This memo was updated on November 14, 2023, to include news of the recent U.S. strikes in eastern Syria on November 12, 2023.
Risks of Regional War Grow Amid Israel-Palestine War
Hamas’ horrific October 7th assault on Israel, which killed 1,400 Israelis and resulted in more than 200 individuals taken hostage, kicked off a brutal war with more than 10,000 Palestinians killed by Israel’s military over the first 30 days. Many have rightfully responded by calling for a ceasefire or cessation of hostilities to halt the killing, ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid, secure the release of hostages and begin the hard work of moving toward a sustainable peace.
However, as the conflict continues and Israel’s military operations become further entrenched, the horrific first month of the war could end up as a prelude to a much broader regional war directly involving the United States. Deterrence alone is likely to be insufficient to prevent further escalation and a broader war – more assertive steps toward a ceasefire and peace must be taken.
Increasing Threats Targeting U.S. Forces
- The war in Gaza broke a tentative de-escalation that had halted attacks from Iran-linked militias on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria for several months.
- Since October 17, the Pentagon reports that U.S. troops stationed in Iraq and Syria have been attacked by rockets and drones 48 times since, leading to at least 56 injuries to service members. This includes 7 attacks over the weekend of November 3-5.
- While the U.S. has reportedly thwarted most of the attacks, there has been at least one near miss, when an armed drone crashed into a barracks at Erbil air base on Oct 25 but did not detonate.
- On October 26th, the Pentagon responded with “self-defense strikes on two facilities in eastern Syria used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and affiliated groups,” warning Iran that “If attacks by Iran’s proxies against U.S. forces continue, we will not hesitate to take further necessary measures to protect our people.”
- On November 12th, U.S. F-15E fighter jets struck “a training facility and a safe house near the cities of Abu Kamal and Mayadin” that were “used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Iran-affiliated groups” to retaliate for recent attacks. The strikes reportedly killed at least eight, and was the “the third time in less than three weeks that the U.S. military targeted locations in Syria it said were tied to Iran.” Retaliatory attacks targeted U.S. forces again on November 13.
- While the Biden administration has claimed that these strikes are needed to establish “deterrence,” there have been at least eight such strikes in Syria throughout the Biden administration, suggesting that they have limited impact in deterring attacks. Moreover, the period of the fewest attacks on U.S. positions under Biden appears to have occurred amid backchannel diplomacy to de-escalate with Iran, not amid a period of military escalation or publicly-issued threats.
- Amid these tensions, the U.S. has already moved two aircraft carriers, fighter jets, and submarines capable of launching nuclear missiles into the region to “deter” Iran, along with two Iron Dome defense systems. The Biden administration also announced, on October 31, its plans to transfer $320 million worth of precision bombs for Israel.
Increasing Cross-Border Attacks Against Israel
- Aside from strikes on U.S. forces in the region, other groups that have received support from Iran have engaged in strikes targeting Israel and its military forces.
- This includes significant fighting between Hezbollah and Israel across the border with Lebanon. Following the November 3 speech from Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrullah, there have been several significant exchanges of fire. This includes an Israeli airstrike on a car in Lebanon on November 6 that killed a woman and three children, and retaliatory rocket fire from Hezbollah that killed an Israeli civilian. Hamas forces in Lebanon also launched retaliatory rocket attacks that targeted relatively deep inside Israeli territory Monday, which were intercepted by the Iron Dome. Israel reportedly retaliated with strikes on Hezbollah positions.
- The Houthis, based in Yemen, have also entered the fray by intermittently launching missiles and drones towards Israel. On October 19, the U.S. destroyer Carney, deployed in the Red Sea, shot down “4 cruise missiles and 15 drones over a period of 9 hours” that were launched by Houthi forces toward Israel. On October 31, Israel intercepted “a surface-to-surface long-range ballistic missile and two cruise missiles” fired by Houthi forces. Yahya Saree – a spokesperson for the Houthi military – asserted that the rebel group intends to continue striking “until the Israeli aggression (against Gaza) stops.”
What Are Iran’s Leaders Thinking?
- Thus far, Iran and other “resistance” forces have claimed that they had no knowledge of the October 7th attacks, a claim that matches U.S. intelligence. They have also struck a defiant tone and warned that strikes on Gaza must halt or there will be a wider war.
