Israeli attacks in three Middle East countries are pushing a volatile region that is already the scene of two long-running wars, closer to a third. The lethal strikes show how the Trump administration has effectively outsourced the military component of its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. As a result, one U.S. ally–Israel–is attacking in another American ally—Iraq, supposedly for the sake of advancing American interests.
On Saturday, Israel confirmed that its warplanes struck an Iranian-operated base in Syria that was allegedly preparing to launch a major drone attack against Israel. On Sunday an armed drone struck a Hezbollah media center in the suburbs of Beirut. Hezbollah said it was the first Israeli attack in Lebanon since Israel and Hezbollah fought to a draw in 2006.
Later Sunday another drone strike in Iraq killed a commander of one of the Iranian-backed militias, known as Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). Israel did not confirm or deny the latter two attacks but most news sources assume Israel was responsible. Last week “senior U.S. officials” told the New York Times that Israel was behind three other unattributed attacks in Iraq.
Israel says that the PMFs constitute a threat to its security, by enabling Iran to move its short-range ballistic missiles closer to Israel. But Iraqis see the PMF, a coalition of some 60 militias, as necessary protection against ISIS. The PMF sprang up in 2014 when ISIS routed the Iraqi government forces and took over much of western Iraq. Supported by Iran and blessed by Iraq’s Ayatollah Sistani, the PMF fought alongside U.S. troops in driving ISIS out of western Iraq. Without the PMF, ISIS would probably still hold large swathes of the country.
Since 2017, the Iraqi government has been incorporating PMF personnel and weapons into its armed forces, with the goal of lessening the country’s dependence on Iran and gaining military units with battlefield experience. Faleh al Fayadh, the chairman of the PMF coalition, is Iraq’s national security advisor. The idea was to weave the two forces together. Now Israel hopes to divide them.
Not surprisingly, the Israeli attacks are being denounced in a country where the U.S. is far from popular.
Iraqi prime minister Adil Abdul Mahdi ordered the U.S. military to ask permission before undertaking any flights in the country (U.S. commanders said they would comply “immediately.”) Iraq’s country’s ceremonial president, called the attacks “a blatant hostile act” that crossed the red line of Iraqi sovereignty. A pro-Iranian bloc holding 10 percent of the seats in the Iraqi parliament called the attacks a “declaration of war.”
But if Iraqis think the Israeli attacks are declaration of war on them, there’s no doubt who the Americans favor. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted Monday that U.S. fully supports Israel’s “right to defend itself.” Fifteen years after attacking Saddam Hussein’s regime, the United States supports a secret war on the government that replaced him.
“The attacks in Iraq underscores the contradictions in US policy,” said Paul Pillar, former CIA analyst for the region. “Here we have the administration not only not criticizing but actually applauding Israel for an armed attack on the territory of a friendly state that we are trying to help in other ways.”
Pressuring Iraq to join the campaign of “maximum pressure,” Pillar said in a phone interview, “is totally contradictory to the prosperity and stability of Iraq. They are dependent on trade with Iran and they are dependent on the popular mobilization forces for security. The attacks only increase Iraqi resentment of United States and increases Iraq’s sense of dependence on Iran to protect itself.”
The reason why Israel and the United States are so hostile to Iran, is that the Islamic Republic has taken advantage of U.S. blunders since 9/11 to consolidate its prestige and allies, while the U.S. and its allies have lost strength.
The U.S policymakers sought to replace Saddam Hussein’s government with an anti-Iranian regime in 2003. They failed. Iran cultivated good relations with the new government and gained power and influence in Baghdad where it once had none.
In 2011 U.S. policymakers thought they could overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria by supporting Syrian “moderates” (of whom there were few) and al-Qaeda linked fundamentalists (of whom there were many). They failed. Iran supported Assad and (with Russian, Iranian and U.S. help) has mostly routed ISIS. Iran is now entrenched in Assad’s Syria as it never was before.
In 2015 U.S. policymakers thought Saudi Arabia could defeat the Houthi rebels in Yemen and deal a blow to Iran, the Houthis’ ally. They thought wrong. The Saudi coalition has inflicted the world’s worst humanitarian crisis on Yemen, yet achieved none of its goals. Now the U.S. is seeking peace talks to end the war and the Houthis are openly embracing the Iranians.
Now U.S. policymakers expect Iraqi government to ignore Israeli attacks and support the U.S. campaign against Iran, a larger neighboring country that supports its economy and security. With the U.S. track record in the region, there’s little reason to think this will succeed. What Trump Iran’s policy lacks in coherence, it makes up for with recklessness.
Of course, the incoherent Trump could change his mind. He ordered and called off an attack on Iran for shooting down an unmanned surveillance drone, a sign that he has no desire to be a wartime commander-in-chief going into an election year. At the G-7 summit, he played along with the gambit of French President Emmanuel Macron to open the door to talks with Iran. If the U.S. lifts sanctions, Iran is willing to talk, President Rouhani replied.
The Israelis are worried Trump might accept. Afterall, Trump threatened North Korea with fire and fury, only to warm up to Kim Jong-il and embrace negotiations over the objections of his advisers. Israeli escalation in Iraq—and the expected response from Iran and Hezbollah—will make it harder for Trump to change directions on Iran, which is why the attacks are likely to continue.