Question: Setting aside for a moment the epicenter of the current Israeli-Hamas War — and the colossal battle to come once Israeli ground forces enter Gaza and the real battle is joined — how bad could this conflict really become?
Answer: Very bad. Mostly because of the risk of miscalculation. Emotions are at their peak, judgment is suspended, and the sides are operating on hair-trigger responses. Nonetheless, there are mitigating factors that could potentially mean less involvement of forces outside the immediate conflict.
The proximate cause for this concern is Iran. In addition to Hamas itself, Iran’s proxies in the region include Hizballah in Southern Lebanon, a collection of some half dozen Syrian and Iraqi militias, and the Houthis of Yemen, all of which currently view both Israel and the United States as enemies. Ironically, all, including Hamas, are Arab but variously take orders from and are armed, supplied, funded, trained, advised and often directed by Iran, which is not Arab but Persian. At present, no Iranian forces, save for a handful advising and directing ground forces in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq, are seriously threatened by this conflict. Iran is using its Arab proxies, aka pawns, to pursue its decades-long war against Israel.
The Hizballah gamble
Of all the proxies/pawns confronting Israel, none is as threatening as Hizballah. Armed with an estimated 150,000 rockets and missiles, as many as 2,000 drones, and a military force of some 100,000 (per Hezbollah, but fewer than 50,000 according to estimates by Jane’s Information Group), it is a potent military force. In 2006, when it last battled Israel, it was armed with 15,000 rockets, or about what Hamas had at the start of the current conflict. And while Hizballah was able to stand its ground and remain in Southern Lebanon, it took a severe beating, brutally devastating Lebanon in the process. Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Hizballah, subsequently acknowledged his regret for having started that war, given its horrendous toll on Hizballah and Lebanon.
Nevertheless, Hizballah’s engagement in the present war would tax Israel’s forces and resources, likely obliging it to redirect forces and assets from Gaza to its northern border. Were Hizballah to launch even a fraction of its missile arsenal against Israeli cities, tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Israelis could perish. Israel would respond with the full force of its much more potent military apparatus. Recently, it threatened to “return Lebanon to the stone age” in the event of a major Hizballah military attack on Israel. Given the level of destruction in the 2006 war, this isn’t an idle threat. To add further grist to the argument, unlike in 2006, Hizballah faces the power of two US aircraft carrier battle groups off the Lebanese coast and two air force fighter squadrons deployed to the region, which adds a massively powerful punch in aircraft and cruise missiles to the Israeli onslaught. US President Joe Biden’s cautionary warning to Hizballah, “Don’t!”, also is no bluff.
Nasrallah’s aforementioned admission is important. Would he risk repeating his mistake of 2006, with a much worse ending? It is also worth noting that Lebanon has been in an economic and financial spiral over the last several years propelled in part by continuing political disarray and dysfunction. Hizballah’s political stock in the country is at an all-time low. A war in Lebanon, which would be the inevitable consequence of a Hizballah conflict with Israel, would be vehemently opposed by Lebanon’s tattered political leadership, the Lebanese army and most of all by the Lebanese people, including a likely majority of the sizeable Shi’a population from whom Hizballah draws its political support.
For Iran, is Hamas worth the risk?
How hard would Iran push Hizballah to enter the fray in the event of a potential Israeli defeat of another important asset, Hamas? Only Tehran can answer. However, Iran likely places the highest priority on the health and survival of Hizballah. It is viewed as an indispensable strategic asset in the event Iran itself is faced with an attack or war. Risking Hizballah and potentially Iran’s own defensive capabilities doesn’t appear a smart bet.
Iran’s outright entry into the war also appears unlikely. Perhaps for Hizballah, Iran might respond, but not Hamas. And pushing Hizballah into a war it would very likely lose would almost certainly prompt Iranian involvement. With all sorts of political, economic and environmental problems at home and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in declining health, Iran would not want a war with Israel and most especially with the United States.
Ultimately, the decision lies with Tehran. Is it willing to risk a truly regional conflagration in its irrational, perverse pursuit of destroying Israel? Is it willing to stand by as Israel destroys Hamas, an Iranian ally and proxy in Gaza, and lose a major pressure point on Israel directly on its border? A defeat of Hamas would be a humiliating defeat for Iran, almost comparable to the Soviet Union’s in 1973 when Israeli forces crossed the Suez Canal, surrounded the elite Egyptian Third Army in the Sinai and were headed for Cairo. However, Hamas’ defeat, but without Hizballah’s destruction, would still leave Iran as a formidable foe. Without Hizballah, Iran is measurably weaker.
