and visited all of the injured personnel in those strikes. And then this morning, in the funeral procession for its very senior, Kataib Hezbollah commander, who apparently was responsible for fronting what they call their external operations, i.e., attacks, beyond the immediate Iraqi theater. The poster emblazoned over his coffin, didn't just have the logo of Kataib Hezbollah. It had the logo Al-Hashd al-Shaabi, the PMF, part of the Iraqi government, in which he had an official seat and a senior role. So, that for me, is kind of the perfect illustration of just how complex the situation is, but how extraordinarily complex it is for the Iraqi government itself.
Courtney Lobel [00:44:34] Our next question. Does the US fight against Iran alone? How do we proactively coordinate with like-minded partners to address the Iranian threat? Whoever wants to jump in, do that.
Douglas London [00:44:53] Yeah. That's a tricky space to to operate in. There's certainly a coalition of the concerned, but not necessarily a coalition of the willing. I think that a lot of our partners provide quiet support where they can. Even the strikes on the Houthis, which is of concern to the international community, all of whom, you know, are shipping through the Gulf and the Red Sea and many of whom are reliant on their energy supplies, only so many countries would actually participate in the military attacks. So, we've got a lot of partners who talk to us about the Iranians, a lot of partners who provide facility support, intelligence and such, but would rather stay in the background and rather not provoke the Iranians. But, you know, keep in mind, the United States, in these successful strikes and these successful operations, that's based on really good intelligence. And it's not all just drones and satellites and stuff, because those things don't work in a vacuum. You got to tell a drone where to look and what to look for. You got to tell the satellite you know, what to listen to or what to look at. So, there's plenty of cooperation on the ground from unilateral sources. Those in the region, those parts of these countries, citizens of these countries who are providing intelligence because they've got their own concerns, as well as governments around the world who are providing Intel. So, define what alone means. Yeah, it's going to be the United States and a country like Israel that's going to use kinetic action, as opposed to the Dutch and the British, except in the case of the Houthis or the many other countries that are concerned and troubled by the threat posed by Iran and its proxies.
Courtney Lobel [00:46:49] Charles. Anything to add?
Charles Lister [00:46:51] Yeah. I mean, just as I'm sat in the Middle East Institute, I'll give a bit of a regional picture as well, which is, you know, it was just a few years ago, particularly around the Abqaiq attack and the dynamics that surrounded that, and significant Saudi and Gulf concerns around the Houthi hostility towards the Gulf, that much of that immediate region was calling upon the US to, you know, to be more hostile and assertive in challenging the aggression being meted out by Iran directly, and by its immediate proxies. And at that time, as we've said, we didn't do a great deal. And behind the scenes, and particularly since Biden became president, we have been pushing very assertively behind the scenes, for those very same actors to engage Iran and to give diplomacy a go, and so they have eventually done that, most of them with relative, success.
Charles Lister [00:47:52] Now we find ourselves in a situation where, we are engaged in the kind of kinetic actions that those same Gulf partners would have probably wanted us to be doing 4 or 5 years ago. But now they want absolutely nothing to do with it. You know, the Gulf states are especially concerned about strikes on the Houthis having spillover effects and re triggering the kind of attacks that we saw on Abqaiq and elsewhere. Iran's proxy network knows this full well, because after many of the significant rounds of strikes that we've conducted in Yemen, the Iranian proxy militias start issuing public posters and infographics, all with the skyline of Abu Dhabi, or with the skyline of Riyadh or with the Aramco logo, as if to say, well, you know, we have a sort of trump card here that we can play and we will play on the insecurity of America's traditional partners and allies in the region. And likewise, the attack on T22 in Jordan, triggered all of the insecurities of the Jordanians. I mean, the Jordanian military first swiftly came out and said it wasn't even on Jordanian soil, this was in Syria, but of course they knew it was on Jordanian soil. They then had to backtrack on that and then swiftly request American Patriot air defense systems. I understand Jordan did play a role in the airstrikes, that we conducted in Syria, in Iraq, but they certainly didn't want that being made public. So, again, this is a whole another part or another component of this proxy network strategy, which is to play on the insecurities of America's partners, to try to widen the gaps in terms of trust or distrust between the US and our partners in order to further undermine our presence in the region.
Courtney Lobel [00:49:41] I think we have time for one more question before we wrap up. You both talked a lot about our efforts to confront and challenge these groups, but in your view, is the hostility that these groups feel towards the United States something that can be fixed, addressed, or mitigated in some way?
