As Biden warns of wider conflict, Iran’s ‘axis of resistance’ plays with fire
12 January 2024, The Age, by Roger Shanahan
There are growing fears that the war in Gaza is, to borrow US President Joe Biden’s term, metastasising into a regional conflict. In the past 10 days, a senior leader of Hamas and a senior leader of Hezbollah have been killed in Lebanon by Israeli airstrikes, while a US airstrike killed a senior commander of the Shi’a Popular Mobilisation Forces in Iraq. And a letter signed by a dozen nations, including Australia and New Zealand, warned the Yemeni Houthi movement to end their attacks on shipping and to release detained vessels or face the consequences.
In a worst-case scenario, a regional conflict could result in Israeli forces invading southern Lebanon, the 2500 US forces remaining in Iraq being kicked out and those in Syria facing increasing attack, and conflict in Yemen turning the Red Sea into a shipping no-go zone. Mercifully, the most dangerous outcome is also the least likely because it is not in the interests of Iran, the central player in these conflicts through its promotion of and support for the so-called “axis of resistance”.
Iran’s overriding concern is regime stability, followed by establishing regional influence commensurate with its desire to spread the Islamic revolution and its view of itself as the regional first among equals.
One way in which Iran has sought to achieve this is by developing or assisting allies and proxies throughout the region. But having now essentially lost Hamas as an operationally effective partner, Iran will not be keen to have other strategic assets such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen or its various militia allies in Iraq degraded by becoming involved in quixotic attempts to open second fronts in the countries they operate in.
Iran and its partners can achieve their strategic aims by pressuring Israel and the US through relatively limited military action on multiple fronts, that burnish their credentials as the true supporters of Palestinian rights. To engage in a full-scale conflict would be costly for Iran without doing anything to further their strategic aims.
Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah revealed his organisation’s limited strategic aims in a speech on January 7, when he said that its actions on the Israel-Lebanon border were designed to place pressure on the Israeli government through the displacement of civilians in Israel’s north, and to relieve pressure on Hamas by forcing Israel to deploy military assets to the region that otherwise could have been employed in Gaza.
One of the challenges facing Israel, but even more so Washington, is that each of the theatres of conflict – Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq – presents its own challenges when responding to provocations. Hezbollah and Israel have a long history of punch and counter-punch. Though the rules are flexible, they are normally accepted – military or civilian targets will elicit a likely response. The seniority of the individual killed or the nature of the target attacked will also likely determine the nature of the response.
The death of Saleh al-Arouri, the Hamas leader killed in Beirut on January 2, led to a concentrated attack of more than 60 missiles against the Israeli Mount Meron air surveillance base, 7 kilometres from the Lebanon border. In turn, this led to the targeting of Hezbollah senior leader Wissam Tawil, which led to a drone attack against Israel’s Northern Command HQ, some 12 kilometres from the Lebanon border.
These graduated responses, though close to the border and claiming casualties, are still considered within the bounds of acceptable behaviour. The deeper into each other’s territory each side conducts operations, and the higher the profile of the targets they choose, however, the greater the risk that one side over-reaches and the limited conflict spills out into all-out war. But we remain some way from that yet in Lebanon.
The US government has employed the same constrained approach against Iranian-backed Shi’a militias in Syria and Iraq, targeting static positions manned by militia members and advisers. The killing of a militia leader in Baghdad in a US airstrike a week ago was a clear indication from Washington that militias now need to adjust the cost-benefit analysis of future attacks against US forces.
It may well be though, that the Yemen front proves the most challenging. Following an attack on a US warship in 2016, the US issued a successful deterrent message to the Houthis by destroying three of their radar sites with Tomahawk missiles. But the Houthis are more capable and more experienced now than they were then.
Though Washington could deliver a heavy response to the recent attacks on vessels in the Red Sea easily at any time, the Americans are keenly aware that the Houthis still hold crew members from detained vessels, and that they could respond in unconventional ways by launching more missiles at Israel, targeting US allies such Saudi Arabia and the UAE, or killing detained merchant sailors. This could risk further destabilisation in the region.
Having publicly released the letter calling for an end on attacks and the release of the detained vessels, though, the US government cannot now fail to follow through on its threat. As US president Barack Obama learned in 2013, when you draw a line in the Middle East, you need to follow it.
The multiple conflict fronts that have opened up across the Middle East since October 7 present a range of challenges, both singularly and collectively. Though there is little to indicate metastasis will ultimately come to pass, as Biden fears, each threat actor has their own interests distinct from those of Iran that will affect decision-making.
They do, however share the common strategic aim of destabilising the region for as long as Israel remains in Gaza. Until then, it is likely that we will see a continuation of these limited attacks against Israeli assets and those of the US and perhaps their partners. The attacks will be calibrated so that they don’t transgress the unwritten rules of retaliation in the region. But as with all unwritten rules, there is always lots of room for misinterpretation.Article link: https://www.theage.com.au/world/middle-east/as-biden-warns-of-wider-conflict-iran-s-axis-of-resistance-plays-with-fire-20240110-p5ewed.html
Article source: 12 January 2024, The Age, by Roger Shanahan