The risk that the Israel-Hamas conflict becomes a wider war
President Biden has warned Israel’s leaders to think carefully about their next steps in the war with Hamas. However:
“As much as the U.S. really tries to cajole Israel one way or the other, Israel at the end of the day is going to do what it’s going to do,” Jonathan Panikoff, director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council, says.
Could the war spread across the region?
“There have been multiple people that have warned about the potential for multi front war, and it looks like we are on the precipice of that potentially happening,” Panikoff says.
Protests are spilling into the streets in Yemen and Lebanon. The U.S. has warned Iran and Hezbollah against fomenting a wider conflict.
Today, On Point: The broader regional risks of the Israel-Hamas war.
Ali Hashem, correspondent for Al-Jazeera and a columnist for Al-Monitor. His reporting focuses on Hezbollah.
Randa Slim, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and a non-resident fellow at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced and International Studies.
Ryan Crocker, former career diplomat who served as ambassador to Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He’s now a nonresident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. A member of Congress’s Afghanistan War Commission.
Ehud Eiran, former assistant foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Ehid Barak. Retired IDF Major. Professor of political science at Haifa University. Board member of the foreign policy think tank Mitvim.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: This weekend, fears spiked that the Israel-Hamas war may escalate more broadly across the Middle East. Just yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued this promise while speaking with Israeli soldiers.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU (TRANSLATION): If Hezbollah decides to enter the war, it will wish it was the second Lebanon war again.
It will make the mistake of its life. We will strike it with a force it cannot even imagine, and the significance for it and the state of Lebanon will be devastating.
CHAKRABARTI: Of course, that’s Netanyahu there speaking through translation. In fact, there is already spillover. Netanyahu said those words in northern Israel, and Israel and Hezbollah are firing on each other’s positions in the northern border with Lebanon.
In addition to the thousands of Palestinians killed and wounded in Gaza, dozens more have been killed by settlers and Israeli forces in the West Bank. U. S. forces in Iraq and Syria have come under attack, and the United States has ordered all non-emergency personnel to leave Iraq. Iranian backed Houthi forces in Yemen fired missiles, apparently aimed at Israel.
And an Egyptian border post was hit by an Israeli tank shell, though Israel says that was a mistake. On Saturday, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced that the U.S. is sending additional air defense systems throughout the region in response to these escalations. In addition to transferring the U.S. Dwight D. Eisenhower Aircraft Carrier Strike Group to the Persian Gulf, he explained more on ABC’s This Week yesterday.
SEC. LLOYD AUSTIN: What we’re seeing is the prospect of a significant escalation of attacks on our troops and our people throughout the region. And because of that, we’re going to do what’s necessary to make sure that our troops are in a right, a good position, they’re protected and that we have the ability to respond.
CHAKRABARTI: Secretary of State Antony Blinken continued the Biden administration’s messaging over the weekend. He was asked yesterday by Kristen Welker of NBC’s Meet the Press, “Just how hard is the administration pushing Israel not to escalate?” Welker asked Blinken if the U.S. is opposed to a preemptive strike by Israel, as has been discussed by some Israeli officials.
BLINKEN: Israelis have been very clear with us, and we share this view. No one wants a second or third front, including when it comes to Lebanon, northern Israel, southern Lebanon. That’s not in anyone’s interest, and that’s exactly why we’ve sent a very strong message to try to deter Hezbollah. Deter Iran more directly from opening up a second front.
You’ve heard the president speak to this very clearly, “Don’t take advantage of the situation.” We’ve also deployed very significant assets to the region.
CHAKRABARTI: However, is the opening of a second or third front possible? Is wider war on the horizon? And what can be done to stop it? We’re going to begin today in Lebanon, where Ali Hashem joins us.
He’s in Naqoura, Lebanon, and he’s correspondent for Al-Jazeera and a columnist for Al-Monitor. His reporting focuses on Hezbollah. Ali Hashem, welcome to On Point.
ALI HASHEM: Thank you very much for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: Can you first tell us a little bit more detail of what’s been happening on the Israel-Lebanon border and those exchanges between Israeli forces and Hezbollah?
