Tehran's approach to proxy wars offers a surprising lesson.
In July 2006 in south Beirut, Qassem Soleimani was facing death. In a rare interview published earlier this month, the shadowy commander of Iran’s Qods Force, the elite paramilitary arm of the Iranian regime’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, revealed for the first time that he was in Lebanon during the 33-day war between Israel and Hezbollah to direct Iran’s support to its decades-long Shia proxy-turned-ally in Lebanon. Soleimani recounted a harrowing (aren’t they all) escape from swarming Israeli drones, targeting him and Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah. As the Israeli campaign intensified, Soleimani shuttled between Lebanon and Iran to relay battlefield updates to Tehran and rally support to the group. Asked if anyone in Tehran questioned Iran’s commitment to Hezbollah at the risk of a direct war with Israel, particularly if the commander of the vaunted Qods Force was killed, Soleimani said, “No one hesitated,” starting with the supreme leader.
Contrast that (at least partly nonfictional) scene in Beirut to today’s in northeast Syria. There, the United States, at the direction of President Donald Trump, has abandoned its local partner, the Syrian Democratic Force, in its time of need. Like Hezbollah did for Iran against Israel, the SDF waged the bulk of America’s ground war against its enemy, the Islamic State. At America’s assurance, they gave up border fortifications that were protecting them against the Turks. And then they lost U.S. protection altogether. Now they face a Turkish onslaught that has killed hundreds so far and displaced tens of thousands more, and given a new opportunity for regional supremacy to U.S. foes, Russia, Iran, the Syrian regime, and the Islamic State.
With skill and strength honed in the fight against ISIS, the SDF could choose to fight on, bringing another bloody, protracted war to Syria. Or the SDF could continue to cut deals with Damascus, handing over the land they conquered from ISIS with the U.S. coalition to the Assad regime and his Russian and Iranian backers. In other words, the United States will, in hindsight, have served as Assad’s clearing force against ISIS. After billions of dollars spent to arm and enable the SDF to defeat and sustain victory against ISIS, the United States appears to be, after one phone call from Turkish President Erdoğan, throwing it all away. As America withdraws, an Islamic State already reemerging as a rural insurgency will now resurge as a terrorist army, swelling its ranks with thousands of hardened ISIS prisoners now breaking free from SDF captivity.
As backers of butcherous regimes, perpetrators of wars, and oppressors of its own people, about 99 percent of what the Iranian Qods Force does, the United States should never emulate. But the Iranian approach to proxy warfare and how they cultivate binding partnerships with local actors offers lessons the United States can learn from. I derive these lessons from my experience as a U.S. policy maker, having advised the counter-ISIS campaign while serving in the Pentagon, and as an analyst, having covered Iran and its allies at the CIA. It’s clear that Iran’s focus on building strategic, long-term relationships stands in stark contrast to our transactional approach, with partners abandoned when the immediate mission is met or political winds change in Washington.
By, with, and...who?
The Americans and Iranians actually share some similar attitudes to proxy war because the costs of direct military intervention in blood and treasure are so steep. Rather than committing large numbers of their own troops to grueling ground wars, both Iran and the United States have adopted strategies of working “by, with, and through” local partners. Both deploy small numbers of special-operations forces to train and advise these partners, and use their military and technological prowess to provide “key enablers” such as intelligence, air strikes, and logistical support to propel their proxy’s operations. But here is where the similarities end, in two key ways.
First is why Iran and the United States intervene in the first place. Tehran aims to exploit chaos and turmoil to build long-term influence. After meeting the pressing security need on the battlefield, Iran turns its focus to building its proxies into strong domestic political-military actors for hard, strategic benefit. After initial small investments, Hezbollah is now a powerful faction in the Lebanese cabinet and a regional military power in its own right, providing Iran’s “forward defense” against Israel. Iraq’s Shia Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) militias offer Iran committed fighters and political allies on its border; the Syrian regime serves as the Levantine linchpin, connecting Tehran to Beirut; and the Houthis allow Tehran to inflict pain for relatively low cost on Saudi Arabia, which by contrast has spent billions on the war in Yemen.
U.S. intervention, on the other hand, tends to be for discrete military or counterterrorism goals, be it in Syria, Libya, Yemen, or Somalia. While U.S. forces do train local partners on how to secure and govern their areas, the mission is a distant second to the immediate combat operation. That much was clear with the SDF, as there was no political vision or broader U.S. Syria policy guiding the partnership. The investment is primarily military and short-term, with no grander strategy or regional diplomatic and security plan to which the campaign is meant to tie in. Once the mission is achieved, American forces scale down or withdraw, leaving their proxy no clear political path forward in its host nation. The SDF’s Kurdish leaders now find themselves in the precarious situation of having no powerful patron, internal or external to Syria, who supports their goal of a semiautonomous Kurdish state or even a future role in the Damascus government.
