On the Brink

The withdrawal of US troops from Syria will create a significant strategic space for Iran. Prof. Giancarlo Elia Valori explains how this move could lead to an all-out war between Israel and the Shi’ite axis. Opinion

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei with Iran's top military officers (Archive photo: AP)

The withdrawal of the 2,000 US soldiers from their current positions in Syria – an operation that continues at considerable speed – is creating a significant strategic space for Iran.

President Trump also claims he wants to keep an indefinite amount of US soldiers in Iraq, just to control Iranian movements and developments toward the Syrian border with Iraq.

Hence it is quite probable that, in the near future, the already evident tensions between Hezbollah and Israel on the Bekaa-Golan border could explode. In this case, the clash could certainly involve also the Iranian forces, as well as Bashar al-Assad’s ones and even other Sunni and Lebanese groups stationed in that area.

In this phase, the primary goal of the Lebanese Shi’ite “Party of God” and of Assad’s himself – who can no longer say no to Iran – is to provide effective missiles to the Lebanese and Iranian-Syrian forces to hit the positions in northern Israel.

And later possibly shift from the control of the Bekaa-Golan axis directly into the Jewish State.

In this phase, however, Iran wants to avoid a conventional confrontation with Israel and its US allies.

Currently, also in the areas it currently holds in Syria, Iran is interested only in its traditional asymmetric war, which enables it to have a low-cost clash with the minimum use of its forces.

This, however, does not enable us to think about an Iranian war against Israel that is only at low intensity: we should recall the operations of the Iranian UAV in the Israeli airspace of February 2018 or the many missile test launches in June 2018.

The Jewish State also does not want an open clash. In fact, since 2013, Israel has carried out over 230 operations in Syria, especially against the trafficking of arms for Hezbollah, in addition to many operations – in the “war between wars” – against the Iranian bases in Syria at least since 2017.

In the statements made by Hassan Nasrallah in February 2019, however, Hezbollah maintained that if there were a clash between the Shi’ite “Party of God” and Israel, it would not be necessarily confined to the Syrian-Lebanese or to the Lebanese-Israeli system, but it would immediately involve all the “voluntary” forces of the Arab world.

All the organizations that, in various capacities, are part of the Iranian system between Lebanon and the Sunni area south of Israel will certainly be used by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards to operate against the Jewish State in an integrated way.

The “corridor” between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Lebanon – which is the Iranian target in the Syrian war – is the axis along which all future operations against the Jewish State will take place. It is a broad and very difficult front to hold for both sides, namely Israel and Iran.

Hence, in principle, future scenarios could be the following: (a) a conventional war in northern Lebanon, with the participation of Hezbollah, Iran, the Hamas network already present on the Litani River, and some Syrian groups; or (b) a clash on the Bekaa-Golan border initially focused on the Syrian territory, thus leaving Southern Lebanon free for a possible secondary attack on Israel, at a later stage of operations.

This war against Israel would clearly be waged by Bashar al-Assad’s forces, by the Iranian Pasdaran, Hezbollah, the Shi’ite groups on the Syrian border, as well as Hamas and the Southern Sunni Islamic Jihad, and, in all likelihood, also by the pro-Syrian groups present along the border of the Palestinian National Authority with the Jewish State.

Finally, there could be (c) a “dual war” in Lebanon and Syria at the same time, with the further and subsequent support of Hamas and Islamic Jihad attacks on Israel from the South.

It should also be recalled that the Houthi guerrillas in Yemen are already capable of blocking the Israeli maritime interests in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and across the Red Sea. Not to mention the always possible Iranian missile attacks from Iraq toward the Jewish State, thus probably resulting in further attacks on the remaining US units between Syria, Iraq, and Jordan.

In this case, only two considerations can be made: Israel’s future war in Lebanon would certainly be less limited than the operations already carried out from 1978 to 1982 until 2000 (the stabilization of Hezbollah) and the war of 2006.

We can also add that the Iranian, Sunni and Syrian forces will shift – as quickly as possible – from an attack against Israel's critical infrastructure to a real counterforce occupation on the ground.

However, will Hezbollah and the Iranian centers of gravity, as well as those of the Sunni forces in Lebanon, be quickly identified by Israel in an upcoming attack?

In the future, is it not ever more probable to have a wide area of action from the north, which will imply – from the very beginning - Hezbollah, Syrian and Iranian positions all along the Syrian border with Israel?

Moreover, what will the Russian Federation do? Will it want to be hegemonic throughout the Middle East and hence will it reach a sort of agreement with Israel, or will it choose the old strategic posture of acting as the defender of the Arab world against the Jewish State? Where would Russia go with such an old and weak geopolitical perspective?

Whatever happens, the Russian Federation will be the keystone of every operation between Israel, Lebanon, and the Syrian-Iranian axis.

Therefore, Russia has only two options: either it steps aside in the future Syrian-Lebanese-Israeli conflict, and hence runs the risk of losing all of its power in Syria as well, or it chooses to take part in the clashes, possibly indirectly, to favor one party or the other, but only at the right time.