Charles Lister [00:50:01] I'll take a stab at that one first. I mean, that's the billion-dollar question. I mean, I would say the hostility is never going to go away, that is just bred into the very existence of these groups. And, even in times of relative calm vis-a-vis Iran, these proxies have continued, many of these same malign activities in the mission has stayed the same. So, I think Doug made that point quite clearly earlier, which is, you know, the agenda is the agenda, and we're playing a different ballgame here. We're playing on a different playing field, when it comes to comparing Iran itself. Ultimately, I think the best that we can hope for is sort of assertive deterrence. And when we're just not there. We have made the decision as the US, for now, to define this as a proxy or militant problem, not an Iranian problem. And from my perspective, that gives both Iran and the proxy militants, the vote to continue doing what they're doing. It means that they have that advantage, and it's until we take that decision to see that Iran has its fingerprints behind everything that's happening. Look at the Houthis, everywhere that container ship has gone, Houthi anti-ship ballistic missiles have subsequently targeted ships in the Red Sea in the Gulf of Aden. That is not a coincidence. But we have decided not to publicly acknowledge that as the US government, because we don't want to present this as an Iranian problem. We want to present this as a proxy one, and I think that's fundamentally a mistake. And Doug, as he already has, can speak much more to other methods that we can use, if we were to describe this as an Iranian problem to then conduct various kinds of actions that wouldn't necessarily give way to an uncontrollable escalation. But we're going to have to just accept here that Iran is behind this.
Douglas London [00:52:07] Yeah, I'd like to just say ditto, because I think Charles laid it out brilliantly. But again, remember this, and I think this has to be at the forefront of deliberations, Iran does not want to peacefully coexist with the United States. Iran cannot afford to peacefully coexist with the United States because it jeopardizes its control at home by making compromises against the main enemy that it uses to justify everything it does at home. So, for the United States, then to look, can we divide it from its proxies? Yeah, there's soft power and there's money and there's this and there's that. But the United States has a history of being a Fairweather friend. How dependable are we going to be? All they have to do is look at the history, look at Afghanistan, look at Iraq. I mean, the list goes on and on. We're there. We're with you. And then, okay, you're on your own. Iran is not going anywhere. It's there. The Iraqis live with the Iranians, right? The Houthis depend on the Iranians, and the Iranians have been a better bet for some of these groups. So apart from the fact is, as Charles said, you're never going to get away from the hostility. You're never going to get away from this belief that the United States is evil and responsible for their victimization based on colonialism and war.
Douglas London [00:53:26] The slew of reasons that that you see in their messaging, then the levers we have are either, you know, forced to try to deter them or incentive, and we've tried to use incentive, and we have failed. We have failed both with Iran because they fundamentally can't afford to coexist with us, and we've failed with incentives with the proxy groups. I mean, we fought side by side with them against the Islamic State. You think there's something there that we could have harvested, but we were not able to, and not without trying, perhaps, but even then, as soon as we were done with the state, we were gone. We're out of here. The Iranians are still there. So, I don't see a great number of opportunities. I think there has to be a very you know, Charles is talking about deterrence, a very smart, calculated, asymmetrical deterrence, I think, somewhat to model against what the Iranians do. We have to determine what is a cost the Iranians don't want to pay, that we can deliver upon them without escalating into further kinetic activity. And there are means to do that. There are covert means to do that. And then we do have the potential to, should they respond excessively and target directly with kinetic, to sort of meet, match and escalate on parity as we have to. But I think there's a whole lot of space before we get there. But our fundamental problem is we are just not looking at the problem right. We're not understanding where we're at. Iran is at war. We're trying to get away from it. We want to think about other things. The Iranians can't afford to let us do that, and they're not going to.
Courtney Lobel [00:55:07] Well, thank you both so much for coming up on the one-hour mark. So, we're going to wrap it up. But if there are any callers on the line who have questions, please email them to my colleague Thomas Halvorsen at email@example.com He'd be happy to send them to our two experts who can answer them at a later time. I hope you will all join me in thanking Charles Lister and Doug London for participating in this week's session on Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria. We really appreciate your insights at this time. If you've missed any of today's session or wish to wash it again, we'll be posting it later today on our website, mei.edu. Thank you again for joining us this week and be on the lookout for the email invitation to next week's briefing. And if you'd like to discuss MEI membership to continue to be on these calls after February 15th, please reach out to my colleague, Thomas. Thank you all so much and have a great rest of your day.
Charles Lister [00:55:59] Thank you.