Since Hamas launched its ruthless attacks on Israeli towns and cities on October 7, Israel’s Defence Forces have been fighting a battle on two fronts.
The IDF is conducting a non-stop bombardment of Hamas in the Gaza Strip as it masses troops and heavy armour ahead of a ground invasion to the south, all while fending off rocket attacks from Hezbollah in Lebanon to the north.
But now, after the United States expanded its military support for Tel Aviv in the wake of Hamas’ attacks, the Jewish state’s most fearsome foe has warned it could soon enter the fray.
Iran on Thursday threatened ‘uncontrollable consequences’ should the US continue to support Israel, with foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abhollahian declaring: ‘If the genocide in Gaza continues, (the US) will not be spared from this fire.’
The Islamic Republic is vehemently opposed to Israel and has issued scathing criticisms of the IDF’s bombing campaign of Gaza, which has seen thousands of Palestinians killed in the past three weeks.
Tehran is also the chief backer of both Hamas and Hezbollah – but these are just some of the powerful militias that have been propped up by Iranian money, weapons and military training in recent decades.
Now, as fears grow that continued fighting between Israel and Hamas could ignite a much wider conflict to engulf the whole region, MailOnline takes a look at the most heavily armed and dangerous proxies Iran has cultivated throughout the Middle East.
Tehran is the chief backer of both Hamas and Hezbollah – but these are just some of the powerful militias that have been propped up by Iranian money, weapons and military training in recent decades
Members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) force attend a rally marking the annual Quds Day, or Jerusalem Day, on the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan in Tehran, Iran April 14, 2023
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) troops fire a missile
This photo provided by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), shows its soldiers taking part in military exercises
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during a meeting. Khamenei warned that Israel’s continuing offensive in Gaza would cause a violent reaction across the region
Hezbollah has in recent years emerged as a potent force in the Middle East, boasting a multifaceted arsenal and diverse military capabilities that pose a considerable threat to Israel.
The Lebanese political and military group emerged in the early 1980s as a response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and officially announced its existence in 1985 with the release of its first manifesto.
Initially the group was a large but informal conglomeration of Shia Muslims in Lebanon who were spurred on by Iran’s Islamic Revolution in the 1970s, which culminated in the overthrow of the Shah and the establishment of the Islamic Republic by Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini.
Tehran, seeing the potential to turn the rebelling Shia group into a fearsome ally, instructed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to instruct, train and finance them.
The group adopted the name Hezbollah – which translates to ‘Party of God’ – with the primary goal of resisting Israeli occupation in Southern Lebanon.
The Iranian connection has remained a defining aspect of Hezbollah’s identity, and the nature of the group’s multifaceted setup as a political party and armed militia allow it to wield considerable influence.
In addition to the array of small arms, machine guns and tens if not hundreds of thousands of rockets at its disposal, Hezbollah boasts a range of anti-tank and anti-air systems, a fleet of thousands of drones, and dozens of tanks and armoured vehicles.
Like Hamas, Hezbollah also has an extensive tunnel network along the Lebanese-Israeli border which serves as a strategic asset for clandestine movement, storage, and surprise attacks.
In 2021, the group claimed to have 100,000 active fighters – though Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) says the number is half that. INSS says the group’s arsenal counts 150,000 to 200,000 rockets and missiles, including ‘hundreds’ of precision rockets.
The overwhelming majority of Hezbollah’s military hardware is Soviet or Iranian made, and the group has either purchased or received donations of weapons and munitions from their Iranian backers, the government of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and China.
Fighters from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah carry out a training exercise in Aaramta village in the Jezzine District, southern Lebanon, Sunday, May 21, 2023
Fighters from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah
Hezbollah militants are seen standing alongside artillery weapons
Hamas, ruler of the Gaza Strip since 2007, formed under circumstances similar to those of Hezbollah – though it only became an ally of Iran several years after its creation.
The group was born from the Muslim Brotherhood – a Sunni Islamist organisation that originated in Egypt but spread throughout the Arab world following the Six Day War in 1967 when Israel gained control of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights, displacing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and angering the Arab nations surrounding it.
Twenty years later came the First Intifada – a mass uprising of Palestinians against Israel, which saw members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other more hardline Islamist elements work to consolidate a militia.
They felt the Palestinian Liberation Authority – Palestine’s leading political movement, and its leading faction Fatah – was ineffective in its diplomatic efforts. Instead, they wanted to take the fight to Israel via a militarised wing while remaining a politically engaged organisation to create an Islamic state within Palestine.
As the group’s power and influence grew through the 1990s, Tehran sought to cultivate Hamas as a strategic ally.
Though religious differences between Iran’s Shia theocracy and Hamas’ Sunni Islam exist, their shared opposition to Israel motivated Tehran to provide financial aid, delivery of weapons and military training
Militarily, Hamas does not measure up to Hezbollah, but the group has shown it can leverage guerrilla warfare tactics that could make any ground assault dangerous for Israeli troops.
Hamas has 15,000 to 20,000 fighters, the International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates. Israel puts the number higher, at up to 30,000 fighters, while some estimates have suggested as many as 40,000 fighters are ready in Gaza.
Hamas’ militia is well armed, with troop armouries stocked with a range of assault rifles, heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank weapons, as well as longer-range sniper rifles.
They have heavy weapons obtained from across the Middle East – particularly Iran, Syria and Libya – and has also sourced handguns and assault rifles from China and other regions.
It also has a variety of locally made, improvised explosives and Western sources say enough drones, mines, anti-tank guided missiles, grenade launchers and mortar shells to hold out for a long period, though precise figures are unavailable.
