Crisis Response Council spoke to experts and asked them to examine the implications of Monday's rocket attacks on Erbil, including their analysis on the impact it will have on stability in Iraq, tensions between the U.S. and Iran, and the campaign to defeat ISIS.
Ramzy Mardini, University of Chicago
While the recent militia attack in Erbil is distinct in many ways, its underlying rationale does not differ from previous provocations. It represented a test to measure where President Biden’s resolve lies in comparison to his predecessor, but it also represented a continuation of Iran’s coercive strategy to build up pressure – so long as they are crippled by a sanctions regime, given the US withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear accord. Iran has long leveraged its covert support to armed groups in Iraq to give it plausible deniability in advancing its interests.
However, Trump’s decision to militarily engage them as part of a "maximum pressure" campaign has spurred the proliferation of unknown militia actors in Iraq. The preexisting Iran-backed proxies are likely operating through proxies of their own to give the established paramilitary leaders some measure of plausible deniability against the threat of retaliation by the US military. It is a defensive adjustment to bypass an American threat in order to maintain an offensive capability. The logic is to muddy up accountability, effectively complicating the employment of American deterrence. This ultimately helps Iran to exploit a strategic loophole and preserve its deterrent and coercive options against the US.
In a way, these new shadowy-styled militias have empowered the established and visible paramilitary leaders because the conundrum forces the prime minister to rely on them as middlemen to mediate and manage the violence rather than confront them as the actual provocateurs. In turn, the bifurcation of the “militia problem” into overt and covert wings has given paramilitaries a venue of protection-racketeering the state.
Rising regional tensions will impact militia dynamics in Iraq, given that proxies will largely drive the external form of Iran’s escalation to buttress and adjust its negotiating position over its nuclear program. This will be an ongoing problem, not only for the central government in Baghdad and the regional government in Erbil, but also for the Biden administration’s ability to rely on the pressure of economic sanctions – a double-edged sword, which will likely, over time, become more costly for American interests in the region. As long as American targets are in proximity of Iran’s coercive reach, they become (at least implicitly) part of the bargaining process in trying to resurrect the nuclear deal.
Sara Plana, Harvard University
A distressing rocket attack launched on Erbil on Monday that claimed a life and injured 10 more bears some signatures of Iranian-linked armed groups. The exact perpetrators are still unknown, and details will continue to surface over the coming days.
Although many analysts have been quick to point to Iranian involvement, the frustrating reality may be that Iran’s role in this attack will remain opaque to the public. The lack of (public) knowledge of state responsibility over proxy attacks is a feature, not a bug, of most proxy war. US intelligence apparatuses might have more luck establishing confidence in Iranian complicity in Monday’s attack, but the fact that a previously unknown group claimed responsibility for the attack will make it harder for the US and Iraq to build on an existing knowledge base of known groups’ modi operandi and known links to Iran.
Even if Iran had no role in this attack, the question of how to counter Iran’s destabilizing relations with proxy armed groups is a perennial problem for the region—and one that the US is often called upon to solve. For years, the US’s main approach to Iran’s proxy network has been military in nature, but shows of the US’s conventional force superiority do more to exacerbate Iranian insecurity and justify their asymmetric approach of sponsoring proxies than the opposite. Given the US’s small military footprint in Iraq at the moment, a militarized response by the US would also require a dramatic escalation, and little evidence suggests escalating to deescalating works. In fact, attacks by Iranian proxies have not abated even following severe threats by the Trump administration last year—and most efforts to use force to impose costs on Iran has cost the US, Iraq, and the international community as much or more than Iran. We should not forget that 176 people lost their lives on Flight 752 in January 2020 while the US and Iran played a game of brinksmanship.
The US would be well-served by thinking beyond solely militarized responses to Iran’s proxy network and instead shifting the approach from deterrence to denial. State sponsors like Iran are most successful in loosely governed spaces where they can build inroads with armed militias to build protection rackets and gain local influence. A better approach may be to deny the ability for these groups to recruit and operate, stripping Iran of opportunities to carve out alliances with local armed actors. Coercing Iran or even building the ability of local militaries to militarily punish proxy attacks are short-term fixes. As many or more of the resources the US directs to such militarized responses could be better spent on long-term, locally led investments in building infrastructure, implementing a functioning and legitimate judicial system, and strengthening reliable law enforcement. All of these serve to enhance locals’ quality of life, help address local grievances, and reduce the security vacuums in which proxies thrive.
