Foreign Policy Blogs

Another War in the Middle East?

The sudden resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Sa’ad al-Hariri on October 4, 2017 from Riyadh appears to have taken by surprise just about everyone in the Middle East.  The significance of Hariri’s announcement taking place not in his own capital but rather in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia was lost on virtually no one. As speculation that Hariri was either forced into resigning and/or is currently being held against his will has mounted, savvy observers have concluded that the decision reflects the Saudi will as much as it reflects Hariri’s own thinking.

But as is usual in the Middle East, other regional developments factor heavily into the actions that produce headlines.  With Raqqa no longer in the hands of the Islamic State and the city of Deir Elzour having fallen to the Syrian army, Saudi Arabia may have finally conceded that the Syrian conflict is a lost cause and is instead looking for other battlegrounds on which it can confront Iran, its bitter rival for regional hegemony.

Thus, a second theory that has circulated and swirled like a hurricane in the days that followed Hariri’s resignation is that the move portends a new conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.  With the region a perpetual tinderbox and both Israeli government officials and Hezbollah leaders long musing publicly about what their next battle would look like, Hariri’s surprise move could be the casus belli, or at least an opening salvo, that leads the region into its next confrontation.

For years now, Saudi Arabia and its allies have long warned of Iran’s aims of forming a Shiite Crescent that stretches from Tehran to Beirut, passing through Baghdad and Damascus en route.  But while Saudi calls received little purchase just a few years ago, today’s Middle East may produce a different and much more dangerous outcome.

For starters, while the Obama administration was notoriously cool toward Saudi Arabia and hesitant to get involved in another conflict, the current Administration has engaged in far more bellicose rhetoric and signalled that it is firmly in the Saudi corner.  Russia, once an afterthought in the region, has in the intervening years become a dominant player, not only in Syria but via political and commercial overtures elsewhere in the region including Iran, Saudi Arabia, and even the UAE.  Turkey, once a reliable NATO ally, now may be closer in its thinking to the Russian bloc than to its erstwhile friends in America.  The Iraqi army has seemingly foiled Kurdish plans for independence and the Islamic State appears to be in its waning days in both Iraq and Syria.  Perhaps most importantly, Saudi policy is now in the hands of the young Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has demonstrated his willingness to take on enemies at home and abroad with fervor.

In the recent past, Hezbollah and Israel have engaged in two wars, both in 2000 and 2006, with sparks in both instances provided by Hezbollah’s overreach at times when Israel would have been content to delay confrontation.

While the United States has typically sought to balance its close relationship with Israel with a desire to avoid getting embroiled in such conflicts, the next confrontation may be different.  This past October 23 marked the 34th anniversary of bombing the US Marine Base in Beirut in 1983, an attack—blamed by the US government on Hezbollah, although never claimed by the group– that led to the death of 241 American and 58 French soldiers.  US Vice President Mike Pence issued fresh warnings to Iran and Hezbollah the same day, saying: “Thirty-four years ago today, America was thrust into war with an enemy unlike any we had ever faced. The Beirut barracks bombing was the opening salvo in a war that we have waged ever since — the global war on terror.”

Pence said that the American administration has redoubled its commitment to “cripple Hezbollah’s terrorist network and bring its leaders to justice.” This bellicose rhetoric, in which Pence said that the US will be “fighting terrorists on American terms and terrorists soil” was taken by many in the region as yet another signal that war is shimmering on the horizon. Pence added that Islamic terrorism “is a hydra with many heads, striking London, Paris, Barcelona. No matter what name they choose to go by or where they try to hide, this President and our armed forces are committed, as the President said in his own words, to destroy terrorist organizations and the radical ideology that drives them — and so we will”.

Such a war would present a perilous series of pitfalls for all involved.  The Hezbollah of today is not the same group it was in 2006, let alone in 2000.  With the group’s fighters having gained battlefield experience over several years of fighting in Syria, along with expectations that it has received far more advanced weaponry from Iran, any conflict would almost certainly prove far more deadly than previous encounters.

Last September, Israel carried out its largest military drills in 20 years along its northern border, which lasted for ten days and simulated an attack against Hezbollah inside Lebanon. The drill was then described as a response to a “significant threat to Israel and especially the home front”.

Israel would likely seek to deploy its ground forces reach the Litani River in southern Lebanon, the zone it occupied from 1982 to 2000 that represents Hezbollah’s heartland.  Israeli air strikes would aim to prevent Iranian and Hezbollah production of precise surface-to-surface missiles that can travel long distances, reaching its most dense population centers in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.  As in previous wars, Israeli strategy would seek to minimize any damage that would be inflicted upon its forces and civilians in northern Israel.

The question is whether such a conflict will occur due to an unexpected spark arising from miscalculation, or whether Israel—emboldened by its newfound, if unacknowledged, alliance with Saudi Arabia and tacit backing from the United States–will act deliberately, this year or next, to pre-empt Hezbollah’s ability to further develop weapons that threaten the Jewish State.  Though Israel has previously sent messages to Hezbollah in the form of airstrikes on its weapons convoys in Syria, this time it may opt “to launch a pre-emptive strike on the production facilities in Lebanon”.

The confluence of these changes in the region and the aggressive rhetoric of all parties form a maelstrom that, sadly, looks to be propelling the Middle East toward yet another war.  Any conflict between Hezbollah and Israel would not be contained, but rather would affect surrounding countries including Syria, Jordan, and the two countries using the Israeli-Lebanon arena as a proxy battlefield, Iran and Saudi Arabia as well.  This next war, whose drums are now beating steadily, will be more destructive than its predecessors and will once again re-draw the ever-shifting map of alliances and rivalries in the region.

Shehab al-Makahleh is an author and analyst of terrorism, military, and security affairs in the Middle East and co-founder of Geostrategic Media and is based in the UAE and Jordan.

 

Maria al-Makahleh is a political commentator, researcher, and expert on Middle Eastern affairs based in Russia, and serves as President of the International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub) in Moscow.