A tunnel explodes underneath the Gaza-Israel border, a surprise resignation throws Lebanon into turmoil, a series of upheavals in the Saudi kingdom and the battle against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq winds down – all this is winding up with a new round of saber-rattling between Israel and Iran and its proxies. Talk of war between elements of the Iran-led coalition and the unlikely anti-Iran alliance of Israel and the Saudis is rife, but a plausible scenario for one breaking out much less. Both sides would like to see someone taking on the other, but none of the parties are at present in a situation where it is their interest to do so themselves.
Here’s where the parties who want war, just as long as someone else is fighting it, are right now.
Iran – For the last six-and-a-half years, the Islamic revolutionary leadership in Tehran has invested heavily in propping up the Assad regime in Syria. This support has taken a variety of forms – “military advisers” from Iran’s Quds Force, the deployment of thousands of Hezbollah fighters, frequent airlifts of weapons landing in Damascus airport, the recruitment of tens of thousands of citizens (mainly Afghan refugees) to fight in Shi’ite militias, and at least a billion dollars of credit to allow Assad to remain solvent. None of this was enough to enable the Syrian president’s eventual victory, but it kept him just about afloat until the Russians arrived in September 2015. Now that Assad’s survival has been ensured, Iran is intent on reaping its reward in the shape of mining concessions for valuable minerals, and the rights to build an airbase on Syrian territory and a military port on its Mediterranean coast.
Israel is both exerting diplomatic pressure and threatening to use military power to prevent Iran from establishing a permanent stronghold in Syria. (This pressure is playing into a power struggle back in Tehran, where rival factions are arguing whether the additional billions that will be needed for building these bases should not go instead to strengthening Iran’s economy at home). Tehran has no interest right now in a war between its proxies and Israel in Syria and Lebanon that would endanger the gains in which it has invested so much. Instead, it would prefer seeing Israel distracted elsewhere and the most convenient place for that to happen would be along Israel’s southern border with the Gaza Strip. A Hamas delegation is currently in Tehran, the second such delegation in a matter of weeks. Hamas and Iran had a falling-out during the Syrian war when Iran was helping the Assad regime butcher hundreds of thousands of Syrian Sunnis, including Hamas’ allies in the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. But now that the war is ending, the ties are being reestablished. Throughout the war, Iran’s support for Hamas’ rivals in Gaza, the more militant Palestinian Islamic Jihad, intensified. Now Iran would be happy for Hamas and PIJ to join forces in provoking some mayhem on the Gaza border, and deflect attention from Syria.
Gaza – Iran’s entreaties notwithstanding, Gaza has its own troubles and while Hamas is happy to reestablish ties with Tehran, the movement’s interests currently lie in Cairo, where its reconciliation agreement with Fatah was signed last month. Egypt wants Hamas to keep the peace in Gaza and to make sure the Strip doesn’t serve the ISIS fighters in Sinai as a logistical hub. If there was any doubt, particularly in Israel, that the reconciliation was yet another doomed-to-fail exercise, along came the demolition on October 30 by Israel of a PIJ cross-border attack tunnel, killing at least 14 PIJ and Hamas members underground. In the past, there would have been no question of such an operation ending without some form of retaliation by Hamas and PIJ. But instead, over a week later, we have yet to see any escalation. Hamas has forced PIJ to keep the unofficial truce that has been in force with Israel since the summer of 2014.
Hamas – The ruling movement in the Strip hasn’t converted to Zionism but the continued closure of Gaza and its worsening economic situation – intensified by the sanctions put in place during the last few months by the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, have led Hamas’ new “prime minister” in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, to the unavoidable conclusion that he must find a way for now of cooperating both with neighboring Egypt and the PA. It was either that or lose any capability of maintaining control in the Strip. Sinwar is a hardliner who sat for many years in Israeli prisons, but he is Gaza-born and understands local politics. Saleh al-Arouri, deputy chief of Hamas’ political bureau, Sinwar’s rival and the leader of the delegations to Tehran, does not have any responsibility for Gaza.
Hamas isn’t giving up its rocket arsenal or tunnel network in the Strip, but it urgently needs to ease humanitarian conditions there and the only way of doing so is by means of an alliance with Egypt and an uneasy rapprochement with the PA. Another round of destructive warfare with Israel will jeopardize the agreement and Sinwar, for now, won’t let that happen and is meanwhile preventing PIJ from retaliating. No matter what Iran wants.
Egypt – Not too long ago, Egypt would have been counted as the major Arab element in the regional anti-Iran coalition. But its ongoing political and economic weakness has forced it to curb its wider designs and focus mainly on skirmishing with ISIS in Sinai, where a few hundred of the militant organization’s fighters are still tying up a large part of Egypt’s huge and well-equipped army. Egypt is probably the only nation that is about to lose out due to the elimination of the ISIS strongholds in Iraq and Syria. The remnants of ISIS are now relocating to neighboring Libya and the organization may focus more of its remaining resources on Sinai. It would have been happy to see others carrying on the wars further afield, while focusing on affairs closer to home. Like Gaza, for example.