HASHEM: For the past two weeks, Hezbollah and Israel have been exchanging fire across the border. Now, the fact is that this escalation or this tension is contained to the 120 kilometers line, the border line, and the depth of three, four kilometers on both sides. Luckily to the moment, this tension, this escalation hasn’t slided into the bigger conflict, and it’s still contained within this geographical area.
However, it’s getting harder and it’s getting much more tense with respect to intensity, velocity, frequency. So we can see that the way we are as journalists, we’re not able to move just as we used to do before.
The more the Israeli shelling, the more Hezbollah attacks on Israeli military positions, and even with the number of fighters killed from Hezbollah’s side, all the damage on the Israeli side, because we don’t know, at least I don’t have access to the numbers coming from Israel, but at least from here, for example, over the past few a couple of days, we have around 12, 13 Hezbollah fighters being killed.
So it seems things are escalating gradually within what they call the rules of engagement. Though I think that these rules of engagement are being updated on daily basis.
CHAKRABARTI: I see.
HASHEM: With each fight.
CHAKRABARTI: We will try to get him back. I tell you, we are being beset by technological issues these days, which I will share, listeners, if you have the frustration that I’m feeling right now, we are feeling the same way. We’re going to work to get Ali back. So while we do that, let’s turn now to Randa Slim.
She’s a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and a non-resident fellow at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced and International Studies. And she joins us from Ohio. Randa Slim, welcome to On Point.
RANDA SLIM: Good to be with you.
CHAKRABARTI: I was about to ask Ali, and I’ll just turn this question to you first. I wonder if in order to understand the significance of the exchanges between Israeli forces and Hezbollah that are going on now, give us a little bit of background.
How much of a part of previous Israel-Gaza conflicts has Hezbollah been in terms of firing rockets, et cetera?
SLIM: Ali referred to rules of engagement between Hezbollah and Israel, which have been now put in place since the end of the war between them in 2006. And we have seen violation of these rules every now and then, depending on, Israeli hits on Syria, which might have killed Hezbollah operatives there.
But in previous Hamas-Israel war in Gaza, Hezbollah really has refrained from escalating the front. And partly it is because they felt that Hamas could take care of that war on their own, partly because Israeli objectives in those wars were not to eradicate Hamas, to prevent them from governing, as is the case right now, based on what military Israeli officials have said, but it was mostly in the past, to deter and punish Hamas.
So the red line for Hezbollah has been, especially recently, is that the intervention, they will intervene if they assess that Hamas is about to be eradicated. And by Hamas military infrastructure, Hamas political infrastructure, and the ability of Hamas to reconstitute itself in Gaza. So what are the criteria they use in assessing that?
What’s the threshold of violence? How many Hamas leaders have to be killed, leaders that are operating inside the Gaza Strip? I don’t know, but they have their own criteria. And so you are going to see proportional escalation, as Ali said, contained for now. Although I agree with him, these rules of the game that have existed between the two parties, Israel and Hezbollah, have been since, for the past two weeks, being degraded slowly and steadily.
To give you an idea, today, the death toll among Hezbollah, of Hezbollah militant, is about 40% of their death toll in the 2006 war. So we are getting close to that level where the escalation becomes inevitable. Although, I think until now, Hezbollah has not made the decision to really open a second front with Israel.
CHAKRABARTI: I see. Okay. So in discussing the possibility, the grim possibility of a second or a third front opening up in this already awful war. Let me just play for you, Randa, a little bit of tape from IDF spokesman Peter Lerner. He was on ABC News this week, last weekend, and he issued this warning to Hezbollah.
PETER LERNER: I would highly recommend that Hezbollah watch very closely what is happening to Hamas and their organization in Gaza as we speak. They should be very cautious of crossing that threshold. Because we are determined to defend the state of Israel.
CHAKRABARTI: How much can we know or understand how warnings like that, which have not only come from the IDF spokesman, they’ve come from, as we heard earlier, both the secretary of state Blinken and secretary of state Austin. How do those warnings fall on the ears of Hezbollah leadership?