Even without overt intervention, Hizballah has the ability to menace and tie down Israeli forces in northern Israel. Importantly, both sides seem to know how far they can push their forces without crossing some unspecific line, which would then require full-scale retaliation by one side. The Hizballah attacks at the current level demonstrate solidarity with Hamas, prove to Iran’s other proxies that it supports them in their efforts, but avoid a drawn-out war that risks severely crippling Hizballah and devastating Lebanon.
The major problem with that scenario is unpredictability. War is inherently unpredictable. A slight miscalculation by Iran, Hizballah or Israel could trigger conflict that might quickly spiral out of control. If a Hizballah rocket, for example, were mistakenly to land in a populated Israeli area, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) would be obliged to respond with significant force, to which Hizballah would likely respond in kind. The Middle East’s nightmare scenario will have begun.
And then the risk next door
The other Iranian-backed militias in Syria and Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen present a threat of a significantly lesser degree. They lack the power and numbers to do consequential harm to Israel. Those Syrian and Iraqi militias and the Houthis are a greater threat to American forces in (or near in the case of Yemen) those countries, though here too the threat risk is minimal. Nevertheless, the Americans will want to avoid the loss of American lives.
Still, Syrian militias elsewhere, several of which are directly advised by Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officers, already threaten the Golan and northeastern Israel and cannot be ignored. They present a menacing drain on Israeli forces and resources. Although the risk is lower, an errant rocket on an Israeli town would undoubtedly trigger a strong Israeli response against Syria as well as the militia force that fired it. Bashar al-Assad, who has finally established himself as the leader without peer in Syria, will not be anxious to have Syrian groups of any stripe drag his war-devastated nation into a conflict with Israel, or by extension the US.
One final front that was already heating up is the West Bank. More than 100 Palestinians have been killed since the start of the year, making this the most violent year there since the Second Intifada (2000–2005). Iran possesses less influence there than elsewhere, but it has managed to insinuate it of late with the help of Hizballah, funneling weapons and perhaps even operatives to support Palestinian resistance movements, e.g., the Lion’s Den, and aid a West Bank revival of Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The major threat posed there is its proximity to Israel’s major population centers: Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Despair and hopelessness are as intensely felt in the West Bank as in Gaza. The Palestinian Authority, led by an aging Mahmoud Abbas and a corrupt and inept coterie of Fatah elites and fat cats, nominally governs the West Bank but lacks credibility and is thoroughly distrusted by the Palestinians living there. Palestinian Security Forces are reluctant to insert themselves for fear of doing Israel’s bidding. Right-wing Israeli settlers have stepped up their violence against Palestinian towns and villages, sometimes with the willing participation of IDF soldiers. That is further fueling Palestinian animus and rage. The area is ripe for Iranian mischief and rabble-rousing and is a dagger aimed at the heart of Israel.
A full-on uprising on the West Bank would require significant Israeli forces to quell over an extended period of time. The toll on military personnel of such an occurrence, along with the ground campaign in Gaza, would represent a major taxing of IDF forces and assets. And it is in that scenario that others, especially Hizballah, may incorrectly perceive an advantage. That in turn precipitates an expansion of the Israel-Hamas conflict that so many fear.
Armed uprisings in both Gaza and the West Bank present another problem. Such an uprising will undoubtedly attract massive support in the Arab world. Think of the Arab Uprisings on steroids, except this time it will revolve around an issue that Arab governments will have to support. If it lasted for any length of time, as seasoned Middle East journalist Robin Wright has pointed out, it could potentially jeopardize the relationships Israel has painstakingly negotiated over decades with its neighbors Egypt and Jordan, as well as with Abraham Accord members the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan. It would also destroy the ongoing talks over normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
What’s in it for Iran?
Given the hesitation to see the Israel-Hamas war escalate to involve outside forces or expand to additional fronts, why does Iran take the risk?
First, the Islamic Republic likely sees this moment as a chance to prove its mettle on the regional and even global stages. Its deployment of proxies on Israel’s southern, northern and northeastern borders demonstrates its ability to project, if not power, then at least effective resistance, and threaten Israel. Success in war is greater with allies, and Iran has proven it has them. As such, it cannot be ignored.
Secondly, Iran seeks to destabilize the Arab Middle East, fragment its centers of power, and, in the ideal scenario, separate it from the United States. Iran would then stand as the unchallenged power in the region, which it frankly believes it is already. Therefore, the aforementioned West Bank nightmare scenario bears watching carefully.
If Israel is successful in ridding Gaza of Hamas — regardless of how that is defined — look for Iran to immediately rally its proxies, including whatever remnant of Hamas that may survive. Iran will continue fighting Israel to the last Arab, all the while protecting and advancing its Islamic Revolution.
Israeli victory over Hamas is the worst case for Iran. The regime of mullahs is playing for much higher gains and sees its odds too attractive to ignore. This makes it an extremely dangerous time for the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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