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Assessing the Potential Impact of the Gaza War on U.S. Dominance in the Middle East.
The Biden administration's current overriding goal is to ensure that the conflict engulfing Gaza does not escalate into a broader regional war. Through deliberate dialogue with allies and unequivocal public statements, the administration has underscored its commitment to averting the expansion of the conflict. Emblematic of this stance is President Biden's resolute message delivered in Tel Aviv to any potential aggressor: "Don't. Don't. Don't."
In a bid to lend weight to this warning and dissuade potential aggressors, the United States has undertaken a significant military mobilization in the Middle East: The deployment of two aircraft carriers, the USS Ford and the USS Eisenhower, along with the formidable Ohio-class cruise missile submarine, serves as a concrete testament to US readiness. Additionally, the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan marks its presence in the region. Complementing these naval assets is the strategic positioning of US fighter squadrons, strategic bombers, and a robust array of missile defence systems.
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The Biden administration's strategy in the Middle East, when evaluated against the narrow criterion of preventing the Gaza conflict from escalating into a regional war, exhibits tentative success. Yet, this success hangs by a thread. Hezbollah, while not opening a new front, continues to harass the IDF along Israel’s northern border. The Houthis' missile and drone offensives against Israel, though unsuccessful, are a stark reminder of the fragility of the current situation. In Iraq and Syria, persistent attacks on US forces, though they have yet to claim American lives, underscore a simmering risk of escalation. These are not signs of a stability but rather indications of a simmer. The Biden administration could hope this situation will last until Israel reaches its objectives in Gaza.
Merely aiming to avoid a regional war establishes a reactive and ultimately insufficient strategy, vulnerable to failure for several reasons. The situation's resolution doesn't rest with the United States alone. First, Israel is actively working to mitigate the risk of a ground invasion from Hezbollah in the north. Failing to address this threat during the ongoing conflict could escalate the Hezbollah concern into a critical political matter in the likely post-war elections. The residents along Israel's northern frontier, who were evacuated at the war's onset, are closely monitoring the situation, expecting their government to effectively neutralize this danger before they consider returning home.
Secondly, the narrow aim of avoiding a wider war paradoxically makes the United States a target, while ceding the initiative to its adversaries. The Iranian-led axis, keenly aware of Washington's hesitancy to escalate, has seized this as an opportunity to strike at US forces. Aware of the risks, Washington understands that these provocations carry the potential for significant escalation, particularly if American lives are lost. Despite the administration's reluctance to declare the death of a soldier a definitive 'red line', such an incident would undoubtedly prompt calls from Congress and the public for a forceful response. A robust US retaliation would likely prompt a corresponding intensification from Iran and its proxies, creating a cycle of escalation. To avoid this, the administration might find itself under pressure to coax Israel into ceasing its military actions in Gaza, aiming to reduce the risks to American personnel. This is exactly what Iran wants.
Thirdly, the absence of a regional war, while seemingly a success, might lead to a missed historical opportunity to shift the strategic scales against Iran. The focus on the Gaza Strip and the broader Palestinian issue is understandable, yet it is imperative that Washington expands its diplomatic efforts to undermine the Iran-Hezbollah stronghold in Lebanon. The current conflict in Gaza presents the Biden administration with a chance to weaken Tehran's most potent proxy without resorting to military force. Turning this crisis into a watershed moment for regional dynamics requires not just cautious diplomacy but bold American leadership.
Clausewitz reminded us that war is not a mere imposition of will upon a passive entity but a dynamic contest of living, reactive forces. The general, unlike the painter, cannot expect inert material to conform seamlessly to his envisioned design. The adversary, endowed with autonomy, engages in a reciprocal dance of strategy and counterstrategy, ensuring that control is an illusion until the opposition is fully subdued.
In the Middle East, the United States, despite its considerable influence, does not hold absolute control. It can influence the narrative, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken's endeavours have demonstrated in their stabilizing effect, suppuring the delicate relations between Israel and its Arab neighbours. The administration's endorsement of a two-state solution, perceived as a bulwark against the expulsion of Palestinians, has been a source of solace to anxious Arab capitals.
Militarily, the strategic presence of US forces, illustrated by the deployment of the USS Ford in the eastern Mediterranean, has deterred Hezbollah from escalating the conflict further. By such actions, the Biden administration has broadcast a clear message: in times of adversity, it remains a steadfast ally to Israel, committed to its defence.
