Where Does US-Iran Brinkmanship Leave the Levant?
As tensions between the Trump administration and the Islamic Republic of Iran remain high there is legitimate concern regarding the Levant’s security. In Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine, the Iranian regime is the dominant state-sponsor of a host of “resistance” groups that could target Israel if the US attacks Iran. Furthermore, while the White House propels its campaign of “maximum pressure” against Tehran, a palpable risk of a military confrontation that encompasses Israel along with Iranian-backed groups in Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza looms.
For decades, Iran has been the main driver of anti-Israel “resistance” in countries/territories neighboring the Jewish State. The myriad of non-state actors that Tehran sponsors in Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine could be used to target Israel in reprisal to an attack against Iran. Although Iran obscures its deterrence strategies to sustain an element of surprise, officials in Tehran have affirmed that Israel will bear the consequences of any US attack on the Islamic Republic. Last month’s drone incident near the Strait of Hormuz invigorated the Iranian military’s morale as the episode underscored Tehran’s means to respond to aggression despite the US military’s overwhelming superiority.
Bashar al-Assad’s “victory” in the Syrian civil war suppressed the rise of an anti-Iranian Sunni Islamist government in Damascus that could have jeopardized Iran’s network of proxies and allies from Iraq to Lebanon. Moreover, the past eight years of conflict have further entrenched Iran’s interests and strengthened Tehran’s clout in Syria, enhancing the Islamic Republic’s abilities to strike Israel via Tehran’s proxies in Syria.
Liwa Fatemiyoun, Liwa Zainebiyoun, and Lebanese Hezbollah are among the supreme Shi’a militias that have fought Assad’s enemies to succor the overstretched and fatigued Syrian Arab Army (SAA) reinforce his regime. These Iranian-sponsored non-state actors (made up of Afghan, Pakistani, and Lebanese fighters) have established a strong presence in Syria. In the event of an American-Iranian military confrontation, the Islamic Republic’s leadership would plausibly activate such factions to target Israel’s positions, in addition to American military personnel in Syria. The multitudinous Israeli military strikes against Iranian or Iranian-linked targets in Syria highlight Israel’s determination to impede advanced weaponry from transferring into Lebanese Hezbollah’s hands from Syria.
Put simply, if the US bombed Iran, it is difficult to exclude parts of Syria from becoming a major conflict zone. In the aftermath of Israeli military operations against Iranian targets and interests in Syria, Tehran’s restraint thus far has largely been due to Iran’s interests in accommodating Russia and Turkey. Yet if the US were to attack Iran, such a calculus could change.
Last month, Lebanese Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah warned that the entire Middle East would “erupt” if Iran comes under attack. He went further, asserting that “any American forces and American interests will be permissible” targets. Hezbollah, the prevailing actor in Lebanon, is Iran’s prized strategic asset in the Middle East. Furthermore, Tehran depends on the “Party of God” to maintain strong obviation given Hezbollah’s means to inflict massive damage on Israel.
This Lebanese group, perhaps the world’s predominant non-state military actor, is composed of 30,000 trained fighters and an arsenal that features 150,000 rockets and missiles, plus advanced anti-aircraft capacities, combat drones, and the means to conduct potential seaborne infiltrations of Israel. According to Hezbollah, every inch of Israeli land is within its range.
As demonstrated by its electrifying performance during the 2006 conflict with Israel, Hezbollah managed to shatter the perception of Israeli invincibility and military ascendancy over Arab states and groups in the Levant. Israel perceives Hezbollah as its foremost security threat, leaving the Jewish State uneasy about how the Iranian-backed force would react to any attack on Iran.
The two main Iranian sponsored “resistance” groups in Gaza are Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Although the politics of Syria and Yemen’s ongoing civil wars pitted Hamas and Tehran against each other, the two have reconciled with most experts agreeing that the Palestinian group has re-entered the Iranian-led so-called “axis of resistance”. Concurrently, Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Republic have remained close, and in fact, strengthened ties as a result of strains in the Hamas-Iran relationship.
Although analysts question the likelihood of Hamas launching attacks against Israel in retaliation to any US military strike against Iran, Islamic Jihad may contemplate such bold moves. Besides, last month, a video emerged that was conceivably of Islamic Jihad bombing Israeli tanks with drones, suggesting that the militia has the agency to inflict major damages on Israel if the group saw fit in response to an attack on its sponsor.
Although a US military strike against Iran could trigger retaliatory actions by Tehran’s proxies and allies from Europe to Latin America, the Levant is where a kinetic clash in the Persian Gulf could provoke cataclysmal fighting between Israel and a host of Iranian-backed groups in Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. Part of Tehran’s motivation for investing copiously in its regional proxies pertains to Iran’s interest in strengthening its deterrence capabilities.
As Ynet reported last month, Israeli security officials are increasingly perturbed that the escalating tension between Washington and Tehran could harm Israel, warning that a limited “surgical assault” on Iran could precipitate Tehran to attack Israel via a proxy. As the US and Iran’s brinkmanship continues with neither side willing to cave to the other’s demands, the situation in the Persian Gulf remains vexed. Even if both Washington and Tehran desire to circumvent a war, lack of communication and dialogue has created a precarious environment. Against the backdrop of sabre rattling and escalating tit-for-tat measures, a military confrontation could transpire due to misunderstandings or misinterpretations. Under such circumstances, it seems probable that a more comprehensive conflict could ensue with a significant portion of the Levant suffering from consequential widespread obliteration.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect IRAM’s editorial policy.