The Iran-Israel War Is Here

More than a decade of civil strife has opened up the region for the escalating state-to-state conflict.

By: Jonathan Spyer

Outlet: Wall Street Journal

Date: 8-27-2019

Israel and Iran are at war. Israeli strikes this week in southern Syria, western Iraq and eastern Lebanon—and possibly even Beirut—confirm it.

This war is a very 21st-century affair. For now it involves only small circles among the Israeli and Iranian populations. Parts of the air force, intelligence services and probably special forces are active on the Israeli side. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, its expeditionary Quds Force and proxy politico-military organizations in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are engaged on behalf of Iran.

The war marks a hinge point in Middle Eastern geopolitics. For the past decade and a half, the region has been engaged mainly with internal strife: civil wars, insurgencies and mass protests. These are now largely spent, leaving a broken landscape along the northern route from Iran to Israel.

The three “states” in between—Iraq, Syria and Lebanon—are fragmented, partly collapsed and thoroughly penetrated by neighboring powers. Their official state structures have lost the attribute that alone, according to German sociologist Max Weber, guarantees sovereignty: “monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force.” These nations’ territory has become the theater of the Iran-Israel war.

The regime in Tehran favors the destruction of the Jewish state, but this is a longstanding aim, dating to the 1979 Islamic Revolution and before it, in the minds of the revolutionaries. What’s brought it to the fore is that Iran has emerged in the past half decade as the prime beneficiary of the collapse of the Iraqi, Syrian and Lebanese states. This has substantially increased its capacity to menace Israel, which has noticed and responded.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has no peer in the Middle East—and perhaps beyond—in the practice of irregular warfare. Its proxies today dominate Lebanon (Hezbollah), constitute the single strongest politico-military force in Iraq (Popular Mobilization Units, or PMU), and maintain an independent, powerful military infrastructure in Syria, in partial cooperation with the Assad regime and Russia. This nexus, against which Israel is currently engaged, brings Iran de facto control over much of the land from the Iraq-Iran border to the Mediterranean and to the Syrian and Lebanese borders with Israel.

Iran treats this entire area as a single operational space, moving its assets around at will without excessive concern for the notional sovereignty of the governments in Baghdad, Beirut and Damascus. Lebanese Hezbollah trains PMU fighters in Iraq. Iraqi Shiite militias are deployed at crucial and sensitive points on the Iraqi-Syrian border, such as al-Qa’im and Mayadeen. Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah personnel operate in southwest Syria, close to the Golan Heights.

Israeli attacks in recent days suggest that Israel, too, has begun to act according to these definitions and in response to them. If Iran will not restrict its actions to Syria, neither will Israel.

There is a crucial difference between the Israeli and Iranian positions in this conflict. Iran’s involvement in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon is deep, long-term and proactive. Tehran seeks the transformation of these areas into Iranian satrapies, and it has made considerable advances toward its goal. Israel’s involvement is entirely reactive, pushing back against Iranian domination and destroying the missile caches that bring it within Iran’s range. Israel has no interest in the internal political arrangements of Lebanon, Syria or Iraq, except insofar as these constitute a danger to Israel itself.

This imbalance defines the conflict. Iran creates political organizations, penetrates state structures, and seeks to make itself an unchallengeable presence in all three countries. Israel has been wary of entering the mire of factional politics in neighboring countries since its failed intervention in Lebanon leading up to the 1982 war. Jerusalem instead uses its superior intelligence and conventional military capabilities to neutralize the military and paramilitary fruits of the Iranian project whenever they appear to be forming into a concrete threat.

Israel is largely alone in this fight. The U.S. is certainly aware of Israel’s actions against Iran and may tacitly support them. Yet the Trump administration shows no signs of wishing to play an active part in the military challenge to Iranian infrastructure-building across the Middle East. This White House favors ramping up economic pressure on Tehran, but both its occupant and his voter base are wary in the extreme of new military commitments in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia is targeted by the Ansar Allah, or Houthi, movement, another Iranian proxy closely assisted by the Revolutionary Guard. The Saudis’ interests are partly aligned with Israel’s, but Saudi Arabia is a fragile country, requiring the protection of its allies rather than constituting an asset for them.

So it is war between Israel and Iran, prosecuted over the ruins of Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. But it won’t necessarily stay that way. A single kinetic and successful Iranian response to Israel’s airstrikes could rapidly precipitate an escalation to a much broader contest. State-to-state conflict has returned to the Middle East.

Mr. Spyer is director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and at the Middle East Forum. He is author of “Days of the Fall: A Reporter’s Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars.”