While a direct confrontation between Israel and Iran is unlikely in the foreseeable future, the two adversaries share three potential war fronts in Lebanon, Syria, and the Gaza Strip. As tensions increase between Israel and Iran, there is speculation as to which front might witness the next confrontation. Importantly, all these fronts are mutually connected in terms of military strategy and political calculations.
The psychological war has reached unprecedented levels this year as Israel seeks to counter Iranian influence in the Levant and Iran aims to push back on US sanctions and Israeli strikes on Iranian targets inside Syria. From the numerous statements issued by both sides, one can sense an attempt, indeed a threat, that the rules of engagement may potentially be altered.
The former Israeli chief of staff, General Gadi Eisenkot, noted in January before stepping down that “most of the fronts facing Israel are very volatile,” referring to those with Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza, but that there is “mutual deterrence” on each of these fronts despite risks of escalation. Iran’s National Security Council chief, Ali Shamkhani, warned Israel on January 29 that Hamas and Hezbollah are prepared to unleash an “inferno” against Israel.
The Iranian regime, which typically supports its regional proxies, has been increasingly under US and Israeli pressure. Hezbollah was recently the only exception in reversing this trend by announcing, publicly, its readiness to defend the Iranian regime if it comes under direct attack. In a speech on February 6, Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah affirmed that “if America launches war on Iran, [Iran] will not be alone in the confrontation, because the fate of our region is tied to the Islamic Republic.”
However, other allies of Iran in Iraq and Gaza did not go as far as Hezbollah did. In a rather modest endorsement, the Iraq-based Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq movement noted on January 28 through its secretary general, Qais al-Khazali, that if Israel were to attack Lebanon and Syria and “in case they need our help,” then “personally, I will be the first to participate.” He also affirmed that Iraqi retaliation will be “unlimited” only if Israel strikes targets inside Iraq, but he did not refer to any reaction to possible Israeli strikes inside Iran. Last September, Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s defense minister at the time, affirmed that his government retains “total freedom of action, will not limit ourselves to Syria,” commenting on a report about Iranian ballistic missiles deployment in Iraq. In such an atmosphere, it is important to lay out the situation on the three major fronts shared by Iran and Israel.
The Volatile Front in Gaza
While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tends to focus on the Iranian threat in Lebanon and Syria, the Israeli defense and security establishment is primarily concerned about what might happen in the Gaza Strip. The Israeli army’s new chief of staff, Lt. General Aviv Kochavi, recently offered a grim assessment, noting that Israel faces a high risk of escalation in Gaza. This comes as Palestinians in the Strip continue to protest the 12-year Israeli blockade with the March of Return protests along the security fence with Israel. Fearing that the southern part of Israel that borders Gaza might be attacked by rockets and mortar fire, Kochavi ordered the increase of Iron Dome anti-missile batteries from 8 to 10. The Israeli army believes that to bring international attention to the humanitarian plight in Gaza, Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar might encourage militants to launch attacks along the border fence or through one of the cross-border tunnels.
Yet, Palestinian politics in Gaza recently became much more intricate with Hamas’s shifting alliances and the rising influence of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). Hamas is trying to balance its relations with major regional powers that have an impact in Gaza and is actively expanding its connections and contacts with the Egyptian government. Quoting a senior Egyptian intelligence officer, Israeli media reported that Cairo gave Hamas an ultimatum: to choose between taking “orders from Tehran” or continue implementing “the understandings for calm.” Iran, meanwhile, is diversifying its alliances in Gaza and increasingly engaging PIJ, which was behind recent attacks along the border fence with Israel. PIJ might act independently of Hamas and can possibly launch attacks on Israel, which might put Hamas in a difficult spot.
Palestinian politics in Gaza recently became much more intricate with Hamas’s shifting alliances and the rising influence of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ).
Last October, when rockets were launched against Israel from Gaza, Israel held Hamas accountable while acknowledging that both PIJ and Hamas possess these mid-range rockets. At that time, both militant groups denied any involvement in the attack. The same scenario unfolded after two rockets were launched from Gaza toward Tel Aviv on March 14. Israel is expecting Hamas to rein in PIJ, hence applying pressure on both Palestinian factions. There is increasing Palestinian talk1 that Israel is attempting to drive a wedge between Hamas and PIJ.
The ceasefire in Gaza, announced last November, remains fragile. Israel is deterring Hamas by working with Egypt and by allowing aid to go into Gaza, while Iran is propping up PIJ to keep Hamas on its toes. On February 25, PIJ displayed new missile facilities and warned Israel about attacking Gaza: “Our rocket force and missile units will surprise the enemy following any foolish act it may do in the future.” PIJ claimed that these missiles can reach the north-central city of Netanya.
While Gaza is the most vulnerable front where a minor incident can easily escalate to direct confrontation, the growing nuances of Palestinian politics and regional involvement in Gaza might promptly intervene to defuse any potential escalation.
The Relatively Quiet Front in Lebanon
The Lebanese front has been quiet over more than a decade, as the July 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah established mutual deterrence. The last episode of discovering Hezbollah tunnels on the border with Israel showed that both sides have more to lose than gain in a direct confrontation. In a January 26 television interview,2 Hassan Nasrallah assured that Hezbollah made no decision to launch an attack on the Galilee and acknowledged the existence of tunnels, expressing surprise they were not discovered previously by Israel.