- Supreme Leader of Iran Ali Khamenei stated on Oct. 11 that “some supporters and some individuals from (Israel) have made false claims in recent days blaming Iran” for the October 7th attacks. “They are mistaken. We defend Palestine; we support the designers and intelligent youth of Palestine, but these are the works of Palestinians themselves.”
- On Oct. 17, Khamenei declared – likely in response to U.S. warnings to Iran against engaging directly in the war – “There is no one who can stop Muslims and resistance forces if the crimes committed by the Zionist regime persist.”
- As reported by NBC, U.S. intelligence believes that Iran is not currently seeking a direct war with the United States, but that it is looking to ratchet up pressure on Israel and the U.S. through the “resistance” forces it has backed throughout the region. This, and potential American retaliation, increases the likelihood of miscalculation leading to broader hostilities.
- As Sina Toossi of the Center for International Policy wrote for Foreign Policy, “Iran is playing a game of strategic ambiguity in the Israel-Hamas war, keeping its level of involvement and intervention unclear. Contrary to some expectations, Iran’s top officials have so far only authorized limited attacks by their allies in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. These attacks are likely not only meant to show Iran’s strength and deterrence capabilities to Israel and the United States, but also to avoid a direct clash that could harm Iran’s interests and security.”
- The U.S. has not seen a direct order from Iran to the resistance network to initiate attacks. Critically, there are diverging interests among the various resistance groups, and Iran does not appear to have direct operational control of groups that span different locations, reflecting different ethnic and religious sects, and which can pursue different tactics and goals. Even if Iran wanted to rein in these forces, it is far from clear if they would be successful in achieving their goal. As one observer noted, Iran is “seemingly laboring to balance between seeing its influence slip away while avoiding being held liable for the actions of its regional partners.”
What Could a Regional War Look Like?
- While the U.S. has reportedly indicated to Israel that it will handle the regional dynamic of the conflict, a broader escalation into full-blown regional war would be a disaster for the U.S., Israel, Iran and all the civilians caught in the middle.
- For Israel, a full-blown war with Hezbollah would put even more of its civilians and military forces at risk as the country still reels from the fallout of the October 7th attacks and engages in military operations against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. A multi-front war with missile attacks from several fronts would present a serious challenge for Israel’s security.
- While U.S. forces have a conventional advantage against Iran, an open conflict would pose serious risks as Iran has long focused on asymmetric capabilities that can inflict high casualties on U.S. forces. This includes the largest missile program in the Middle East which could be targeted at U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria as well as ships transiting the Persian Gulf and other nearby waterways.
- Iran’s missile attack on U.S. bases in reprisal for the U.S. airstrike that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani was the largest ballistic missile attack ever against Americans. If not for advance warning from the Iraqi government, the assault would almost certainly have led to massive American casualties. Those who survived in bomb shelters had to endure hours of concussive bombardment, passing out repeatedly, and emerged with traumatic brain injuries. Iran has only continued to advance its missile program in the years since.
- Moreover, any open conflict carries a direct risk of nuclear escalation, thanks to Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and Biden’s failure to restore it. Iran currently has a significant stockpile of uranium enriched to near weapons grade. If Iran chose to pursue a nuclear breakout, it could obtain sufficient fissile material for a single nuclear weapon in a matter of days. Such a move would be highly possible if not probable amid open warfare with the U.S., and could push the Biden administration into a massive military campaign on Iranian soil that could make the Iraq war pale in comparison.
- Many Iranian human rights defenders have also spoken out against the war and called for a ceasefire, even as they continue to find ways to challenge their government’s repression and question many of its regional policies. This includes recent Nobel Peace Prize winner Narges Mohammadi, who issued a statement from prison saying “Even though I am imprisoned in Evin, I continue to call for an immediate ceasefire, an end to the war, a curtailment of the hands of warmongers over innocent people, respect for human rights, and a possibility of peaceful coexistence between people.”
- Over fifty political activists directly denounced threats of war against Iran, stating “with diverse intellectual and political orientations, we express our concern regarding the destructive and perilous consequences of certain individuals, groups, and tendencies, both Iranian and non-Iranian, like those UANI (referring to the U.S.-based United Against Nuclear Iran) who directly or indirectly support military aggression against Iran in order to expand the current conflict.”