In the future, however, Russia will never do anything to trigger the Syrian fuses again.

Every war operation across Syria runs the risks of undermining above all Russia’s new strategic assets.

In a short time, however, the United States could support the Israeli missile defenses. Later, Russia could support Iran and Syria only to be consistent and fulfill a commitment made, thus preventing them from using the advanced Russian weapons on Assad’s territory. Furthermore, the United States could support Israel, but also an international diplomatic effort that would turn the clash into a short war, without Israel’s "access to the extremes," in the customary style in place since 1973.

At that juncture, Israel could choose to weaken the enemy forces systematically, or to divide the opponents, according to the strategy of the Horatii and the Curiatii or of the “distant friend.” Or, as it has already proven it can do, Israel can destabilize Syria and possibly even Iraq on the border of Iraq with Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

The extent to which Israel can still trust the United States in this operational and strategic choice is largely uncertain, if not unlikely.

If possible, in the future Israel can organize only a cold peace with Russia, thus increasing its possibility to put pressure on the Russian Federation, also at military one.

The first rule for the Jewish State will always be to avoid splitting and fragmenting its forces. Hence it will always primarily need to immediately identify the enemy’s center of gravity, although complex and resulting from alliances between different strategic aims.

What can Hezbollah alone do in this phase? The “Party of God” could avoid bringing the clash with Israel to Southern Lebanon, so as to avoid turning its primary assets into relatively easy targets for Israel.

A movement like the Shi’ite “Party of God,” but without a Lebanese hinterland or a cover area between the Litani River and Beirut, does not stand a chance and is defeated at the outset.

How much would Syria participate in the operations against Israel? Probably, as much as to be able to decide the political effects of the war on its border with Lebanon, but never so much as to use up its forces, in view of a destabilization of the Golan region.

Furthermore, how and to what extent would Iran arm the Houthi with a view to stopping the Israeli supplies in the Red Sea?

Is it possible that the Houthi’s primary goal for Iran is to keep Saudi Arabia away from the new war in Lebanon?

Would Iran better use them solely for putting pressure on Saudi Arabia, especially pending a Shi’ite uprising from Bahrain, so as to later reach the Saudi provinces – with a Shi’ite majority – of Baharna, al-Qatif and Al- Ahsa, with the powerful and hidden Twelver Shia community of the Nakhawila, who have always lived in Medina?

You cannot do everything at the same time.

Alternatively, Iran and Hezbollah could opt for a low-medium intensity “long war” on the Israeli borders.

As far as we currently know, Hezbollah has not yet clear ideas in mind.

This Shi’ite movement is ever more the result of the many tensions within the complex and now fragmented Iranian regime. 

According to the most reliable sources, the Lebanese Shi’ite “Party of God” has at least 110,000 missiles and rockets on the border with Israel.

Iran has at least 3,800 of them between the Litani border and the Bekaa-Golan axis.

Nevertheless, 80% of these Iranian missiles cannot yet reach the Israeli territory while ensuring operational safety and security.

Apart from those left by Russia – and closely monitored by it – Syria still has few missiles of its own, all controlled directly from Moscow’s Aerospace Forces Center.

Obviously, the only potential that Hezbollah can use is currently its missile and military system in Southern Lebanon.

Iran also closely monitors Southern Lebanon and, as far as we know, it has a dual command chain for the most relevant missiles.

Hence, time is short for a “war between wars” of the Lebanese, Iranian and Syrian Shi’ites against Israel.

Nevertheless, while Hezbollah’s center of gravity is so evident and small – and Lebanese only – Israel can always attack massively and in a very short time, thus blocking Hezbollah’s response and implicitly threatening any Lebanese Shi’ite allies.

Hence, for the “Party of God” the problem is also to be ready for an effective war against Israel, but without ever involving the Lebanese territory, which could become a necessary safe haven after the first Israeli salvos.

Therefore, a concrete possibility is that Hezbollah, Iran and a part of Syria create their guerrilla groups along the Bekaa-Golan and Iraq-Lebanon “corridor,” with a view to distributing the efforts against Israel and avoiding the immediate elimination of their center of gravity by Israel.

There are currently around 20,000 Shi’ite foreign fighters in Syria, although Iran has always claimed to have called and trained at least 180,000.

Hence an inevitably slow mobilization – an easy goal of interdiction by the Israeli Air Force.

However, Hezbollah's missiles alone are enough to saturate Israeli defenses. Despite the recent Iranian support, the salvo quality and accuracy still leaves something to be desired.

Currently, the only possibility for Iran and the Shi’ite Lebanon against Israel is to launch a limited attack and then use diplomacy and the international business and influence networks to contain and curb the strength of Israeli response.

Hence, a good possibility for the Jewish State is to exploit or support Iran's tendency to trigger a non-conventional conflict, but with the obvious possibility that, from the very beginning, the Syrian or Lebanese conflict may expand directly also onto the Iranian territory.