From the outset, the American stance has been unequivocal in its intent to contain the conflict to Gaza, thereby avoiding a descent into a wider regional war — a war that would divert critical resources and focus away from the challenge posed by China in the Pacific. The war in Gaza has not altered the US's strategic priorities; China remains America's principal concern. The Biden administration's cautious approach to avoiding a broadened crisis in the Middle East is understandable, yet the trajectory of the crisis is not solely within Washington's control.
Iran and the Axis of Resistance are actively seeking to escalate tensions against Israel and the United States, aiming to halt the military campaign in Gaza through a ceasefire or by wearing down the IDF. The strategic attacks on American forces in Iraq and Syria are calculated moves designed to pressure the Biden administration into pressuring Israel for a ceasefire. Meanwhile, Hezbollah's activities along the northern border compel the IDF to deploy significant forces, thereby straining the Israeli economy and limiting Israel's military capacity in Gaza.
Is Iran prepared to risk a regional war to protect Hamas? It's doubtful. Such a confrontation would endanger Hezbollah, the linchpin of the Axis of Resistance, and Iran itself. It would also contradict the strategic intent of Iran in creating the axis, which is to engage adversaries indirectly, thereby insulating Iran from direct threats. Should Iran choose to defend Hamas at the cost of initiating a direct conflict, it would essentially nullify the purpose of having a proxy.
Yet, Iran is also aware that the United States has little appetite for a regional conflict, especially a direct military confrontation. While the US boasts military superiority, any conflict with Iran would likely be prolonged and devastating. Iran's likely response would include launching ballistic missile attacks on US bases, disrupting oil flow in the Persian Gulf, and leveraging its extensive terrorist network to target American interests globally. Such a campaign would significantly strain US military resources and could potentially erode American global deterrence, thereby providing an opening for Beijing to exploit this perceived American vulnerability, possibly igniting a crisis in regions like Taiwan or the South China Sea.
Iran is trying to leverage the US's reluctance to engage in war as a mechanism to save Hamas. By using its proxies to stage attacks on US personnel, Tehran provokes a situation where the US might be compelled to respond forcefully to the loss of American lives. This could set off a chain reaction of military responses, bringing the situation perilously close to full-scale war. Not wanting to risk a regional war, Tehran hopes the US will instead try to pressure Israel to accept a cease fire in Gaza.
Already in the US, various groups are advocating to stop further escalation and prevent a war in the Middle East. They are calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. Although these groups aim to prevent further violence, their approach coincide with the goals of Iran and its allies. Insisting on a ceasefire before Israel has fully addressed the Hamas threat could inadvertently compromise US strategic interests, the security of a crucial ally, and potentially lead to greater regional instability.
For the Israeli public, coexisting with a Hamas-controlled Gaza has become unacceptable. Should the current government fail to address this, it's likely that the Israeli electorate will choose a leadership that will. This could lead to a challenging scenario for Washington, potentially dealing with a more hardline government in Jerusalem. Such a government might not only pursue a complete occupation of Gaza but also seek to alter the situation in the West Bank. A significant segment of the Israeli population might also view an externally imposed ceasefire as a betrayal by the United States, leading to a perception of the US-Israel alliance as a constraint rather than a source of power. In response, Israel might explore aligning with another power, or alternatively, assert its security independence, even at significant economic cost.
Moreover, other Middle Eastern countries might see the United States as an unreliable partner, a 'paper tiger' that threatens action but ultimately capitulates, even turning against an old ally. This perception would be reinforced by memories of perceived American betrayal of Mubarak in 2011 and the decision not to strike Syria in 2013. The current Democratic administration's hesitancy to establish explicit red lines may stem from the Obama administration's experience with the Syria crisis, but for regional actors, American internal considerations are irrelevant. Their focus will be on the US pressuring Israel to cease operations in Gaza, preventing an Israeli victory over Hamas.
The absence of a clear Israeli victory in Gaza will reverberate across the region. If Israel fails to achieve decisive success, Hamas could gain prominence as a symbol of Arab-Muslim struggle against Israel, akin to Hezbollah's rise post-2006 Second Lebanon War. This development might boost Hamas's standing in Arab and Muslim communities and enhance the perceived legitimacy of the Iranian-led Axis of Resistance as defenders of the Palestinians in Gaza. Such outcomes could destabilize Arab regimes in Jordan, Egypt, and Bahrain, who might face challenges from animated Islamist parties inspired by Hamas's triumph. This could usher in an 'Islamist Winter,' a period marked by a surge in Islamist influence, contrasting with the 2011 Arab Spring's democratic aspirations.
