People in Beirut watch a broadcast of Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah on Sunday as he called for attacks on US soldiers to avenge Friday’s assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. (Bilal Jawich/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Proxies Key to Iranian Vengeance over Soleimani

Experts say that if Tehran sends surrogates on the attack following general’s assassination by US, Iraq could pay heavy price

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, but Mideast experts cannot accurately predict how Tehran will react to US President Donald Trump’s order to assassinate Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, who was killed in an American drone strike in Baghdad on Friday.

The effects in countries hosting Iranian proxy militias, however, are a bit easier to foresee, especially since the Islamic Republic’s leadership has vowed to exact vengeance through military might.

Hazem al-Shmary, a professor of political science at the University of Baghdad, told The Media Line that there were numerous political decision-making centers in his country due to the multiplication of political forces since the US-led invasion of 2003.

“Currently, Iraqi Shi’ite Arab groups are on the ascendance in the country. The majority of them have armed wings that are partly connected to the country’s security establishment, and partly outside the government,” Shmary said, referring to the pro-Tehran Popular Mobilization Forces.

He added that using these political ties, it was quite possible that Iran would respond to Soleimani’s assassination through attacks on American forces in Iraq, something that would come at a cost to Iraqis financially, politically and economically.

“I don’t think the US would carry out military strikes on Iraq [in response], but it would place sanctions on Baghdad, in addition to employing other tools, such as inserting [Sunni] extremist groups into the country to cause confusion in terms of security,” he surmised.

Yet he pointed out that Washington had many friends in Iraq who might help the US develop a political environment in a way that would not harm American interests locally or in the region.

“This would change everything,” Shmary said.

Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese general, told The Media Line that while there had never been a direct military confrontation between the US and Iran, the former had sparred with Iranian proxies and agents in the region.

“I don’t believe that a Lebanese front will ever be opened [against US interests],” he said. “If one opens, it won’t be closed except after a major regional war.”

He said one scenario that might activate a Lebanese front would be if President Trump carries out his recent threat to attack 52 targets in Iran.

“In that case, not only is Tehran going to endlessly strike American military bases in the Gulf, but Hizbullah will open a front from Lebanon against Israel,” he said.

Jaber noted that there were no American military bases in Lebanon, explaining that when Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah vowed during a blistering speech on Sunday to target every American soldier in the region, he had meant in Syria.

“I think that all of the unofficial Iranian armed groups in Syria – that is, about 25,000 fighters – will [seek] to remove the American forces there, which number between 800 and 1,000 soldiers,” he said.

The retired general added that Iran and its proxies would not just seek to take revenge, but rather attempt to achieve strategic goals, including the complete removal of the US military presence from Syria.

Malek Alhafez, an Amman-based member of the Syrian opposition and head of the internet-based Rozana Radio, told The Media Line that the assassination of Soleimani dealt a painful blow to Iran, causing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to “rearrange their cards and their deployment centers outside Iran.”

Washington might clamp down further on Tehran in an effort to push it into negotiations, he added.

“If Tehran refuses to [negotiate], the US administration will not hesitate to direct military strikes on Iran,” Alhafez said.

“The focus may be on Iranian territory more than on what may be directed toward its bases abroad, but of course these sites will not be exempt from military strikes,” he continued, “especially in Syria, a country that has many targets due to the fast expansion of Iranian influence there during the last few years.”

He added that any military escalation between the US and Iran would affect Syria, albeit in a limited way, through the “targeting of bases of Iranian influence in the south and east of the country.”

Mazen Safi, a Palestinian writer and political analyst based in the Gaza Strip, told The Media Line that for 40 years, Iran has been using allies abroad to carry out strikes against those who harm Tehran politically or economically.

“In Gaza, it funds some political factions that might logically be expected to carry out acts supporting the Iranian reaction to Soleimani’s slaying,” he noted. “Nevertheless, these factions are blockaded and under occupation [by Israel] in a limited geographical area, which doesn’t allow them to enter into broad and complex military activities.”

He believes the Iranian-backed factions in the Gaza Strip would suffice with glorifying Soleimani in press releases, and honoring him with a memorial.

“In other words, it would merely be symbols that emphasize the relationship between Tehran and the factions in Gaza, as the latter are keen on this relationship.”

Safi pointed out that Hamas, the ruling party in the Gaza Strip, has been working to break the Israeli blockade with the assistance of the UN, Egypt and other players.

“Hamas will not allow these factions to ‘shuffle the cards,’” he said. “It won’t allow any [military] operation to take place from Gaza.”

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