Hence, we could think of a further effort by Israel to “keep the Americans in,” but even the “Russians in” – just to paraphrase what Lord Ismay said about NATO – as well as to move Hezbollah away from the border line of the Litani River and the Bekaa-Golan axis, well over the 80 kilometers already requested by Israel.

If Russia remains in Syria, as is now certain, it will have no interest in a long war in Syria or Lebanon.

Hence, it could slowly separate its forces from the Shi’ite and Syrian ones, or ban some areas to the Shi’ite guerrillas that Iran has already called in Syria.

The Israeli military, however, has already signaled the presence of Iranian forces from the border with Israel to northern and eastern Syria, with a strong Syrian-Lebanese and Iranian military pressure that will almost certainly take place around the upcoming Israeli elections of April 9.

Shortly afterward, Israel shall assess President Trump's proposal for a definitive peace between the Jewish State and the Palestinian world. A peace that will change the whole strategic formula of the Greater Middle East.

Hence, it is not hard to foresee that the Gaza Strip will become an area of overt and full-blown war, put in place by Palestinians and their Iranian supporters.

Over the last few days, major incidents have already occurred at the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel. Therefore, the electoral tension in Israel will be a further trigger of very strong and future political-military actions in the north and in the south.

At the northern border, between Bekaa and Golan, there will be further tensions that will lead to actions by Shi’ite guerrilla organizations on Israeli territory.

Both Hezbollah and the Al Quds Brigades will choose the right time to hit the Jewish State with their missiles, obviously when the tension with the Gaza Strip reaches its peak. Or, and it is not an alternative option, along the border between the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and Israel.

There is nothing to prevent the Shi’ite organizations from using Russian positions as shields, which will obviously never participate in the operations of their Syrian-Iranian or Lebanese allies against Israel.

During the Israeli electoral period, the Palestinian jihadist organizations will operate especially in the Judea and Samaria region. They will possibly be even supported by the Russian Federation, which still plays the card of Palestinian unity both to compete with Iran and to organize the support for Russia by the Sunni world.

Nevertheless, nothing prevents us from thinking that Russia also has some political “champion” within the Israeli electoral campaign.

Not surprisingly, the first Conference on Middle Ease security was held in Warsaw on February 13, with as many as 60 countries invited and the initial proposal for mediation by the United States.

Nevertheless, precisely on February 11-13, a new inter-Palestinian Conference was organized in Moscow, with the participation of Hamas and other groups of the Sunni jihad.

What does Russia want to obtain from these operations?

Firstly, Russia wants to avoid a new Iranian hegemony in this region that Russia has always nurtured. For obvious purposes, which have little changed since the end of the Cold War.

Secondly, the Russian Federation wants to win the geopolitical support of this unified Palestinian region, with a view to becoming the real broker of a new Middle East peace, thus ousting both the United States and the much sillier “mediators” of the unaware and now comical Union European.

Hence, the Russian Federation’s bet is minimax, as we would say in mathematical terms: to reach the primary goal, that is the Russian hegemony over the whole Middle East, with the minimum effort – i.e., the systematic negotiation with all actors.

In all likelihood, Russia will ask the Jewish State to reduce the military pressure eastwards and southwards, but only to replace it with its own future “deterrence force” at the edges of the various borders.

Obviously, by using all Russia’s allies.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu will discuss these issues in his upcoming meetings with President Putin in Moscow on February 21.

However, Syria and Iran will certainly not be the only topics of the bilateral talks with President Putin.

Hence, as already said, the Iranian and the Lebanese Shi’ite forces, the proxies of the Shi’ite guerrillas that Iran has called in Syria, the Iranian Special Forces and those of Bashar al-Assad are moving away from the border with Israel to gather in northern and eastern Syria, up to the border with Iraq.

This is really bad news for the Israeli decision-makers.

Currently, Iran – with its “revolutionary” groups called from Afghanistan, Iraq and even Pakistan – but also the Hezbollah and the Pasdaran special units, are quickly moving away from the Golan region and hence become hard to be attacked by the Israeli forces.

This obviously happens because of the USA leaving its positions – a withdrawal that Iran wants to capitalize quickly and fully, thus removing forces from Syria and, hence, reaching full strategic depth in Iraq, a country from which Iranian missiles can still reach the Israeli territory.

Iran’s plan is therefore to leave the various militias, its Shi’ite proxies and a part of Hezbollah on the Syrian-Israeli border, as if they were various buffer areas, so as to later protect itself permanently from the Israeli attacks and anyway make it hard for the Israeli forces to control northern Israel militarily.

Said forces could not control remote operations, if not when it is too late.

Hence, Israel is currently the primary target of the missiles owned by the Palestinian jihad, both in the south and in the east, as well as of the Iranian and Shi’ite forces in Iraq, of Hezbollah in the north and of Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Not to mention the Iraqi networks of Iran and part of its Shi’ite proxies.

It will be a war on several fronts and with centers of gravity other than the usual ones.