Dr. Ariel Ahram is a Professor and Chair of Government and International Affairs at Virginia Tech University. He is a Director of Crisis Response Council and the author of several books and studies on proxy conflicts and armed non-state actors.
Hamas' attack on southern Israel on October 7, 2023 has set off a spiral of violence and raised pronounced fears of a larger regional conflagration in the Middle East. The attacks were probably the worst military set back Israel has suffered since the 1973, with over 1,200 killed and 210 taken hostage. Israel has responded with ferocious bombardment of Gaza, killing several thousand and leading to a humanitarian disaster. Violence is also spreading. Israel has mobilized over 300,000 troops and is readying for an assault on Gaza. Clashes between Israeli forces and militants in the West Bank and along the Israel-Lebanon and Israel-Syrian border between Israel and Hezbollah are intensifying. Israeli, American, and European officials have all accused Iran of instigating violence through a network of proxy forces that includes Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon, the Houthi (Ansar Allah) movement in Yemen, and the Popular Mobilization Front (PMF) in Iraq. Many fear a process escalating from a wary of surrogate forces into a larger regional conflagration of catastrophic proportion.
Ranj Alaaldin and I have spent the last five years exploring strategies for conflict resolution amidst the Middle East’s proxy wars with the support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Sponsor proxy relationships are ubiquitous across the regional landscape. The United Arab Emirates maintains proxy relationship with separatists in Southern Yemen. Saudi Arabia maintains provides arms and support to armed groups in eastern Libya. The United States equips and trains the Syrian Democratic Forces in northeastern Syria. Iran, though, is unique in scope and intensity in its proxy network . Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) Quds Force provides training, arms, funding, and ideological and diplomatic support, and access to funds to dozens of armed non-state actors in the region. Iranian-backed groups have become some of the most formidable fighting forces in the region. Dubbed the “Axis of Resistance”, these groups have waged war against Iran’s common enemies. Proxy warfare costs Iran little and has so far yielded substantial gains, allowing Tehran to meddle in ongoing conflicts but maintain a veneer of deniability and avoiding being pulled into a direct confrontation of the superior military of Israel and the United States.
Reliance on proxies in international conflicts is inherently volatile. As strategist Seyom Brown notes, proxies fosters “illusions of flexibility and control, which allow decision-makers to underestimate the costs and risks of violent operations.” A number of scholars have analyzed sponsor-proxy dynamics through the lens of principal-agent theory, a kind of sub-contracting fo violence. Moral hazards are inherent to these types of relationships. On one hand, sponsors struggle to make sure that their proxies don’t use the arms and financing they receive to ulterior purposes. Surrogates can even drag their principals into a conflict which they did not intend. This leads to expanding violence which the sponsor does not intend-- exactly the opposite of what proxy warfare is intended to achieve. On the other hand, the availability of proxies can give sponsors a sense of unrealistic or false optimism. If it is is agent who bear the brunt of fighting, sponsors are prone to be irresponsible in picking fights.
The current regional crisis displays both of these troubling trends. Hamas clearly took saw an opportunity for strategic and tactical surprise in its October 7 attack. Hamas officials claim that they Iran offered them a greenlight. But American intelligence officials believe that Iranian leaders were surprised by Hamas’ gambit. The best evidence of Iran’s lack of awareness is that no other Iranian-backed group appear to have coordinated with Hamas’ October 7 assault. Had Hezbollah, for instance, attacked Israel from the north while Hamas attacked from the south, the impact would have been far more devastating. It is plausible, then, that Hamas slipped its leash and instigated a conflict which Tehran didn’t anticipate and wasn’t prepared for but one that Iran had some foreknowledge of and, in many ways, is complicit in enabling because of its long-standing role as Hamas’ principal backer. Indeed, without Iranian operational and material support, Hamas would face an existential crisis and struggle to maintain its dominance in Gaza and the wider Palestinian movement.
Now that fighting has begun, however, Iran’s own recklessness could further push escalation. Since combat began, Iran has seemed eager to expand the scope of the conflict. Hezbollah, almost certainly with Iranian concurrence, has increased its operational tempo against Israel, leading Israeli leaders to contemplate shifting focus from Gaza alone to a two-front attack on the more formidable Lebanese group. In the Red Sea, the US navy intercepted missiles fired from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen that may have been aimed at Israel. Even if the intended target was Saudi Arabia, with whom the Houthis have fought since 2014, this move was unquestionably provocative. More dangerous still, Iranian-backed groups in Iraq launched a drone strike on the American garrison in Syria. Iran apparently still believes that continue using proxy forces at will and that it can maintain deniability and immunity from military recrimination. But as the stakes get higher for Israel and the US, this ambiguity will be less persuasive and a direct response against Iran becomes more probable.
The crosshatching of sponsor-proxy ties complicates efforts to deescalating proxy conflicts. Sponsorship of proxies deflects costs and blames and postpones the arrival of the hurting stalemates in which all parties are ready to undertake conflict resolution in earnest. Previous efforts to manage rivalries in the Middle East have been decidedly top-down. The goal was getting the major regional powers to find an amenable bargain. Indeed, until a few months ago, relations Iran and its major Arab adversaries appeared to be thawing, thanks in part of Chinese mediation. Even the US and Iran were taking tentative steps forward. When the principals are content, it is presumed that they will have less need to resort to proxy warfare against one another. The militant proxies themselves would likely atrophy.
But this approach must also considering the position of the proxies themselves. These armed non-state factions emerged in context of state failure. They provide security and services to communities that are excluded from domestic political arrangements. HAMAS, Hezbollah, the Houthis, and the PMF have their own discrete political programs suited to their particular political settings. The Iranian connection is important, but so is local support. Indeed, local rivals have often pilloried Hezbollah and the PMF as Iranian stooges-- and voters have at times agreed (as in Lebanon and Iraq). Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Sunni Muslim brotherhood, shares no affinity for Iran’s Shi’i sectarianism political theology. Its major demand, for a Palestinian homeland, is shared across all major segments of Palestinian society.
Top-down measures must come with bottom-up solutions which address the specific grievances and motivations of proxies themselves. In some cases, proxies’ domestic objectives can be met, at least partially. This could help detach members of the Iranian axis and convince them to focus on the needs of their local communities instead of the demands of Iran. The result would be what Erin Jenne calls a “nested” mode of conflict management in which the configuration of the domestic arena is buttressed by the larger regional concert. Working in such a multitrack mode and addressing both principals and agents is crucial to preventing the imminent next steps to larger and even more horrific war.