The War Between Iran and Israel Moves to Iraq

Tehran has begun redeploying its military assets in Syria toward the Iraqi border

Qasem Soleimani, head of Iran's Quds Force / Twitter screenshot
February 14, 2019

Israel's campaign of airstrikes against Iranian military targets in Syria has led Iran to move the bulk of its soldiers and bases away from the Israeli border, according to intelligence assessments by the Israeli military released Wednesday. While some pro-Iranian forces remain in southern Syria on the border with Israel, Iran is redeploying most of its assets to eastern Syria and Iraq.

Iran's actions should not be construed as Tehran giving up its efforts to entrench itself in Syria to open up another front to attack Israel. In fact, the intelligence assessments say that Iran appears to be adopting a more aggressive posture toward the Jewish state—last month, for example, Iranian forces launched a missile at the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. Iran is simply changing its methods for achieving the same vision, the Israel Defense Forces believes.

Iran now seeks to entrench itself in Iraq, setting up missile launchers there to threaten Israel. Reuters reported last year that Iran had also given ballistic missiles to Shi'ite proxies in Iraq and that it is developing the capacity to build more there with the ranges to threaten both Israel and Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, Iranian-backed militias are expected to base themselves in western Iraq, awaiting orders to cross the border into Syria to target the Jewish state. Parts of Iran's elite Quds Force also appear to be leaving Syria to enter Iraq.

Given this shifting landscape, Israel may feel the need at some point to target Iranian and Iranian-linked forces in Iraq. Such action would be significant, as no strikes in Iraq have been attributed to Israel. Last year, however, Jerusalem carried out airstrikes close to the Syrian town of Abu Kamal, located near the Iraqi border, which killed members of a Shi'ite militia, according to press reports.

The situation in Iraq could lead to complications for Israel carrying out strikes, the Jerusalem Post noted. Many of the Iranian-backed militias are part of the Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMUs, an umbrella organization that has been incorporated into Iraq's security apparatus. Beyond the potential issues with angering Baghdad, American forces deployed in Iraq work with the Iraqi security forces, creating potential difficulties between Washington and Jerusalem.

Iran's move to Iraq is also part of its broader strategic plan to create a so-called land bridge from its Afghan border to the Mediterranean Sea, a continuous corridor of political and military control from which to exert influence across the Middle East and weaken America's role in the region. Securing routes between Iraq and Syria is a crucial part of this effort. Safeguarding cross-border routes is also crucial for Iran to transfer weapons to Hezbollah, its chief proxy force, in Lebanon. Since 2013, Israel has launched hundreds of military strikes in Syria to prevent Iran from sending sophisticated weaponry to Hezbollah, as well as to prevent Iran from establishing a deep military presence in Syria.

Israeli officials have made clear that they will do whatever is necessary to prevent Iran from achieving its goals in Syria, even if that means going to war. But, as I wrote last month, "the real danger is that the conflict spills into Lebanon, triggering another war between the Jewish state and Hezbollah, [which] … has an estimated 130,000 rockets ready to fire at Israel. Because Israel is such a small country with few key strategic targets, it would need to act immediately in a conflict with overwhelming force."

For months, if not years, there have been growing signs that Iraq would be involved in such a war. A commander of Iraq's PMUs warned recently that the militias are ready to respond to Israeli acts of "hostility." Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has also said that a future war with Israel could draw thousands of fighters from Iraq. Iran's decision to redeploy soldiers only makes it more likely that Iraq would be a key belligerent in a future conflict.

This coming storm should be a warning to Washington that its focus in Iraq and Syria should not only be on the Islamic State. If the United States does not want to risk a disastrous, region-wide war erupting in the Middle East—one with its most important regional ally, Israel, right in the middle—then it needs to keep American soldiers in Syria and stay committed to making Iraq a more unified, inclusive state, while maintaining a military presence there as well. Ultimately, that is the best way to reverse Iranian gains in Iraq, where many citizens do not want to live under Tehran's imperial vision.

The conflict between Iran and Israel has remained below the threshold of formal war. But there is no guarantee that will remain the case. So far, however, deterrence has worked; Iran takes Israel's warnings about using force very seriously. That is the main reason why Iran has not really retaliated against Israel's airstrikes: the Iranians know that whatever they do, the Israelis will come back with a much harsher response. Iran has no interest in going to war with Israel, which enjoys a significant military advantage in Syria, especially in the air. In the coming months, Israel will likely try to establish that same level of deterrence further to the east, where Iranian forces will be. The United States needs to be ready to support its ally in this effort.