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January 16 2024

Policy Briefs

Islamic Republic Proxies Attack U.S. Forces in Iraq, Syria, and the Red Sea

Tymahz Toumadje

POLICY ANALYST

Andrew Ghalili

SENIOR POLICY ANALYST

The Islamic Republic Navy opened 2024 by deploying the IRIS Alborz, an Alvand-class frigate, to the Red Sea via the Bab el-Mandeb Strait on January 1. This occurred one day after the United States clashed with regime-backed Houthi rebels (Ansar Allah) in the Red Sea and less than a month after the U.S. Department of Defense announced a multinational maritime security initiative aimed at responding to Houthi-led attacks on shipping vessels in the Red Sea. Simultaneously, Islamic Republic proxies have launched over 100 drone and missile attacks on U.S. facilities throughout Iraq and Syria since October 7. The United States should apply greater military and diplomatic pressure on Iran’s proxies, starting by immediately re-listing Ansar Allah as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.


The Bottom Line

  • The Islamic Republic is waging a multi-pronged pressure campaign against the United States following the October 7 Hamas-led terrorist attacks on Israel. This includes over 100 ballistic missile and drone attacks on U.S.-affiliated facilities in Iraq and Syria by regime-backed militias since October 7, as well as increased harassment of commercial shipping vessels in the Red Sea by Houthi militants. Dozens of vessels have been attacked since October 7.
    • Regime officials have elaborated on their goals since deploying the IRIS Alborz on January 1, with Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) Commander Hossein Salami saying, “We need to defend our national interests to wherever they extend…It will be harmful for the enemy to be found near…They should stay away from this area.”
  • The U.S.-led multinational coalition formed to combat Houthi harassment of shipping vessels, Operation Prosperity Guardian, has been met with significant obstacles since its announcement on December 18. These obstacles include a lack of participation from several key allies in the region, as well as persisting Houthi attacks on shipping vessels causing many shipping firms to continue to avoid the Red Sea.
  • The Islamic Republic and its proxies have been emboldened due to the United States’ weak deterrence posture after years of degrading its credibility.
    • While retaliatory strikes and maritime task forces do serve a limited deterrent function in the short-term, the U.S. should also focus on legislation or policies meant to permanently damage the Islamic Republic proxy network’s ability to function and aimed at providing the Iranian people with means of maximum support to realize their democratic aspirations.

ISLAMIC REPUBLIC PROXY ATTACKS SINCE OCTOBER 7th

  • There has been an intense uptick in attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria conducted by regime-backed Shiite militias since the October 7 terrorist attack on Israel. These include at least 100 drone and rocket attacks on various U.S. facilities including Al Asad airbase, Al Harirairbase, Al Tanf base, as well as a U.S. base located in the Al Omar oil fields in Syria. These attacks are not limited to bases, as the U.S. embassy compound in Baghdad was also targeted by regime-backed militias in a rocket attack on December 8.
    • In an attempt to achieve its goals without sparking a wider war in which Iranian territory would be targeted, the Islamic Republic carries out these attacks with the intention of causing harm without provoking an escalatory response from the United States or Israel. There have been at least 45 American troops and contractors injured in these attacks.
  • There has also been an increase in Houthi attacks on commercial shipping vessels in the Red Sea since October 7. Examples include the November 19 2023 hijacking of the partially Israeli-owned vehicle transport ship Galaxy Leader, the December 12 missile attack on the Norwegian-owned Strinda, the December 18 attempted attack on the Norwegian-owned Swan Atlantic which was thwarted by the USS Carney, and the December 31 attempted seizure of the Singapore-flagged Maersk Hangzhou which resulted in the previously mentioned clash that killed 10 Houthi militants and sank three Houthi boats. Several dozenshipping vessels have been attacked in the Red Sea since October 7.

THE U.S. RESPONSE: WHAT WE HAVE DONE AND WHAT WE SHOULD DO

  • In response to attacks on bases in Iraq and Syria, the United States conducted  several “precision self-defense strikes” on IRGC-affiliated targets throughout eastern Syria, including a weapons depot in Abu Kamal as well as a training facility and safe house in Mayadin. On December 25, the United States also launched a retaliatory attack on three Kataib Hezbollah facilities in Iraq. On January 4, 2024, the United States launched an airstrike in Baghdad which killed the commander of the Harakat al Nujaba, an regime-backed militia that played a role in the attacks on U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria.
    • These retaliatory strikes have been predominantly focused on forward operating facilities in Syria that housed weapons used in attacks against the United States, with strikes in Iraq receiving backlash from the Iraqi government. These strikes temporarily affect the ability of these regime-backed militias to continue attacking from the same places, but they do not affect the ability to rebuild and conduct these sorts of attacks again in the long-term.
    • Greater emphasis should be placed on policies and legislation which prevent these groups from receiving funding and support, and therefore lessen their operational capabilities long-term. Current bills which aim to enact these sorts of policies include the Closing IRGC Sanctions Loophole Act (HR2958) and the Address Iran’s Malign Posture Act (HR3095).
  • The United States announced Operation Prosperity Guardian, a multinational maritime security initiative, on December 18, 2023 in response to Houthi harassment of shipping vessels in the Red Sea. This initiative has been successful in defending against Houthi attacks to a certain degree, but it has yet to deter the attacks, with many shipping firms saying that they will continue to avoid the region despite the U.S. presence.
    • The maritime task force is facing challenges in its ability to attract support from allies, with many nations participating in the initiative choosing not to be named. The task force is missing several key allies due to the political nature of the current conflict in Israel causing hesitancy from many nations to associate themselves with a U.S.-led military operation in the region.
    • In the heaviest attack against an Iranian-backed proxy group since October 7, the United States and the United Kingdom on January 11 and 12 launched over 100 precision-guided munitions at approximately 60 Houthi targets within Yemen in response to their attacks on shipping vessels. The targets hit included command and control nodes, munitions depots, production facilities, and air defense systems. Despite this attack, the Houthis have continued with their malign activities in the Red Sea, including the January 15 ballistic missile attack on the U.S.-owned and operated container ship M/V Gibraltar Eagle.
      • The United States should build on recent developments by increasing the intensity and frequency of strikes against the Houthis as they continue their attacks.
    • Context: On February 12, 2021, the United States Department of State announced that it would remove the Houthi rebels, Ansar Allah, from its list of designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO). This was done in order to compel negotiation from the Houthis and reduce hostilities while supposedly improving conditions for Yemeni people– similar logic to that the administration presented when it was considering removing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) FTO designation. Unfortunately, as many predicted, the Houthis’ hostilities only increased after their removal from the FTO list.
      • In a move that President Biden has already said he is considering, the Biden administration should add the Houthi rebels, Ansar Allah, back to the list of designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations.

Image courtesy of AFP via Getty Images.