Iran’s regional network of proxies developed by Soleimani

Iran's Major-General Qassem Soleimani cultivated the loyalty of tens of thousands of fighters in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and the Gaza Strip.
Sunday 05/01/2020
A member of Iraq's Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary network stands on a US flag in the southern city of Basra, January 4. (AFP)
A member of Iraq's Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary network stands on a US flag in the southern city of Basra, January 4. (AFP)

LONDON - Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ al-Quds Force who was killed January 3 in a US air strike near Baghdad’s airport, was instrumental in developing Iran’s network of proxies for nearly two decades.

He cultivated the loyalty of tens of thousands of fighters in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and the Gaza Strip who received aid, arms and training from Tehran. Iran has used such groups to strike its foes and carry out its aggressive agenda.

Here’s a look at Tehran’s allied proxies in the Middle East:

Militias in Iraq

The groups include Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Kata’ib Hezbollah and the Badr Organisation, all led by men with close ties to Soleimani.

The leader of Kata’ib Hezbollah, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was also killed in the January 3 strike.

The United States said Kata’ib Hezbollah was responsible for a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base in December that killed a US contractor. US retaliatory air strikes killed 25 Kata’ib Hezbollah fighters.

The militias fall under the umbrella of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), mostly Shia militias incorporated into Iraq’s armed forces in 2016. They number more than 140,000 fighters and while they are ostensibly under the authority of Iraq’s prime minister, the PMF’s leaders are politically aligned with Iran.

In recent months, militia leaders said US troops should leave, threatening to expel them by force.

Lebanon’s Hezbollah

The militia was established by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps during Lebanon’s civil war in the 1980s. It extends Iran’s armed clout to Israel’s doorstep.

Hezbollah was formed to combat Israel following its invasion of Lebanon in 1982. It waged an 18-year guerrilla war against Israeli forces, making them withdraw from Lebanon in 2000. Six years later, it battled Israel to a bloody stalemate in a month-long war.

Hezbollah has an arsenal of tens of thousands of rockets and missiles that can reach deep into Israel, as well as thousands of highly disciplined and battle-hardened fighters. Hezbollah has fought alongside government forces in Syria for more than six years gaining battlefield experience and expanding its reach.

In Lebanon, the group’s power exceeds that of the regular armed forces. It is also part of a political alliance that leads the government and parliament.

Hezbollah has lost hundreds of fighters in Syria, exacting a heavy toll on the Shia community from which it draws most of its support.

Hezbollah’s power and its links to Iran have been challenged by Lebanon’s anti-corruption demonstrators.

Houthis in Yemen

Yemen’s Shia rebels, known as Houthis, swept from the north and captured Sana’a, toppling the internationally recognised government in 2014. A Saudi-led coalition entered the conflict on the side of the government the following year.

Western countries and UN experts accused Tehran of providing arms for the rebels. That includes missiles the Houthis have fired into Saudi Arabia.

The Houthis have given up little ground since the coalition entered the war and have targeted Riyadh with missiles. They claimed responsibility for a drone attack that shut down a major oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia, which responded with air strikes on Yemen’s rebel-held capital.

Palestinian groups in Gaza

Iran has long supported Palestinian militant groups, including Gaza’s Hamas rulers and the smaller Islamic Jihad group.

Hamas fell out with Iran after the 2011 “Arab spring” uprisings, losing millions of dollars in monthly assistance, but Tehran is said to have continued military support for Hamas’s armed wing.

Tensions have run high in Gaza since Israel’s targeted killing of an Islamic Jihad commander in December, which set off a 2-day fight.

Hamas is in a severe financial crisis and appears to get most of its aid from Qatar, making it less likely that it would rally to Tehran’s side in a regional conflict. Islamic Jihad, smarting from the recent fighting, could be keen to join in a regional conflict.

(With news agencies.)