Second is who the U.S. chooses to enable. Iran enjoys a natural choice for its partnerships: an array of Shia partners and proxies cultivated over decades across the Middle East. These groups share not only the Iranian regime’s unique Shia ideology, but a shared identity as members of an “axis of resistance” to Israel, the United States, and Saudi Arabia. This ideological affinity has deepened through the cauldron of multiple wars, while the unifying narrative instills motivation and loyalty to Iranian goals.
Lacking such geographic proximity and historical bonds, the U.S. selects partners based on their capability and will to fight right now. The problem is that both those things can shift or atrophy over time. Although militias may clear terrorist-held territory very ably, they may be ill-suited to hold, defend, police, and govern it, particularly when they are not from that area. While sharing an immediate motivation to fight a common foe, the proxy may have other enemies to whom it will ultimately direct its arms and attention that may not necessarily be in line with U.S. aims. Such is the case with the SDF. They were committed to the fight against ISIS, but the SDF’s Kurdish leaders also used the campaign to expand the emerging Kurdish statelet, Rojava, much to the fury of Turkey, a NATO ally. From the beginning of the U.S.-SDF partnership, this fundamental misalignment in ultimate aims was understood but discarded, in the name of operational expediency. As the SDF and Turkey go to war, this fissure is laid bare.
Axis and allies
Slowly but surely, Iran has transformed its “axis of resistance” with Hezbollah and the Syrian regime into a regional alliance spanning from Iraq to Yemen. No longer simply Iranian proxies, groups like Hezbollah, the Houthis, and Iraqi PMF now form a group of ideologically aligned, militarily interdependent, political-military actors committed to one another’s mutual defense—a resistance NATO, so to speak, with military footholds across the region, political influence in key Arab capitals, and a network of dedicated partners. Indeed, Iran’s return on investment has been high. Tehran can now better deter its adversaries, fight them when it suits its goals, and more generally steer policies and events in the region in its favor.
For instance, the Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif was quick to proclaim the United States “an irrelevant occupier in Syria—futile to seek its permission or rely on it for security,” and generously offered to “bring together the Syrian Kurds, the Syrian Govt, and Turkey so that the Syrian Army together with Turkey can guard the border.” What could go wrong? While Zarif works to assuage the press and diplomatic corps, his Qods Force colleague, Qassem, will work the ground game, leveraging newly acquired regime areas from the Kurds to expand its weapons pipeline into Syria and Lebanon.
We also saw this in the fallout over the U.S. imposition of sanctions on Tehran and the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign. Iran, despite some thinly veiled denials, hit back by launching attacks against tankers, downing a U.S. drone, and orchestrating a sophisticated attack against Saudi oil facilities—confident that the U.S., with the president’s aversion to military campaigns, would not strike back. In fact, Trump called off a strike at the last minute, and the response to the Saudi Aramco attack has been a somewhat tepid maritime-security plan and the potential deployment of thousands of American troops whose primary mission is to deter further action from Iran and reassure Saudi leaders—not to directly confront them.
Iran’s “resistance axis” provides multiple options for pressure and retaliation.
For the United States, the short-term, mission-centric, transactional approach to proxy warfare, too, has its benefits and is perhaps aligned with the American public’s aversion to getting “bogged down” in “forever wars.” But a perpetual focus on military objectives at the expense of a political strategy and the long-term future viability of proxies means battlefield victories can be pyrrhic or reversible. Nowhere is this clearer than in northeast Syria, where the ongoing Kurdish-Turkish war will propel ISIS’s resurgence.
As painful as it is to admit, the United States should learn from Iran. Achieving both short-term victory and long-term security will remain a hard if insurmountable challenge without enduring military and diplomatic support to local partners—the kind Iran provides to Hezbollah. Only by shifting the focus of our partnerships from the immediate and tactical to the strategic and enduring can the U.S. hope to do it—if not in Syria now, then there or on another battlefield in the future.
All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official positions or views of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or any other U.S. Government agency. Nothing in the contents should be construed as asserting or implying U.S. Government authentication of information or CIA endorsement of the author’s views. This material has been reviewed by the CIA to prevent the disclosure of classified information.
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