Iran’s network of proxy militant groups across the Middle East has come under increasing attack in recent months, threatening a key element of Tehran’s regional strategy. Groups like Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis act as force multipliers for Iran, allowing it to exert influence and wage asymmetric warfare against rivals like Israel and Saudi Arabia. However, the tide may be turning against these violent organizations.
Escalating Israeli Strikes Against Iran and Allies
Over the past year, Israel has markedly stepped up its shadow war against Iran and its proxies. The Israeli military has conducted hundreds of airstrikes against Iranian and Iran-backed forces in Syria, destroying weapons caches and disrupting supply lines to Hezbollah.
Israel has also targeted high-value Iranian officers and scientists working on Tehran’s nuclear and missile programs, utilizing tactics like bombings and assassinations. Just this week, a senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officer named Sayad Khodayee was gunned down in broad daylight on the streets of Tehran. Israel did not claim responsibility but is believed to behind the killing.
Most dramatically, in November 2023 Israeli warplanes unleashed a massive wave strikes across Syria targeting over 15 Iranian sites in one night. The bombing raid damaged Damascus International Airport and killed at least 7 Syrian and Iranian military personnel. It was one of the largest Israeli air operations in Syria to date. Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz promised it “would not be the last.”
Hamas Finding Itself Squeezed
Iran provides significant funding and weapons that allows Hamas to threaten Israel from Gaza. However, recent developments have weakened the Palestinian militant group’s position. In late 2022, several months of indirect negotiations led to a Ceasefire Understanding between Israel and Hamas. The deal saw Israel take steps to ease the blockade on Gaza in return for Hamas halting rocket attacks and violent border protests.
|Ceasefire Deal Key Points
|More work permits issued to Gazans, certain imports allowed
|Halt rocket fire & border riots, prevent other groups from launching attacks
So far, the Hamas-Israel ceasefire has mostly held. Hardliners in Iran were reportedly angered that Hamas entered talks with the Jewish state without Tehran’s blessing. As a result, Iranian funding to Hamas has been scaled back over the past year. This financial pressure has sparked tensions within Hamas’ leadership. Insiders say military wing leader Muhammad Deif favors renewing conflict with Israel to win back Iranian support. However, political leader Ismail Haniyeh wants to avoid another bruising war that further immiserates Gaza’s population. For now, Haniyeh’s argument for restraint seems to have won out. But fissures in Hamas could lead to renewed clashes down the road.
Houthis Face Saudi-Led Onslaught
In Yemen, Iran’s Houthi allies have been under severe military pressure from the Saudi Arabian-led coalition seeking to oust them. Through much of 2022 and 2023, Houthi forces lost significant territory in central Marib province and their offensive capabilities were badly degraded by coalition airstrikes. The tide began turning when the United Arab Emirates shifted strategy, pulling most ground troops out of Yemen while maintaining its air support for loyalist Yemeni units. The UAE’s move freed up Saudi Arabia and allied local militias to go on the offensive.
This February, the coalition will launch a major new offensive aimed at capturing the strategic port city of Hodeidah. Such a loss would be economically and militarily disastrous for the Houthis. Squeezed by sanctions and military defeats, the rebel group has turned to ever more extreme tactics like drone and missile attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure and coalition allies. But their wanton attacks seem to only steel the Saudi coalition’s resolve to remove the Iranian-backed insurgency that has destabilized its southern border region for nearly a decade.
Hezbollah Faces Growing Unrest in Lebanon
Iran’s most powerful regional proxy, Lebanese Hezbollah, faces rising discontent at home. Lebanon has experienced continual crisis for years now: economic collapse, political paralysis, social unrest. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, long respected as incorruptible and patriotic, has seen his image tarnished through his association with Lebanon’s reviled political elite. For perhaps the first time, Lebanese Shiites – Hezbollah’s base – have joined cross-sectarian protests calling out corruption and incompetence of the entire ruling class.
In this climate, Hezbollah has struggled to retain its divine aura as Lebanon’s shield against Israel. It doesn’t help that the group offers no real solutions to the country’s myriad domestic troubles. Over-extended abroad and lacking funds from primary patron Iran, Hezbollah seems unable stem growing resentment to its dominance. The group remains militarily more powerful than ever before. But cracks in its domestic legitimacy could presage trouble down the road.
Counter-Proxy Strategy Showing Results
The intensifying strikes against Iran’s proxies likely reflect a shift in U.S. and allied strategy in the region. Rather than confronting Iran directly, the new focus seems to be taking the fight to the violent non-state groups that allow Tehran to undermine its foes on the cheap. America itself is hesitant to engage in direct conflict with Iran after the painful experience of the Iraq War. So instead, regional allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia have seemingly been greenlit to target Iran’s proxies more aggressively.
For decades now, groups like Hezbollah and Hamas have been able to attack U.S. partners and western interests with relative impunity due to fears of triggering larger conflict. Iran hid behind these violent organizations, supporting them financially and materially while retaining a veneer of deniability. It seems the free ride for these militant groups may be ending. Of course, by pressuring its proxies, the risk grows of Iran ordering them to retaliate. The coming months will demonstrate whether the counter-proxy strategy pays dividends or escalates regional tensions toward dangerous new heights.
What Comes Next
Iran has relied on asymmetrical proxy warfare to achieve its objectives as it is unable or unwilling to exert power directly like other regional hegemons. Groups like Hezbollah give Iran strategic depth and deterrent abilities vis-a-vis rivals. Losing control of these loyal violent organizations would be blow for Iran’s regional influence and defense from regime-change efforts.
However, based on recent trends, Iran’s proxies do look notably weakened. Continued successful operations by Israel and Gulf states against groups like Hamas, Hezbollah and Houthis seem likely in 2024. Iran will probably respond by doubling down on support for its struggling allies. It may also unleash attacks directly from its own Quds Force and ballistic missile arsenal to relieve pressure on proxies. Tehran cannot afford to lose these force-multiplying assets. 2024 could see Iran escalate recklessly if it feels its proxies are threatened with destruction. The powder keg of a region could be set alight.
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