Israel and the Northern Problem
Iran's escalatory tactics are pressuring the US, but Israel might widen the conflict for its own security. It is widely acknowledged that Hezbollah forces have been training to invade Israel. Hamas's operations were probably influenced by Hezbollah's tactical plans, a threat Israel cannot ignore, especially after Hamas's massacre.
The exact goals and timing of Israel's response to Hezbollah's presence in southern Lebanon remain uncertain. One potential strategy for Israel might be a substantial assault, including a ground invasion up to the Litani River, with the aim of purging Hezbollah from this area. This approach would likely involve the Israeli Air Force targeting Hezbollah’s infrastructure deep inside Lebanon. However, destroying Hezbollah is an unlikely goal, as this would require occupying large parts of Lebanon, a prospect Israeli decision-makers find unattractive, especially after the occupation of the Gaza Strip.
The post-war status of southern Lebanon is equally uncertain. Israel might consider a permanent presence there to prevent Hezbollah's return, given the ineffectiveness of international forces like UNIFIL. Despite their deployment following Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah has managed to integrate into the Lebanese state, often confronting UNIFIL forces. This failure of international efforts might push Israel towards maintaining control over the region, possibly turning it into a buffer zone. Such a decision, however, is complex. The memory of the prolonged occupation of parts of Lebanon during the 1980s ‘90s looms large for many Israelis, but the absence of viable alternatives could compel Israel to hold onto the territory to preclude further invasions.
A conflict between Hezbollah and the IDF would be catastrophic for both Lebanon and Israel, potentially engulfing the region. While the US might limit its role to intelligence sharing and missile interception, American forces could still face attacks from Iranian proxies. Iran's intervention to protect Hezbollah, its critical ally in the resistance axis, is plausible. Tehran views Hezbollah as a strategic asset, especially against potential American Israeli attack. Consequently, Iran might actively prevent Hezbollah's defeat, even at the risk of direct conflict with Israel.
The US could attempt to forestall a war by assuring Israel of American support in case of a conflict. However, Israel might be skeptical of such guarantees, particularly after witnessing Hamas's capabilities. A refusal to accept anything short of a Hezbollah withdrawal seems likely. Thus, a confrontation between Israel and Lebanon appears inevitable.
A pivot point
War is, undeniably, a horrific ordeal, one that has eternally been so. The grim reality of innocent lives lost, the ruination of homes and livelihoods, and young soldiers meeting their untimely demise in combat — it's unthinkable that anyone would willingly pursue such a path. What level of cruelty and callousness must one possess to consciously initiate conflict? Otto von Bismarck, the formidable Iron Chancellor of Germany, once profoundly stated, "anyone who has once looked into the glassy eyes of a dying warrior on the battlefield would think twice before beginning a war."
However, in situations where war is thrust upon us, it becomes imperative to navigate it strategically. The current conflict in Gaza presents the United States with a pivotal opportunity to redefine the dynamics in the Middle East, expand its sphere of influence, and strategically position itself for any potential future crises, particularly those that might arise in East Asia.
An Israeli victory over Hamas would demonstrate to the global community that conventional armies can indeed defeat terrorist organizations and guerrilla warfare. This point has become somewhat obscured following the Taliban's victory in Afghanistan. A win for Israel would not only diminish the credibility of terrorist groups but also expose their vulnerabilities, even amid the complexities of urban combat.
Additionally, an Israeli victory could weaken the broader Axis of Resistance by dislodging Hamas, its primary Sunni component. Without Hamas, the axis would likely struggle to gain traction among Sunni Arabs and to incite Palestinian unrest in areas like Judea and Samaria.
An Israeli victory would reassert Israel's standing as a military power, capable of self-defence and resilience against attempts to destabilize it through terror or warfare. This outcome could pave the way for increased normalization and genuine peace efforts between Israel and its neighbouring states. The people of the area will see once more that Israel will not be removed by force, and they must come to terms with it.
The consequences of the conflict in Gaza also extend far beyond the Middle East, also concerning the US stance vis-à-vis China. Should a major crisis erupt in East Asia, the US could be challenged by having to address threats on multiple fronts. Iran, known for its strategic opportunism, might seize such a moment to expand its influence or initiate disruptive actions in the Middle East. This could manifest in increased support for proxy conflicts, interference with vital oil shipping routes, or escalating tensions with US allies, complicating America's diplomatic and military responses. However, if Iran's influence in the Middle East is diminished, due to an Israeli victory over Hamas, this would significantly alleviate the pressure on the US Iran's reduced capacity to destabilize the region would allow the United States to concentrate its diplomatic and military efforts on an East Asian crisis.
