Prospects of a widening war

Rabha Allam , Wednesday 31 Jan 2024

Washington has so far denied Tel Aviv the green light to proceed with an assault on Southern Lebanon, but this could change in the wake of recent attacks on US bases in the region.

Prospects of a widening war


Amid the intensifying strikes and counterstrikes between the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah and Israel, Tel Aviv has repeatedly threatened a full-scale offensive against Lebanon aimed at forcing Hizbullah to retreat from the Lebanese-Israeli border.

At the same time, militias affiliated with the Iraqi-based Islamic Resistance have broadened the scope of their targets, reaching the Zevulun naval facility in northern Israel and US bases in eastern Syria near the border with Jordan.

Drone strikes carried out by the Iranian-linked militias have killed three US soldiers and injured 34 others, including eight critically.

The escalation has heightened alarm over the potential for a widening scope of hostilities in the region, especially after US President Joe Biden vowed to deliver a strong response to the latest strike against a facility in north-eastern Jordan.

Initial US assessments have suggested that the pro-Iranian militias in Iraq are responsible, but some have conjectured that the attacks may have originated from Iranian locations in Syria.

Washington has not yet held Tehran directly responsible for the strikes, even though Iran supports the militias with arms, training, and funding. Tehran has denied responsibility for the attacks, the identification of targets and the decisions taken by its allied militias.

The US-UK strikes against locations in Yemen described as military targets affiliated with the Ansarullah (Houthi) movement in the country have compounded the already volatile climate. The military offensive was intended to stop the Houthis from threatening commercial shipping off the coast of Yemen in the Red Sea, but it appears to have had the opposite effect.

The US and UK have intensified their strikes against the Houthis who, in turn, have begun to target US warships in the Gulf of Aden. This has further augmented fears that the US will launch a sweeping military campaign against Iran’s “military arms” in the region. Despite Washington’s claim that it wants to contain any possible spillover from the crisis in Gaza, it believes that attacks on US assets and troops force it to meet out a deterrent response.

Whereas only a few weeks ago Washington was trying, via its envoy to Lebanon Amos Hochstein, to broker de-escalation along the Lebanese-Israeli border while it was simultaneously negotiating with Baghdad over a phased withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, it now appears that the Americans are reverting to the military option.

French and US mediators led the inflow of Western diplomats to Beirut in the first weeks of 2024 in the hope of persuading Hizbullah to agree to a formula for calming the Lebanese-Israeli front.

According to a recent report in media close to Hizbullah, the deputy chief of the German Federal Intelligence Service, Ole Diehl, arrived in the Lebanese capital several weeks ago to meet with HizbullahDeputy Secretary-General Naim Qassem to learn what Hizbullah’s conditions were to end its confrontation with Israel.

The German delegation came away with the message that the tensions on the border would not subside until the war on Gaza ended. There could be no separation between the two fronts, the Lebanese resistance organisation stressed, adding that the quickest way to stop the escalation in the region would be for the Western powers to pressure Israel to cease its aggression against Palestinians in Gaza.

The visit reflected a shift in the West to a more serious mediating approach. It is noteworthy that German intelligence was the most prominent mediator involved in brokering the prisoner exchange between Hizbullah and Israel in the summer of 2008 that culminated in the release of many Lebanese and other Arab prisoners in Israeli jails in exchange for the remains of two Israeli soldiers who had been captured during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006.

On the present occasion, however, Diehl’s delegation failed to produce an initiative capable of promoting a truce on the Lebanese-Israeli front.

Since then, Israeli media has been reporting large-scale military exercises carried out by the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) in northern Israel, intimating that they are gearing up for the planned offensive.

In one of the most recent exercises, an Israeli paratrooper battalion executed special operation scenarios in conditions simulating Southern Lebanese terrain in rainy weather and on muddy agricultural land. The Israeli Ministry of Health also put combat medics through simulations involving the delivery of emergency treatment and evacuating the dead and wounded in these conditions.

The widely publicised drills are clearly intended to signal that the Israeli offensive is immanent and will take place this winter in the area south of the LitaniRiver in Lebanon. Military observers believe that the Israeli authorities have already taken the decision to wage war on Lebanon but have yet to agree on the timing.

Although Washington has so far denied Tel Aviv the green light to proceed with an assault against Southern Lebanon, the recent uptick in attacks on US bases in the region, and especially the one that claimed three US soldiers, could change the dynamics.

However, it is one thing for the US to study possible deterrent retaliatory strikes against Iranian-linked militias in Iraq, Yemen, and Syriaand quite another to let Israel start a full-scale war against Hizbullah, Iran’s strongest ally in the region.

Differences between Washington and Tel Aviv over the latter’s conduct of the war in Gaza may be a decisive factor in the US’ continued opposition to expanding the war to Lebanon. However, this does not refute the fact that the region is at a dangerous tippingpoint.

We can expect escalation against Iran’s proxies in the region, even if questions remain over the exact locations and dates.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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