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  Opinion   Columnists  17 Apr 2024  Syed Ata Hasnain | As tensions rise, limits to escalation in Middle East

Syed Ata Hasnain | As tensions rise, limits to escalation in Middle East

Syed Ata Hasnain, a retired lieutenant-general, is a former commander of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps. He is also associated with the Vivekananda International Foundation and the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.
Published : Apr 18, 2024, 12:00 am IST
Updated : Apr 18, 2024, 12:00 am IST

The Middle East conflict is complex, with Iran and Israel adopting strategies to neutralize each other

A woman walks past a banner depicting launching missiles bearing the emblem of the Islamic Republic of Iran in central Tehran. (Image: AFP)
 A woman walks past a banner depicting launching missiles bearing the emblem of the Islamic Republic of Iran in central Tehran. (Image: AFP)

The fascinating thing about the emerging situation in the Middle East is that there are a large number of diverse opinions on the progression of the various conflicts.  Their complexities make any assessment a serious challenge. While the Arab (Palestinian)-Israeli conflict is well understood, not too many analysts have bothered to clarify the backdrop to the Iran-Israel enmity and the strategies that both have adopted over the years to neutralise each other. Since the two nations do not have a common border, the nature of the standoff is also quite different to what is commonly understood about conflicts. The normal perception about war and conflict is about land and borders in contention. That is not true here, and it’s important to understand that. Iran’s intent, ever since the Islamic revolution in 1979, has focused on espousing the Palestinian cause. It feels that the Arabs have done little and virtually supplicated to Israel due to repeated military defeats which they suffered at its hands, and to enable the feathering of their nests while they enjoy the hydrocarbon boom. Iran chose to fight Israel differently -- by proxy without direct use of its own human resources. Three areas with specific proxies were chosen for this. The first is the Syria-Lebanon area, with a border with Israel: Hezbollah and the Syrian Army have acted as proxies here against Israeli interests. The second is the Gaza Strip, where Iran supports Hamas and its various activities to keep Israel unsettled. The third is a comparatively faraway location -- South Yemen -- where the Houthi militias fight Iran’s nemesis Saudi Arabia, but are ever ready to join any conflict to harm Israeli interests. In recent months, the Houthis have made efforts to deny Israel its energy supply which comes through the Gulf of Aden-Red Sea route. It has even fired missiles at the southern Israeli port of Eilat. While Iran has a large military of almost 550,000, it also has the supplementary strength of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) -- around 150,000 -- which is responsible for Iran’s trans-national regional interests. Within that is the Quds Force, that conducts intelligence and covert operations and is thus largely involved with the proxies that it controls. Iran has deliberately raised and organised a large missile and rocket force over the last 35 years, taking assistance from North Korea, China and Russia; these vary in quality from the rustic, crude and obsolete to modern ones.  A large number of these rocket and missile resources are deployed in Syria, Lebanon and some even in the Gaza Strip, from where Israel has often been targeted. Iran has in recent years chosen to indigenously manufacture armed drones and add them to the capability of the proxy forces which operate these resources.

The question put to me very often in the past few days is why Israel keeps targeting the various bases, resources and human elements in the Levant (Lebanon, Syria and Northern Iraq). It last hit the Iranian consulate in Damascus by an airstrike on April 1, which became the trigger for the current exchanges. Actually, Israel perceives that if the IRGC and Quds Force elements are allowed to settle in this region and stabilise themselves with effective networks, Israel would be inviting a major problem for itself. It would be a virtual extension of Iran in close proximity to the Israeli border, thus enhancing the scope of the Iranian proxy offensive activity. Hence the concentrated Israeli focus on intelligence acquisition and directing of strikes against high-profile targets. For Iran it becomes a compulsion to respond if it is struck because of the muscular approach that it has adopted all these years, as against the benign Arab strategy of ignoring the Palestinian cause in favour of an arrangement such as the Abraham Accords. The Iranian response can be tempered in different ways and not just remain a tit-for-tat one. However, in the context of the war in Gaza, Iran would like to keep Israel’s northern front unpredictably active. The reasons are simple: divert attention from the south and force Israel to keep the full strength of its mobilisation active. The latter is an expensive proposition for Israel and creates problems in its relationship with the United States.

In the present case, where Iran decided to respond in a calibrated way with the 300-odd rockets, missiles and drones, many perceive that Israel’s ability to intercept 99 per cent of these was a major victory. In this kind of warfare, defining victory is itself a challenge. Air or missile strikes and responses are not designed for quick fix solutions involving military victory. A school of thought ascribes the Israeli success to the deliberate strategy followed by Iran in using slow flying drones to alert Israeli forces, followed by low profile missiles to draw fire of the sophisticated Iron Dome systems, leading to the high percentage of interceptions. Iran’s strategy was to apparently demonstrate capability and resolve, just as it did against the US airbase that it struck in January 2020. A response of convenience designed to give scope for rhetoric without actually achieving effect through inflicted casualties appears to have been the Iranian strategy.

Media reports talk of the Israelis having junked US advice not to retaliate and will respond in due course, in intensity and a time of its choosing. However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be putting Israel to greater risk if this retaliation leads to escalation across Lebanon, Syria and northern Iraq. Its northern border is not a situation of comfort in Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza. For the US, a continued escalation adversely affects the Democrats’ aspirations in the presidential race. If Mr Netanyahu listens to some hawkish elements in the IDF, he could agree to target Iran’s nuclear assets under development. This, however, may not be achievable without US assistance, and the US is likely to hold back on this.

If the escalation comes or does not in the form of an Israeli response to the multiple missiles targeting its territory, the impact of the recent events will not be helpful towards bringing about a ceasefire in Gaza. It has intensified tensions. It will, however, be beneficial to Mr Netanyahu in terms of elongating his political life. However, the longer his presence persists and operations in Gaza are conducted without thought to the human aspects, the sympathy factor for Israel is only likely to dwindle. Israel purportedly believes in proactiveness. If it could proactively lower the intensity of its operation in Gaza in favour of a humanitarian break and ceasefire, it is likely to benefit far more.

Tags: middle east conflict, iran's revolutionary guards, gaza-israel border