Now Is the Time to Shatter Iran’s Proxy Forces
President Trump has repeatedly warned in recent weeks that he expects additional attacks by Iranian proxies on U.S. forces in the Middle East. He has also made clear that there will be U.S. retaliation for any such attacks. That's a strong message and one that is no doubt warranted, but I have another suggestion.
In 56 BC Julius Caesar marched north to wage war in what is now the United Kingdom. As he did so, he was faced with hit-and-run raids by tribes on the east bank of the Rhine River that threatened Caesar’s flanks while he was occupied elsewhere. Caesar could have suffered the asymmetrical warfare, issued warnings, and retaliated when raiding tribes crossed the river and attacked Roman territory.
He did not.
Caesar instead directed his legions to build a massive bridge across the Rhine, marched into the tribal territories on the other side, and launched preemptive attacks on the forces threatening him. Eighteen days after crossing the Rhine and destroying the tribes’ towns and fields, Caesar crossed back over the Rhine into Roman territory, burned the bridge and continued north to Britain. The border was secure.
Iran’s proxy forces are the equivalent of those Germanic tribes. Too weak to confront US forces in battle, they attack outposts, kill US soldiers with rockets and missiles and harass US shipping, both military and civilian. Then they hunker down, expecting limited retaliatory strikes, which will make no lasting impact on their capacity to continue to cause mayhem. The cycle continues, and, on balance, it is unclear that we are getting the better of this tit for tat game.
It is time for a fundamentally different approach, one which plays to our strengths and one that will fundamentally change the strategic situation in the Middle East. It is time to destroy Iran’s proxy forces.
Step one in that process is to continue to ratchet up the financial pressure exerted by US sanctions. Iranian money is the lifeblood that keeps its proxy forces armed and equipped. Iranian complaints that sanctions are having a negative effect on its ability to fight the coronavirus are disingenuous. Food and humanitarian aid supplies are not impeded by sanctions, and anytime Iran truly feels it needs more cash for medical supplies, it can divert funds being sent to Hezbollah, the Houthis and a host of other terror groups across the Middle East.
The next step in the process of destroying Iran’s network of proxies is also financial. Every individual, company and other entity involved in that vast terror machine must be sanctioned and crushed financially. Iran counts on the ability of untold numbers of front companies to support its proxy forces, dodge responsibility, and continue to funnel money, arms and ordnance into the fight. The shadows in which this network operates must be dispelled.
Recently the Trump Administration has made a good start on this. In late March the Trump Administration designated a long list of "Iraq-based front companies, senior officials, and business associates that provide support to, or act for or on behalf of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF), in addition to transferring lethal aid to Iranian-backed terrorist militias in Iraq, such as Kata'ib Hizballah (KH) and Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH)," according to the Treasury Department. This pressure must be maintained, and it must be expanded worldwide. There can be nowhere left on Earth where Iranian front companies and IRGC surrogates are free to operate, move cash and cause death and destruction.
Financial pressure alone, however, is not sufficient to deal with the threat at hand. We must also seize the initiative militarily and take preemptive action.
This need not and should not involve the use of large numbers of conventional forces. Instead, our strategy should be one that plays to our strengths and uses our naval and air power, our special operations forces, and our intelligence assets to systematically dismantle Iranian proxy networks and deprive them of the capacity to attack American forces.
Soleimani was effectively taken off the battlefield in a targeted attack. Those Iranian commanders who have taken his place and are following in his footsteps should suffer the same fate. So should the commanders of every proxy force that is killing American servicemen and women.
Iranian vessels moving supplies and arms to proxies should be seized or sunk.
Iranian aircraft moving supplies to proxy forces should be seized or destroyed.
Arms dumps, command and control centers, and training facilities should be struck.
Across the entire Middle East, the ability of Iranian proxy forces to sit, wait, and prepare for attacks at times and places of their choosing must be eliminated.
As Caesar crossed the Rhine and fundamentally transformed the strategic landscape for his enemies, we must cross a similar barrier in our minds. Waiting for an enemy that has attacked us repeatedly to make good on his promises to strike us yet again is a self-defeating tactic.
Build the bridge. Cross the river. Strike first.
Charles S. Faddis is a former CIA operations officer who served for twenty years in the Near East, South Asia and Europe. He retired in May 2008 as head of the CIA’s WMD terrorism unit. In the summer of 2002 he took the first CIA team into Iraq in advance of the invasion of that country. He is the co-author of Operation Hotel California a book about the actions of his team inside Iraq. He is also the author of Beyond Repair an argument for reform of the CIA, which will be released in October 2009 by Lyons Press.