SLIM: They are definitely, they take them into consideration. After all, Hezbollah is a sub state actor in Lebanon, in a country which is suffering from a dire economic crisis. Where the majority of the population does not see a war will help them or will benefit them or is in their interest. So they have to take that into consideration. But at the same time, Hezbollah is part of what’s called the resistance axis, of which Hamas is a member.
Islamic Jihad is a member, Iraqis, militias, which are funded and trained by Iran are members. And then recently, Nasrallah, Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Hezbollah, has been talking about unification of France, something close to an Article 5 in NATO. If one of our members in the resistance axis, that’s what he has been saying, is hit or is about to be, you know, basically eliminated.
Then they are going to do everything. All these other members of the resistance access, to prevent that scenario from unfolding. We have seen how they intervened in Syria to prevent the fall of the Assad regime. Now in Syria, they were fighting militias. Here, they are fighting two mighty military machines, the Israeli military on one hand, and then the threat coming from the Americans on the other hand.
So they have to take that into consideration. But still, I still think there is a red line that if crossed by Israel and they determine it has been crossed, I think they are going to open a second front.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Randa, let me just ask you, we have 30 seconds before our first break. And if I missed this earlier, my apologies.
But how would you describe what that red line is?
SLIM: That red line is Hamas should not be eradicated, should not be officiated, and should be able to reconstitute itself as a government in Gaza.
CHAKRABARTI: Today, we’re taking a very close look at the possibility of wider war in the Middle East. We’re hearing talk of the opening, perhaps, of a second or third front in the Israel-Hamas war. The explosion at the al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza caused outrage around much of the world by people who, were experienced by people who were convinced it was caused by an Israeli bomb, though Israel, Canada, France, and the United States all say the explosion was likely caused by a misfired rocket from inside of Gaza.
Nevertheless, protesters took to the streets in cities across the Middle East, including Jordan’s capital of Amman.
(NEWS BROADCAST SOUNDS)
CHAKRABARTI: So sounds from the streets of Amman in just one of the locations in many countries around Israel and Gaza that are feeling extremely heightened tensions at this moment. Randa Slim is with us. She’s a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. And Randa, I’m going to come back to you very quickly, but we have Ali Hashem in Lebanon back on the line with us.
Ali, my apologies for the technical difficulties, but I was going to ask you the question I asked Randa. I’d still like to hear your response, you being there, about how far do you think Hezbollah is willing to go in its current attacks on Israel? And Randa described that she believes Hezbollah does have a red line in terms of what would need to be crossed for it to engage in full scale battle with Israel.
And that red line being the attempted eradication of Hamas. What do you think?
HASHEM: I agree completely with Randa. Yes, there is a red line. And I think for now Hezbollah’s move and the axis behind Hezbollah led by Iran, this is a tactical move with a strategic objective. The main objective here is to prevent Israel from annihilating Hamas.
This is the main issue, trying to distort or distract the Israeli military from one front. And creating a challenge on a threat on another front that’s actually with the potential to become an A front if there is a war between Hezbollah and Israel. And at the same time another war on another front between Israel and Hamas. Then the A front will be in South Lebanon given the fact that Hezbollah is way stronger and with more capabilities and more possibility to inflict damage on Israel than Hamas.
HASHEM: So this is the main issue. Now how much Hezbollah wants to go deep into this conflict? This is a big question. Given the fact that the Lebanese situation is different, also we’re dealing here with rational players. Hezbollah could be driven by ideology. But when it comes to situations like this, whether it’s Hezbollah or Iran, and we saw how Iran dealt with the assassination of Qasem Soleimani.
Always pragmatic. And they would like to take approaches that are not suicidal. The only possibility that this could get bigger is that there’ll be a threat on the existence of Hamas, because that would mean there’ll be a momentum for Israel to end the front in Gaza.
And then concentrate and focus more and more on the front with Hezbollah, and then Hezbollah will be next.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay, Ali, can I just jump in here for a second and ask a very quick question? Because it seems as if I’m hearing you describe what in my mind seems to be something of a divergence.
Because, Hezbollah, as you said, may be driven by ideology, but is also, as you analyze it, a somewhat rational actor doesn’t actually wish for its own annihilation. But as both you and Randa have described, there is this red line of, if Israel continues on its quest to obliterate Hamas, which by the way, Israel has not backed away from that language at all.
