Tensions Rising in the Middle East
The United States and Israel must carefully consider the consequences of future encounters to disallow Iran from using those actions to drive a wedge between the West and the region.
Many Players and Agendas
The conflict between Israel and Hamas (who control Gaza at least for the immediate future) is a miniature version of the fight that Iran and its allies hope to instigate between Islam and the West. Although there has not been clear evidence of Iran directing the attack on October 7th, it is reasonably certain that Iran supports attacking Israel and will support Hamas (as well as Hezbollah and other Shiite forces in the region) going forward. For over a week Iran has increased the volume and tenor of threats against Israel and the United States. The US has responded with clear warnings that attacks on US forces would meet with swift and decisive responses. The message was in answer to increased attacks against bases in Iraq and Syria housing US troops. Almost on cue, the US struck facilities controlled by Iranian-supported groups which had attacked the bases and injured 21 Americans. These strikes were termed “self-defense” by the SECDEF. Attacks of this nature have considerable precedent as US forces have conducted similar precision strikes for years (as recently as March) under the right of self-defense. This attack, small by comparison, sent the message that the US has, and will employ, military force as needed.
This sort of limited strike, even though precise and intended to eliminate weapons and ammunition believed to be directly involved in the attacks on American bases, is what Iran is hoping will bloom into a regional conflict involving both the Israel and the US. Iran has watched the development of closer relations between several nations in the middle east and the west for decades. Outreach brokered by the US between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Israel directly threatens the Iranian narrative of the US as the “Great Satan”. Iran is supporting the Houthi rebellion against the Saudi backed Yemeni government as
well as Hezbollah, located north of Israel in Lebanon. The Kingdom sees Iran as a more immediate and unrelenting enemy than Israel, and in 2020 acquiesced when Bahrain joined with the United Arab Emirates to recognize Israel. The Saudi’s want progress on a two-state solution to the Israel Palestinian problem, as well as US weapons and civilian nuclear technology access for their agreement to recognize Israel. These steps threaten Iran.
A loose coalition of Sunni and Shia terrorist groups are supported by Iran. They include Hamas (Sunni), Hezbollah (Shia), al-Qaeda (Sunni) who have differing views on their religion but are united in wanting the destruction of Israel and their US supporters. Although Hamas is mostly Sunni (like Saudi Arabia) their conflict is fueled by the desire to erase Israel and replace it with a Palestinian state. Iran, a Shia nation, still backs Hamas because it can assist Iran in the pursuit of their more strategic goal to break the bonds between the US and other Arab nations while also working to eliminate Israel. It is important to note Hamas is not ISIS, despite what the Israeli President has said on several occasions. On the Day of Rage, Hamas followers demonstrated in the streets and an Israeli diplomat was stabbed in Beijing, all part of the Hamas approach to struggle against the Jews to eventually replace them in Palestine. ISIS has said that the leaders of Hamas have lost their way, they do not follow strict Islamic theology and fail to realize that the time for a state has passed. Only the caliphate should exist above all leaders and states, and it should be Muslim, not Palestinian. Although techniques are similar in terms of targeting civilians and indiscriminate killing, they are not the same.
The United States has many strategic interests in the region. As world markets continue to react to the Israeli invasion of Gaza; peace and stability, even if fragile, are in the interests of the world economy. Iran, a hostile and somewhat unpredictable player with nuclear capability, wants to continue to put the focus on US support of Israel and will make efforts and wild claims to draw the US into a wider conflict in the region. If successful in getting the US to take active and direct measures (i.e., combat) to support Israel, Iran can claim the US sides with Israel against all Muslims…not against Terrorist organizations. This would allow Iran to frame Israeli/US actions as a religious war and not self-defense.
The US must move carefully and with a strong foundation of trust with Arab allies. Trust means intelligence sharing and discussion of the impacts of alternative actions prior to escalation in the region. Years of relationship building with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and to a lesser extent with Qatar and Algeria are at risk if the US is seen supporting an “eye for an eye” approach with Hamas. The 1,400 civilian and military killed by the Hamas surprise attack will become a distant memory if Israel invades Gaza with scorched earth tactics. Building to building fighting to find and either detain or kill Hamas leaders and soldiers will be costly in terms of time and human capital. Many IDF fighters will be casualties, and the likelihood of Palestinian
civilians being hurt or killed is high. Israel must make their focus first the release of hostages (likely through strong military action), then the capture or kill of Hamas leadership while minimizing the loss of innocent lives, followed by the restoration of services in Gaza. The longer the incursion into Gaza lasts, the greater the chance that Iran will be able to manipulate events through their proxy players in the region to bring the US more directly into the conflict.
The good news is that our forces are trained and have recent experience in such operations. Our intelligence on some things like weapons and ammunition storage facilities is clearly good, but our insights into Hamas leadership locations, intent and future terrorist acts is limited. Politically we need to convince the Israeli government that pursuing a bloodlust strategy is not in their long-term best interests, while supporting their right to self-defense and helping bring Hamas leaders to justice. The bad news is that Israel wants to destroy Hamas so this sort of attack cannot happen in the future. How these are balanced will play out in the days and weeks ahead.