Gunmen from the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, during an anti-Israel military march in Gaza City
Palestinian militants from Hamas ride on a truck with their weapons. They are seen holding an AK-47 assault rifle and an RPG
Members of the Al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas movement, parade on a truck with rockets in a street in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip
Houthi Rebels (Yemen)
The Houthi rebel movement is an Iranian-backed Shia group waging a bitter war against the Sunni Yemeni government, which is backed by a multinational coalition led primarily by Saudi Arabia.
The Houthi rebel movement began in the 1990s but was formalised in 2004, one year after the US invasion of Iran.
Named after Zaidi Shia cleric and founder Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, the rebel group was initially composed of Muslims belonging to a the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam that was largely marginalised in Yemen.
Houthi rebels were initially committed to fighting perceived oppression in the country, and later took on a second goal of fighting Western influence in the Middle East after the Yemeni government voiced support for the US’ war in Iraq.
The Houthis launched several insurgencies against Yemen’s government throughout the 2000s and early 2010s but the conflict quickly spiralled out of control in 2014 after the rebels took control of the capital Sanaa and overthrew the government, triggering a Saudi led-military intervention that has seen the two sides battle tooth and nail ever since.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are major rivals, separated by religious sectarianism and desire for greater regional influence. Iran’s financial and military backing for the Houthis is believed to have begun in the late 2000s, with Houthi officials confirming in 2015 that Tehran was directly supporting the group.
The group, which is hundreds of thousands strong, is extremely well armed and proficient in the use of conventional arms, cruise and ballistic missiles, and drones.
Unlike Hezbollah and Hamas, the Houthis do not count Israel as their biggest foe, but have expressed considerable anti-Jewish sentiments and in the wake of Israel’s retaliatory attacks on Gaza fired several missiles which were intercepted by a US warship.
Houthi fighters shout slogans during a military parade in solidarity with Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, in Sana’a, Yemen, 12 October 2023
Houthi fighters shout slogans while marching during a military parade
Senior Houthi leader Muhammad Ali al-Houthi gives a speech during a rally showing support to Palestinian Islamic factions, in Sana’a, Yemen, 07 October 2023
Kata’ib Hezbollah (Iraq)
Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), also known as the Hezbollah Brigades, is a Shia militia that constitutes one of the largest members of the Popular Mobilisation Forces – an umbrella organisation made up of several armed groups based in Iraq.
The militia, formed of various Iranian factions, began assembling as early as 2003 amid the US invasion of the Iraq and the subsequent toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime, but was formally established and became a prominent force in 2007 when it began directly attacking US troops.
KH was and continues to be heavily influenced by Iran’s IRGC which recruited, trained, armed and financed its fighters, and is closely ideologically and strategically aligned with the Islamic Republic.
The US quickly designated KH a terrorist organisation in 2009 after coalition forces came under several attacks – but KH diverted much of its resources from fighting Western troops to quell the rise of ISIS through the 2010s until the extremists were largely defeated in 2017, while other elements of the group participated in the Syrian civil war fighting on the side of the Russia and Iran-backed government of Bashar al-Assad.
After ISIS was crushed, however, KH wasted no time in shifting its focus back to US troops, with the warring sides trading strikes.
The group is believed to have had as many as 30,000 fighters during the 2010s – though KH lost much of its notoriety in 2020 after agreeing a ceasefire with remnants of US forces still in Iraq.
But now, a new group known as Alwiyat al-Waad al-Haq (AWH) has threatened more violence against US and Israeli targets.
‘After the Zionists and their followers persisted in exterminating our people in Palestine, and as we witness today the killing, displacement, and destruction of the rights of the patient and mujahid Palestinians, now we stress that our patience has limits, and we announce the good news to honourable people that we consider the American bases in Kuwait and the [United Arab] Emirates to be legitimate targets in response to the crimes of the Zionists and Americans, and as revenge for our beloved Palestinian martyrs,’ a statement given earlier this month read.
According to The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a US think tank, AWH is a mere facade group that is controlled entirely by KH and the IRGC.
Members of Iraq’s Kata’ib Hezbollah paramilitary group
National Defence Forces (Syria)
Iran’s intervention in the Syrian Civil War played a pivotal role in supporting Bashar al-Assad’s government throughout the conflict, which was ignited in 2011 amid the Arab Spring uprisings.
When war broke out in Syria, Iran committed its support to the Assad regime and was hell bent on backing the Syrian Arab Army, given Syria’s strategic importance and the shared anti-Israel stance of both nations.
As Syria’s government troops began to wilt under the pressure of rebel forces a year into the conflict, the National Defence Forces (NDF) were formed, bringing together Syrian volunteers and foreign fighters into a paramilitary organisation sworn to support the Assad government.
Iran provided substantial support to the NDF, funding its operations, organising heavy weapons shipments and launching a mass recruitment programme that drummed up tens of thousands of troops from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Iranian advisors and trainers from the IRGC also worked closely with NDF forces, running training camps in Iran and Syria to impart their military expertise and continue their programme of ideological indoctrination.
Thanks in no small part to the Iranian-backed NDF as well as Russia’s military intervention, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remains in power.
The war has utterly devastated Syria, resulting in some 5 million refugees and more than 7 million internally displaced civilians according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
Syria has also become a hotbed for the production and distribution of drugs, with a state-sponsored programme of illicit drug manufacturing propping up the ailing economy.
Al-Assad’s government has in turn aided Iran to bolster the military supplies of its proxies, selling large numbers of rockets to Hezbollah.