Iran and Israel are poised for war — in Syria

This article was first featured on The Hill

When it comes to the Middle East the only surprise is when there aren’t surprises. At the moment, the defeat of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) strongholds in Mosul and Raqqa in a force led by Hezbollah and Iraqi troops with U.S. Special Forces has led directly to the elevation of Hezbollah as a military entity since it bore the brunt of the combat burden in Syria and paid the highest price in casualties.

Since Hezbollah is a proxy for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, its enhanced status has given both forces the opportunity for a military buildup on Israel’s northern border. For Israel this emerging reality constitutes a strategic game changer. Ironically the victories over ISIS, have yielded a strategic failure vis-à-vis the Shiites.

In fact, Iran is transferring Sunni populations from areas once held by ISIS and replacing them with Shiites in an effort to maintain territorial continuity between the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea. Paradoxically, this is being done with either the active or passive complicity of the United States. So desirous is the Trump team for a victory over ISIS that is seems willing to allow Iran to reach Israel’s front lines as a consequence. Among Israeli military sources there is the belief in a disparity between Trump’s rhetoric and his actions.

In fact, the success of Hezbollah has had the added benefit of attracting Shiites across the globe to its revolutionary cause. Moreover, Hezbollah has been able to warehouse up to approximately 150,000 missiles, more than exist in European NATO sites. These missiles are targeted at Israeli cities. To make matters even more complicated for Israel’s military leaders, the United Nations has confirmed that the Hezbollah missiles have been placed in schools and the Israeli military reports that missiles are also placed in hospitals and community centers. These places will ensure carnage if destroyed and likely yield an anti-Israel backlash across European and Northern American media outlets.

This human shields issue has been discussed in the United Nations as well as in talks among Israel, Russia and the U.S., but it tends to be ignored when anti-Israel sentiment has an instrument to clobber the Jewish state. However, this factor cannot be ignored by military planners anticipating a preemptive strike against Hezbollah missile sites.

As far as Russia is concerned, Iran has assisted in establishing and reinforcing its presence in Syria. While there is probably no love lost between the two states, there are mutually reinforcing interests.

Russian presence in the region gives Iran an ally with advanced weaponry and a clear, unequivocal reason for the maintenance of its position in the eastern Mediterranean. It appears as if Russia believes Iran is a stabilizing force in the Middle East, notwithstanding Iranian promotion of extremist organizations. This stance is not dissimilar from President Obama’s suggestion that an assertive Iran can counter the aspirations of the Sunni nations, thereby creating a balance of regional power. The fact that this belief has been rendered nugatory by Iranian actions, seems to be ignored or forgotten by U.S. analysts.

From Israel’s point of view, there is a desperate need to convince the Trump administration it is being outflanked and outmaneuvered by a combination of Russian and Iranian diplomacy. First the Iran deal on nuclear weapons and now the acceptance of Iran on the border of Israel. With missiles that can reach every major Israeli city, the Iranians are effectively saying “checkmate.”

Needless to say, Israel will fight to its last citizen in order to challenge the Iranian scenario. But it is still worrisome when one observes the movement of armed forces across the Levant, as well as the capitulation of the U.S. in negotiation.

When Iran and Iraq were preoccupied with the defeat of ISIS, Israel was generally safe from mobilization against it. That condition has changed as quickly as the weather. And whether one agrees or not, Israel will probably be obliged to act against Hezbollah, increasing the chances of all-out war and increasing the odds blood will flow.

Herbert London is the president of the London Center for Policy Research, which conducts research on national security, energy, and risk analysis. He formerly served on the Board of Governors at St. John’s College, the Board of Overseers at the Center for Naval Analyses and the board of the Hudson Institute.