It does sound to me as if those two things are not compatible with each other because a ground war.
Does, at what time would Hezbollah wait to see this is an actual attempt to eradicate Hamas? It seems as if no time would be wasted on making that decision at all. So therefore, does it not seem that a second front could open up almost immediately, Ali?
HASHEM: We are already, there is already here a front. We can’t say that this is not a front. This is a front. At the beginning, maybe the first few days, it was an operation zone. But right now, it’s itself a side front. Now, how things could really roll and slide into the bigger conflict? It depends on how Hamas is going to act towards or react to the Israeli incursion or invasion.
Given the fact Hezbollah, Hamas, and all these groups are on very close coordination. They actually have a kind of an assessment of how much these groups are capable of resisting or of inflicting damage on Israel. We will, we can just go back as a reference to the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel.
When Israel started its incursion in South Lebanon, it’s when the damage started appearing, by Hezbollah using anti-tank missiles to hit Israeli tanks. So for Hamas, they already have these kinds of missiles. They already have very sophisticated anti-tank minds. So this is what they are depending on.
But the moment they feel that this is not doing any good anymore. I think then it maybe would be the time to raise the stake and create more and more situation to get into the war. Now, how much would that be? How much would that broaden or expand? That’s the big question.
We can see how Iran and its allies are trying to create reasons, not for Israel, but for the U. S. to interfere, to prevent Israel from getting to that objective by using the leverage, the geographical leverage they have in Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Yemen. To create this situation, whereas it’s a kind of a threat that there might be a regional confrontation, there might be a regional war, so they’ll push the West and the United States to pressure more and more. Bibi Netanyahu, Benjamin Netanyahu, to lower his objectives, but the problem is that this situation is also very dire for Benjamin Netanyahu because he’s in the middle of two wars.
He’s in the middle of a war with Hamas and the axis behind Hamas. And he’s also in the middle of an internal war with his rivals.
CHAKRABARTI: Correct. Ali Hashem, correspondent for Al-Jazeera and a columnist for Al-Monitor. He’s joined us today from Naqoura, Lebanon. Ali, thank you so much for joining us.
HASHEM: My pleasure. Thank you very much.
CHAKRABARTI: Randa Slim, in just a moment I’m going to introduce another person, an American who has quite a bit of experience in the region, but I wanted to get your reaction first to the sort of balancing act that Ali described Hezbollah might be going through right now.
SLIM: I agree with Ali that there is a balancing act that’s taking place on that.
We have seen the entry into this confrontation off Iraqi militias. They are attacking. They have attacked U. S. Bases in Iraq. They have attacked U. S. Military presence in Syria. We don’t know whether the missiles sent by Houthis are targeting the Israel or we’re targeting U. S. Military asset that happened to be passing through the region.
So definitely, I think. But eventually there are going to be four factors that are going to affect Hezbollah calculus. One is how serious they take the U. S. threats. Because Israel, they can deal with it. They can deal with the Israeli threat. But the U. S. threat is something that is, something that it’s very hard.
They can fight a war with Israel. They cannot fight a war with the U. S. and Israel at the same time. So that’s one. How serious do they take the American threat of intervention. If Hezbollah were to open a second front. Two, where is the Arab public opinion on Hezbollah’s intervention?
We’ve already seen protests in Cairo calling on Nasrallah to intervene in this war on behalf of Gaza. And three is how bloody is the war going to be? It all depends what kind of ground incursion Israel will do. If it is the bloodier, the more violent it is, I think that’s going to create also more pressure on Hezbollah to open, to escalate even more, because I agree with Ali.
There is already a front on the Lebanese-Israeli border. The question is, “How much will this escalation keep going?
CHAKRABARTI: Randa, stand by for just a moment because regarding the seriousness of the U. S. threat or the threat the United States military is making in terms of its willingness to become involved in the region, President Biden has spoken several times about that in the past week or so.
Last week CBS 60 Minutes host Scott Pelley asked the president this.
SCOTT PELLEY: There’s limited fighting already on the Northern Israeli border. And I wonder what is your message to Hezbollah and its backer, Iran?