The roots of the recent tensions on the Lebanese-Israeli border go back to February 2011, when Nasrallah and former Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak traded threats regarding a potential confrontation. In a public speech then, Nasrallah spoke about a Hezbollah plan to attack the Galilee, which ultimately became a Hezbollah war propaganda tool and a potential revenge plan to the killing of the party’s military leader, Imad Mughniyeh, in Syria in 2008. Hezbollah warned in 2013 that it might combine both fronts against Israel in Lebanon and Syria when Nasrallah spoke about turning the Golan Heights into a “resistance front.” However, in recent years, Moscow sought to establish new rules of engagement between Israel and Iran in Syria, as acknowledged by Nasrallah, who said in his January 26 interview that “Russia can give Israel a margin to act in Syria but cannot open all margins and let them go far.”
Hezbollah seems increasingly focused on domestic politics and the challenges of maintaining deterrence in southern Lebanon.
Hezbollah seems invested in the current status quo on the southern border as Israel, in recent weeks, has been trying to alter these dynamics—an attempt that was incidentally aborted by US officials when Israel sought to punish the Lebanese government for the existence of the tunnels. From a Lebanese perspective, Nasrallah announced in his January 26 interview that Hezbollah “stands behind” the state in all issues related to negotiating the land and maritime border with Israel and will only intervene if the latter launched an attack against Lebanon. Hezbollah seems increasingly focused on domestic politics and the challenges of maintaining deterrence in southern Lebanon. Beyond that, the Shia group took a back seat as Iranian direct involvement expanded in Syria in recent years.
The Risks and Limitations of a Confrontation in Syria
Iran has been gradually expanding its capabilities in Syria by transferring weapons through Iraq, while Israel is increasingly going after the Iranian footprint in Syria. The first Israeli strike on Iranian targets inside Syria was in January 2013 and has gradually increased since then, most notably after the Russian intervention in Syria in 2015. In September 2018, it was announced that Israel had struck 200 targets in the country during the prior 18 months. US intelligence has recently assessed that Israel and Iran are on an inevitable collision course.
However, both Israel and Iran have struggled to attain freedom of action in Syria, a country increasingly under Russian influence. Iranian troops had to retreat from southern Syria last year and Tehran was restricted in its ability to operate or build infrastructure to launch any attack against Israel. Meanwhile, with the US retreat from Syria, Netanyahu is increasingly focused (to the point of wishful thinking) on striking a deal with Moscow to rein in Iranian influence in Syria. In July 2018, the Israeli prime minister was able to secure a Russian commitment to withdraw Iranian forces and their allies “tens of kilometers” away from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, and not from all of Syria, as Israel had hoped. Netanyahu has been questioned by the Israeli Knesset for disregarding a Russian offer to withdraw Iranian forces in return for a partial lifting of US sanctions on Iran. The Israeli prime minister claimed once again, on March 4, that Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed on “the removal from Syria of the foreign forces that came in after the civil war erupted” and that both sides set up “a joint task force … to advance toward this goal.” However, Moscow is not likely to commit to an Iranian withdrawal from Syria without a deal with Washington.
Both Israel and Iran have struggled to attain freedom of action in Syria, a country increasingly under Russian influence.
Iran, meanwhile, is attempting to edge even closer to the Syrian regime. President Bashar al-Assad visited Tehran last month for the first time since the start of the Syrian war and the two countries recently signed 18 business deals. But most importantly, Iran is consolidating its gains and is reportedly forming a new militia under its control in Syria. As Hezbollah does not seem to plan to be involved in Syria in the long term, Iran is forming an alternative military force that might be trained by the Lebanese Shia group.
How Are These Fronts Mutually Connected?
The question of how Iran would respond to an Israeli attack has lingered at least since 2012 and continues until today. Netanyahu’s grandstand that the Israeli navy could act against Iranian oil smuggling reinforces the idea that his government is restrained in its abilities to deter a regional foe. Even Iran’s reaction speaks volumes about this mutual deterrence, with Major General Gholam Ali Rashid, a Revolutionary Guard commander, noting that “we never welcome any war, but we are ready to respond to any invasion. We hope the aggressors do not need to understand this point by trying it and paying a high price.” Such mutual verbal threats reflect the inability to act in a conventional or an asymmetric war.
While Iran aims to expand its regional capabilities, Israel seeks to widen its deterrence net. Israeli efforts to strike Iranian targets, however, have been limited to Syria as Lebanon and Iraq seem off limits due to US redlines. The American presence in Iraq makes Israel less likely to strike and Washington has been aggressive in its diplomacy to defuse tensions on the Lebanese-Israeli border.
While Iran aims to expand its regional capabilities, Israel seeks to widen its deterrence net. Israeli efforts to strike Iranian targets, however, have been limited to Syria as Lebanon and Iraq seem off limits due to US redlines.
Iran is unable to initiate a conventional war with Israel, while Israel fears that Iranian assets could simultaneously move against it on multiple fronts. Both scenarios remain improbable. For now, Iran remains primarily focused on the internal Syrian war rather than on combating Israel in Syria, but this might change once the Syrian war fully comes to an end.
In that sense, these fronts are mutually connected because they all move within the Iranian orbit—though each front has a separate strategic calculation. Hezbollah is less likely to react to an Israeli attack on Gaza or an Israeli strike on an Iranian target in Syria, but Iran can inspire both Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad to simultaneously make trouble on their own fronts. Israel is less likely to initiate a confrontation on more than one front at a time, and unfettered strikes against Iranian targets in Syria have their limits and fall short of challenging Iranian forces and their proxies on the ground. To be sure, the multiple fronts between Israel and Iran give both sides room to maneuver but also limit their ability to alter the rules of engagement.