But for Israel to win, the US must stop the dangerous escalation game Iran and its proxies are playing. The Biden administration's primary commitment should be the protection of American safety, whether civilians in Israel or military personnel stationed in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. presence in these countries is not for occupation purposes but to prevent the resurgence of ISIS, and any attacks on U.S. forces contravene American national interests.
The U.S. may consider a calculated response strategy that escalates in three phases, focusing primarily on Iran. Attacking Iranian proxies will achieve little – Tehran has no problem sacrificing its proxies’ soldiers for its strategic advantage. But Iran does care about its own military personnel, as well as the survival of the Islamic regime.
The first phase should involve targeting high-ranking Iranian officials operating outside of Iran, particularly in Syria. This includes the successor to Quds Force commander Qassam Soleimani and IRGC commanders stationed in Syria. Should the US seek Plausible Deniability, it could provide intel to local partners that will carry out the attacks on their own.
If Iranian-backed attacks persist, the U.S. might consider escalating its response by targeting the Quds Force and IRGC facilities within Iran itself. This action, given the IRGC's designation as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and its critical role in supporting groups that have targeted American interests, would mark a significant escalation. Such a move would not only disrupt Iran's military capabilities but also challenge Tehran's long-held belief in the impunity of its proxy actions.
If Iran fails to de-escalate despite these measures, the United States may need to escalate to the third phase, involving targeting of senior Iranian officials within Iran. This strategy is based on the premise that the Iranian regime is fundamentally rational and prioritizes its own survival. Historical examples, such as Iran's cessation of its military nuclear program in 2003 due to concerns about a potential U.S. invasion, reinforce this rationale. Implementing such targeted measures would unequivocally communicate the serious consequences Iran faces for continuing its support of the Resistance Axis.
Throughout, the U.S. should communicate, both privately and publicly, that its objective is not to wage war against Iran, but to protect its forces and interests. The decision then falls to Iran, weighing the continuation of aggressive actions against US forces vs. the existential risk to the regime.
Finally, the Gaza conflict also presents a chance to address another Iranian proxy – Hezbollah. This organization has long claimed to protect Lebanon, but in the wake of Hamas' actions, Hezbollah might be leading Lebanon towards a catastrophe. If Israel is unwilling to tolerate Hezbollah’s threat on its northern border, both Hezbollah and Lebanon face two choices: retreat from the border or risk full-scale war.
The U.S. could offer a diplomatic solution. First, the Biden administration should convey to both the Lebanese government and Hezbollah leadership that Israel intends to forcefully address Hezbollah's threat if necessary. To prevent conflict, the U.S. might propose Hezbollah’s withdrawal to north of the Litani River and suggest a similar move for Lebanon's military. Additionally, involving Saudi Arabia and France could help pressure Beirut and Hezbollah into agreement. In return, the U.S. could offer to mediate between Israel and Lebanon, aiming to resolve their land dispute and reach a peace agreement that includes disarming Hezbollah. This approach could follow the pattern of the U.S.'s successful maritime border mediation in 2022.
Israel would likely agree to this deal. Demilitarizing southern Lebanon would reduce invasion threats and spare Israel from war. A peace agreement that leads to the dismantling of Hezbollah would be a significant gain for Israel, particularly if it includes supervision of the disarmament process by a trusted ally. Israel might favour involving a friendly Arab nation, like the UAE, to oversee the demilitarization of southern Lebanon.
For Lebanon, disarming Hezbollah would save it from a devastating war and decrease Iranian influence in the country. While Hezbollah might reject such a deal, it will only show how little it cares about the Lebanese people safety and wellbeing. In any case, even a demilitarization of Southern Lebanon would be enough to relive tensions and avert a new war in the region.
The current Middle East crisis could either escalate into a wider regional conflict or mark a pivotal moment for U.S. leadership in the area. Adopting a reactive stance risk escalating tensions, unintentionally sparking a regional war, and potentially leading to a Hamas victory. Conversely, proactive American leadership would ensure an Israeli victory, deal a significant blow to Iran, and re-establish the United States as the key player in the region.
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