PELLEY: Don’t come across the border. Don’t escalate this war.
BIDEN: That’s right.
CHAKRABARTI: Joining us now is Ryan Crocker. He’s a former career diplomat.
He served as ambassador, U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan and he’s now a non-resident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for international peace. Ambassador Crocker, welcome back to On Point.
RYAN CROCKER: Thank you, Meghna.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so first of all, give us your read on the actions taken just over the past few days by the Biden administration and the United States military.
You heard Lloyd Austin, Secretary Austin, a little bit earlier talking about moving more assets into the region. What’s your answer to Randa’s question about how seriously to take the U. S.’s rhetoric and quote unquote threat in terms of its willingness to become involved?
CROCKER: Listening to Randa and Ali just now reminds me once again that in the Middle East, and this is the Middle East, there aren’t any good options.
There’s bad and there’s worse. With respect to the U. S. posture right now and its involvement, I go back 40 years. Today is October 23, 2023. 40 years ago today, the Marine barracks in Lebanon blew up with a loss of 244 Marines. And my heart goes out to their families on this sad anniversary. But it also illustrates the limits to effective power. Then, as now, of course, we had a battle group in the Mediterranean. We had Marines ashore, of course. It paid a horrible price.
Once again, we have a battle group in the Eastern Mediterranean. Once again, we have 1,000 Marines. What happened last time is something I think the U. S. has to keep in mind, as well as the adversaries of the U. S. We had a World War II era battleship. The New Jersey fired 16-inch shells doing almost no damage. So we’re the most powerful nation on earth. But that power has to translate into effect. And I think it’s going to be very hard for us to find an area of entry that is going to produce an effect that we intend, not the consequences of unforeseen future scenarios.
CHAKRABARTI: So Randa, a little bit earlier had mentioned the clear fact that there’s a massive asymmetry of power and capability when combining the abilities of the Israeli military and of course the United States military. Asymmetry between those two and Hezbollah. So the idea though is that the asymmetry is supposed to produce some kind of deterrence for a group like Hezbollah.
CROCKER: It sounds like you’re saying, though, that history shows us that may not actually be the case, Ambassador. I’m afraid that very much is the truth right now. I can’t predict different outcomes. I know very little about Hezbollah, their state of organization, their levels of armaments. But again, it is very hard to destroy a group like that. Just as Israel will find, I’m afraid, that it’s going to be very hard to eliminate Hamas in total. We’ve seen that ourselves. We have gone after Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Islamic State. Try and we’ve weakened them, but not eliminated them.
And if that’s the goal here, we turn out to be an impossible goal. The big issue I think is one common factor and that is Iran.
CROCKER: It was the Iran Syrian coalition in the early eighties that brought us the horrors of the embassy bombing in April and the Marine barracks bombing in October.
Iran is now backing the main belligerents against Israel, both Hamas and Hezbollah. And I have to think that as Israelis, Israel’s emergency government is looking at its options, that in that potential target deck would be a strike on Iran.
CHAKRABARTI: Randa Slim, let me hear your thoughts on this because in addition to Hamas and Hezbollah, in the beginning of the show I mentioned the Houthi in Yemen as well.
How do you read Iran’s involvement right now and is destabilizing the region, perhaps even coming short of opening up a second or third front, is the destabilization that’s currently going on in Iran’s favor?
SLIM: It’s an interesting question. Look, I don’t think there will be a resistance axis in the Levant without Iran funding, training, support.
I know I heard the American officials, including President Biden, saying there is no smoking gun linking Iran to this attack on October 7. But holistically, this attack would have not been possible without years of training and funding and support. And in fact, the leader of Hamas, Khaled Mashal has already said that in an interview. Saying that Iran and Hezbollah have provided us weapons, money and training.
So I think it’s hard to tell where Israel is going to go. I agree with Ambassador Crocker, that definitely a hit on Iran is going to be part of the Netanyahu government thinking, not maybe the whole government, because now we have two new members that have joined what’s called a unity government who might be, counseling restraint, but definitely, I think, and that will be catastrophic.
I think we’re going to see a major war in the region if that were to take place.
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