Effectively, Egypt has abdicated its historic mission to lead the Arab Sunni camp, leaving the Saudis in charge.
Saudi Arabia – The last few days’ events in Riyadh have astonished veteran watchers of the House of Saud. Multiple arrests over allegations of corruption of once-senior officials, including a number of royal princes; appointments to key positions of men close to Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (aka MBS); a mysterious helicopter crash; and the summoning of Saudi clients such as Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who chose on Saturday to announce his resignation from Riyadh, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas – all this has pundits trying to work out a common motive, aside from just another move by MBS to consolidate his grip over the kingdom.
One popular theory regarding Hariri’s resignation is that he fled to Riyadh, or was ordered there, so he would not be implicated in an impending military attack by Israel on Lebanon, with Saudi backing, or an attack on Iran’s main proxy in Beirut, Hezbollah. The fact that Hezbollah has been accused of an assassination attempt on Hariri strengthened this theory. The Saudis would certainly love to have their Iranian rivals punished at this point, in some way or another, and Hezbollah would be a good target. The regime in Riyadh is in no position to launch a war itself against Iran. For the last two-and-a-half years, the Saudis have been engaging in a war against the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, which has been so unsuccessful that on Friday night, the Houthis were capable of taunting the Saudis by firing a ballistic missile at Riyadh airport. The Saudis are unlikely to risk a cross-Gulf offensive with the much more powerful Iranians. Especially when MBS is so busy with internal politics. But will Hezbollah respond in any way to the accusations?
Hezbollah – After fighting for over six years in Syria as Iran’s vanguard, Hezbollah can credit itself with some impressive victories and has accumulated major experience – both in the use of advanced weaponry, and in the command and control of military formations as large as brigade-size units. But they have lost at least 800 men in the fighting and thousands more have been wounded – totalling about one-quarter of Hezbollah’s original force at the start of the war. Thousands of new conscripts have been trained and sent to Syria but while this has widened the ranks, it has also fed resentment back home in Lebanon where many, including some within the Shi’a community, feel that Hezbollah has long ago ceased to serve as a Lebanese “resistance” force and is now holding the country hostage, in the service of Iran.
Militarily, Hezbollah is in no condition to launch an attack on Israel. It is still fighting in a number of locations in Syria and has to rebuild its units before embarking on a new war. Eighteen months after the death of its military commander, Mustafa Badreddine – almost certainly an assassination carried out by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, at Iran’s urging – a replacement has yet to be announced. Nasrallah has lost the standing he enjoyed in the Arab world following the Second Lebanon War in 2006. He’s no longer seen as the plucky resistance fighter, but rather as the murderer of Syrian resistance fighters. Another war with Israel, with the prospect of rehabilitating his image, may seem tempting, but Nasrallah is aware that his men are not ready and that a devastating response by Israel, targeting Lebanese civilian infrastructure, may actually yield the opposite result, with him being blamed by the Lebanese for yet more suffering. But if Hezbollah is in such a vulnerable position, could Israel be tempted to take advantage of it?
Israel – One thing is almost certain: Even if Hariri and the Saudis thought that an Israeli attack on Lebanon is imminent, it won’t be happening in the next couple of weeks. Israel is currently hosting the largest international military exercise ever to take place in the country, with seven foreign air forces from three continents participating. This is a show of military diplomacy that has been over a year in the planning and the Israel Air Force has little time right now for anything else. War won’t start at least until the end of the month and by then tensions may have died down elsewhere.
For now, however, Israel is interested in keeping the calm around Gaza: Its new underground defense system against Hamas and PIJ attack tunnels is still being deployed and won’t be fully operational for another 12 months. Besides, Israel doesn’t want to interfere with Egypt’s attempts to try and pacify the Strip. The situation with Hezbollah along Israel’s northern border is more complex. Israel has been regularly attacking Syrian targets, usually Hezbollah convoys trying to smuggle advanced weapons back to Lebanon, or military research facilities. Syria has tried a number of times recently to fire rather ineffective missiles at Israeli planes, but beyond that there has been no response from the Assad regime or from Hezbollah. There are some voices in the Israeli security establishment that are in favor of a preemptive strike against Hezbollah’s rocket positions in Lebanon at the present time, but they are in a minority.
Benjamin Netanyahu, for all his anti-Iranian rhetoric, is loath to expand hostilities with Iran’s main proxy, beyond surgical pinpoint attacks. The lessons of 2006 are still fresh in the minds of Israeli military planners, and anyway Netanyahu is much more risk-averse than his belligerent image and has never been a fan of wide-scale operations that necessitate mobilizing the entire army. He would of course be more than happy to see someone else take Iran head-on – like the Americans, for example – but while there has been no lack of anti-Iran rhetoric from the Trump administration either, there doesn’t seem to be an appetite for going beyond a war of words in Washington.
Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said at Chatham House in London Monday that the leaders of Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt had all urged President Barack Obama to bomb Iran early on in his term. But none of them tried to do it themselves. That still seems to be the situation.