Caroline Rose, Newlines Institute
The attacks on Erbil represent an important test posed to the US, Turkey, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), and the Federal Government of Iraq (FGI) from Iran-backed militias operating in Iraq. The string of rocket strikes were conducted by a newly-formed group primarily unfamiliar among Iraqi security experts, named “Awyla al-Dam” (which translates roughly to "guardians of the blood”). However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that more established, Iran-backed factions were not implicated in the attacks.
As Iran-backed groups embedded within the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) have increased the tempo of attacks on the sites and assets of the Coalition Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) in Iraq, Tehran and its proxies have looked to blur the lines of responsibility, creating small offshoot shell organizations that they can easily shift blame upon, dismissing them as “independent” elements while continuing to apply pressure on its rivals. Ayla al-Dam is the latest case in a string of "rogue" militia organizations that are acting in Tehran’s interests, in an attempt to stave Washington and its partners in Erbil and Baghdad from holding the most culpable actors accountable.
The location, nature, and timing of the attacks on Erbil are important to note. Diverging from its habit of targeting rural US bases south of the Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI) and the US Embassy in Baghdad, the strikes target a highly-populated, urbanized area in the KRI. This is not the first time that Iran-backed groups turned their attention to Erbil; on September 30, 2020 we saw Iran-backed elements try and attack the Erbil International Airport, but their strikes were intercepted. However, last night’s attack reflects a new pattern of Shiite militia involvement in Erbil and the KRI at large.
In striking Erbil, Iran and its Iraqi proxies aimed to intimidate two foreign rivals, the US and Turkey. Despite a brief pause in attacks immediately before and after US President Biden’s inauguration, Iran and PMF factions wish to continue pressuring a US withdrawal from Iraq—a strategy it successfully used with consecutive strikes that resulted in a US reduced presence to 2,500 and eight base transfers as of December 2020. With Turkey, Iran and its proxies targeted the capital of the KRG, Ankara’s primary partner in Iraq, to dissuade Turkey from launching a military operation against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) insurgents in the disputed Sinjar District. All of this considered, Iran is conveying a message to its competitors in Iraq: "We can target you anywhere, so don’t mess with us".
Yaniv Voller, University of Kent
The rocket attack on the US-led coalition base near the Erbil airport on the 15th of February, which killed a civilian contractor and injured several American nationals, has come at an inconvenient time for the Biden administration, seeking to renew dialogue with Iran over its nuclear programme. The attack was claimed by an obscure Shi’a militia and Iran has officially denied any involvement. However, the attack’s nature is remarkably similar to previous attacks on coalition targets in the country by Iranian-backed militias. The group that claimed responsibility had been described as a front organisation for Iran-linked groups, such as Kata’ib Hezbollah. And while the State Department has refrained from explicitly pointing the finger at Iran, official statements imply Washington’s anger at Iran.
The question is, what has motivated Iran to approve this lethal attack at a time when a renewed dialogue may see the lifting of some of the sanctions imposed by the Donald Trump administration. Domestic Iranian politics and competition between hawks and moderates should not be dismissed, as the country is heading toward elections in June. Nevertheless, geopolitical considerations are probably of greater relevance. The attack resembles previous assaults at coalition and Iraqi forces. The use of local proxies has characterised Iranian strategy in the Middle East, with Lebanese Hezbollah as the quintessential example. The attack’s timing suggests that Iran may be testing the ground to explore the new administration’s responses to the aggressions against American forces and their allies in the region. The location is also crucial. With the Kurdistan Regional Government considered the most stable partner of the US in the country, the attack on its capital sends a signal to Washington and its regional allies, including Baghdad, about any attempt to undermine Iran’s influence in Iraq.
As the Biden administration is indeed interested in renewing the dialogue with Iran over its nuclear programme, a direct American retaliation against Iran is unlikely. Yet, if Iran is indeed testing American red lines in the region, complete restraint may prove risky. As the conflict is taking place primarily by proxies on the ground, the new administration may consider supporting forces on the ground which have an interest in containing Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region. The KRG and its Peshmerga forces are the most likely candidates. In turn, this strategy might require Washington to commit to the KRG’s protection in case of escalation.