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Knife's Edge

It’s the Terrifying Question: Will the War Spread North?

If it does, the region—and maybe the world—is on fire. But so far, most signs are that Iran does not want a wider war.

Manu Brabo/Getty Images
Hezbollah supporters in military clothes stand in formation at the funeral of a Hezbollah militant killed by the IDF during clashes in southern Lebanon on Monday.

Will the Hamas-Israel conflict turn into a regional conflagration? Is the Gaza war going to spiral out of control? It seems increasingly plausible.

As Israel appears poised to launch a multiphase ground offensive to try to eliminate Hamas as an effective organization, one of the biggest concerns for almost all parties is whether the fighting will spread. There are already numerous instances of other players in the regional network of militia groups and armed gangs supported by Iran in Arab countries taking tentative steps toward engagement in the fighting. Israel has demonstrated its alarm over the prospect by issuing threats and warnings to Iran’s most potent client, Hezbollah in Lebanon. There have been media reports that Defense Minister Yoav Gallant urged a preemptive attack against Hezbollah but was overruled by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu amid strong pressure from the Biden administration not to widen the war.

The deployment of major U.S. naval forces in the eastern Mediterranean is clearly aimed at deterring that powerful organization and its Iranian patrons and giving Israel backing that would also stay its hand. Indeed, Hezbollah and Iran have ample and obvious reasons to want to hold back from all-out involvement.

But almost all of the pro-Iranian groups in the region have been poking and pecking at the conflict, including by attempting to attack U.S. forces in the region. Iran has numerous clients and proxies in the Arab world that are capable of joining the fray, and not just against Israel but also the United States. Pro-Iranian “Popular Mobilization Forces” militia groups in Iraq like Kataib Hezbollah have long bedeviled U.S. forces in the region. Last week U.S. troops at the Ain Al Asad airbase in western Iraq were attacked by drones and missiles, as was another base near the Baghdad international airport. There were several other drone attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq last week. Similar pro-Iranian organizations in Syria launched drone attacks against American forces there, causing injuries to American troops. Another drone apparently aimed at U.S. forces was shot down near the Turkish border. In addition, the USS Carney naval destroyer intercepted several missiles and drones fired from land in Yemen, apparently by the pro-Iranian Houthi rebels.

But by far the biggest concern is that the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah militia will get drawn into the conflict with Israel. Unlike pro-Iranian militia groups in Iraq and even Yemen, and certainly unlike Hamas, Hezbollah is an extremely potent hybrid military organization combining exceptionally effective guerrilla and commando capabilities with conventional military prowess. Hezbollah has demonstrated the ability to take and hold territory and, in its last major conflict with Israel in 2006, it shocked the Israeli military with its capabilities, including effective use of land-to-sea missiles against Israeli naval forces. Since then, the organization’s capabilities have greatly expanded. It has developed a vast arsenal of missiles and rockets with hyper-precision guidance capable of striking anywhere in Israel. Its ground forces are also now more battle-hardened and experienced than ever due to the Syrian war, in which Hezbollah troops were essential to the coalition with Russia and Iran that intervened in the fall of 2015 to keep Bashar Assad in power.

There has been noteworthy unrest on the Israel-Lebanese border that has, naturally, increased concerns of a wider conflict. In recent days there have been numerous limited skirmishes and exchanges of fire on or near the Israel-Lebanon border, and Hezbollah claims to already be “in the heart of the battle.”  

One Israeli officer and at least six Israeli soldiers and 13 Hezbollah fighters and Lebanon-based Palestinian militants have been killed. Yet for now, this limited fighting is, essentially, within the tacitly established terms of understanding between Israel and Hezbollah, although patience on both sides is being sorely tested. Their tense relationship is characterized by such occasional flare-ups, and as long as they are within certain geographical limits and not too large in scope, they are essentially tolerated by both sides and do not lead to all-out war.

Yet mounting Israeli concern has been clearly expressed in its increasing warnings and threats to Hezbollah that it is capable of fighting a two-front war and is ready to decimate not only that organization but all of Lebanon if it is attacked. The U.S. has dispatched the USS Gerald R. Ford carrier strike group to the eastern Mediterranean, soon to be joined by additional U.S. Air Force fighter power, all in a clear warning to Hezbollah and Iran that Washington is also prepared to get involved if need be. It’s the first time in decades, and arguably ever, that American forces have been poised to actively defend Israel. Pentagon press secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder was blunt in saying that the deployment of these forces was designed to deter “groups” from acting recklessly to provoke a wider conflict.

