Global anxiety that the United States will take military action against Iran has increased now that President Trump has appointedJohn Bolton as his national security adviser. Mr. Bolton has long promoted regime change in Iran, argued for bombing Iran and a more assertive American policy against Iranian expansionism in the Middle East.
But the United States cannot effectively confront Tehran and its proxies until it appreciates Iran’s role in state building in Middle Eastern countries decimated by conflict.
Iran has increased its influence in the region since the eruption of the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State. Iran mobilized tens of thousands of Hezbollah fighters and other Shiite militias from Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan to fight alongside the forces of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. These militias played a critical role in the defeating Syrian rebel groups. They also fought against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, at times in close proximity to American forces.
Iraqi Shiite militias, battle-hardened from fighting the United States, began fighting in Syria alongside Mr. Assad’s forces in 2012. Hezbollah captured the strategic Syrian town of Qusair from opposition fighters in 2013. Shiite militias, including Afghan fighters, were pivotal in capturingAleppo in December 2016, which arguably secured the survival of the Assad regime.
Over the past two years, these Iranian proxies led the fight to take back cities like Homs and areas around Damascus. They control strategically important checkpoints and support Syrian military positions across the countryside.
Hezbollah and Iraqi militias such as the Badr Organization, Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Harakat al-Nujabaa have emerged as Iran’s most powerful partners on the ground in Syria. They have decades of battlefield experience and Iran entrusted them with the training of the Shiite militias mobilized from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But these Iranian proxies do not just turn up for battle, fight and return home. Hezbollah’s political prominence and “state within a state” status in Lebanon was once the exception, but now it is a model that is being replicated by other militia groups with devastating impact.
Iran has trained these groups to exploit disorder and fill the vacuum by providing services and security to often desperate communities. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which oversees these proxies, has helped them co-opt or take over local humanitarian organizations andcharities as a way of acquiring legitimacy and popularity. Iran has ensured that aid is provided through these proxies.