Such deployments will undoubtedly incentivize all the major players, most notably Iran and Hezbollah, not to try to expand the conflict into a wider regional conflagration. But that may not be necessary. Hezbollah still has ample reasons of its own not to want a war with Israel under current circumstances. The Lebanese socioeconomic and political condition in which the group operates is dire. Lebanon’s political system is deadlocked, with no president and a state that barely functions. Its economy has collapsed completely, plunging a once relatively prosperous society into penury, with over 80 percent of Lebanese now living in poverty. The country simply cannot afford another experience of being pulverized by the Israeli military. And the Israel Defense Forces are, not surprisingly, threatening reprisals and mayhem. 

After the 2006 conflict with Israel, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was compelled to go on Lebanese television several times to apologize for having initiated such devastation. In one such broadcast, he even said that had he anticipated the consequences, he never would have authorized the attack on Israeli soldiers at the border that led to the conflict. Everybody knew he was lying, since no one in Lebanon by 2006 had failed to understand fully Israel’s doctrine of disproportionality and determination to counterattack brutally when provoked. But his claim demonstrates that Hezbollah can be accountable not just to its own Shiite constituency but to the broader Lebanese society and that it must be careful to preserve its ability to function within the Lebanese context.

Hezbollah does not operate in a vacuum. It is completely embedded in its Lebanese environment, and it is in no way immune from the Lebanese economic and political crises that have racked the country in recent years. Neither Lebanon nor, by extension, Hezbollah can afford another major war with Israel, particularly under the current parlous circumstances. That doesn’t mean that Hezbollah would refuse a command from the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, which operates the network of Arab militia groups of which Hezbollah is the oldest and most effective member, to go into action. Despite its own considerable incentives not to get involved in the current conflict, an Iranian demand would be extremely hard, and perhaps impossible, to refuse.

But there are ample reasons to think that Iran also will not want Hezbollah to enter into a major conflict with Israel over the Gaza war. Hezbollah is Iran’s greatest asset, to be deployed only when absolutely necessary. The main function of Hezbollah for Iran is to serve as a massive and potent deterrent against Israeli military strikes on Iran itself, and particularly against its nuclear facilities. Tehran is therefore highly unlikely to want to expend such a potent deterrent on Gaza, which is, in truth, of marginal strategic interest to Iran. Deterrents are only effective when poised and in waiting. If they are deployed in action, they no longer serve the deterrent function. Instead, they become combatants that are expended as a deterrent force. Since Iran regards Hezbollah as a crucial defense against Israeli attacks on its key assets at home, it is going to think twice before expending that for any other purpose.

It’s possible that Hezbollah might get drawn into the conflict anyway. There are smaller groups, including Hamas operatives, in Lebanon who are already attacking Israel with drones and missiles. If Israel misinterprets one of these attacks and decides to retaliate in a manner that Hezbollah regards as mandating a strong response, such an exchange could set off a tit-for-tat spiral that neither side can control.

Alternatively, if fighting spreads to the occupied West Bank and, above all, occupied East Jerusalem, calculations could quickly change. Violence in and around the Al Aqsa Mosque complex in Jerusalem would inflame Arab and Muslim passions around the world in a way that nothing in Gaza could. A conflagration around the third-holiest site in Islam could prompt either Hezbollah or Iran, or both, to decide that there is more to gain than to lose by unleashing Hezbollah’s fearsome missile and rocket capabilities in the name of defending the faith and, in effect, God.

Thus far, the skirmishing on the Lebanese-Israeli border and attacks against U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq are limited enough to be manageable. Nothing that has happened yet makes spread of this conflict into a broader regional explosion inevitable. But unrest like this does make it more likely, because it raises tensions and puts all parties on the defensive. The good news is that one of the few things that Israel, Iran, and Hezbollah all agree on is that the war should not spread, especially to include the potent Lebanese militia. The bad news is that when tensions and passions rise, parties that rationally do not want a conflict with each other are sometimes drawn into a reactive dynamic that produces one anyway.

World War I is probably the most striking example of how actors that don’t want a conflict can end up in a huge one anyway. The even worse news is that this time the U.S. could well get directly involved as well. As things stand, it’s still more likely than not that the conflict will be contained to Gaza and Israel. Everything is in place for that to change quickly, but so far, it’s a mutual agreement—except for some senior Israeli officials and, possibly, a few bigwigs in Iran as well—that the Hamas-Israel conflict shouldn’t spread.