The Coming Middle Eastern Storm

The next war between Israel and Hezbollah will be a region-wide fight, with Iraq playing a key role

Lebanese Shi'ite Hezbollah militants parade with a missile / Getty
August 2, 2019

Since 2013, Israel has attacked Iranian targets in Syria hundreds of times, killing soldiers and decimating equipment and facilities. Israel's aerial campaign led Iran, which seeks to establish another military front against the Jewish state, to move the bulk of its assets away from the Syrian-Israeli border to Iraq earlier this year. Since then, Iran has entrenched itself militarily in Iraq, where, according to Israel's intelligence assessment for 2019, "the domestic and international situation … created better opportunities for [Tehran] to prepare its regional plans" to dominate the Middle East. Specifically, Iran deployed more members of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Lebanese Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed terrorist organization, to bolster the two cornerstones of Iran's military entrenchment in Iraq: missile systems and Shiite militias that obey Tehran.

Media outlets previously reported that Iran set up missile launchers in Iraq and gave ballistic missiles to its Iraqi proxies, while developing the capacity to build more missiles there with the ranges to threaten both Israel and Saudi Arabia. Now Tehran is, according to Israeli intelligence, actually providing the militias with accurate missiles capable of striking anywhere in Israel. Such intelligence appears to be why, just this week, the media reported Israeli airstrikes in Iraq for the first time since 1981, when Jerusalem destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor. This ongoing expansion of the conflict between Iran and Israel foreshadows a coming storm in the Middle East, one that could engulf the entire region.

Israel struck Iranian targets in Iraq twice in the last two weeks, according to Asharq al-Awsat, an Arabic newspaper based in London. Citing Western diplomatic sources, the publication reported Tuesday that the first attack occurred on July 19, when an Israeli F-35 fighter jet hit a base in the Saladin province, north of Baghdad. Arab media outlets reported separately that members of the IRGC and Hezbollah were killed, and that, shortly before the attack, Iranian ballistic missiles arrived covertly at the base. A state-run Iranian news agency appeared to corroborate these reports, announcing the death of a senior IRGC commander in an "Israeli-American" attack in Iraq on the same date.

Asharq al-Awsat also reported that Israel attacked another base in Iraq on Sunday, this one northeast of Baghdad and about 80 kilometers from the Iranian border, targeting Iranian advisers and a shipment of ballistic missiles from Iran.

The alleged strikes came after Israeli security officials warned that Iran was building storage sites in Iraq for missiles to be deployed to Syria or Lebanon to attack Israel. And just three days after the first strike, Israel's ruling Likud party reposted a clip of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promising to strike Iran anywhere to thwart its ambitions, including in Iraq.

If these reports are true, then Israel, which has neither confirmed nor denied the strikes, is signaling it is prepared to do whatever is necessary to prevent Iran from achieving its goals in Iraq, as in Syria. Furthermore, the reported strikes are the latest indication that the Israeli-Iranian conflict is far from over, with Iraq emerging as a crucial battleground. But Israel faces complications carrying out strikes in Iraq that it does not face in Syria. First, many of the Iranian-backed militias are part of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMUs), an umbrella organization that the Iraqi government is integrating with its security forces. So striking militias risks escalating tensions with Baghdad. Second, while the Trump administration supports Israel’s anti-Iranian efforts in Syria, it may be more hesitant to back Israeli strikes in Iraq. American forces deployed in Iraq work with the Iraqi security forces, and Israeli strikes could lead Shiite militias to retaliate by attacking those forces. Fear of such retaliation should under no circumstances dictate Washington's behavior, but it may nonetheless. President Trump, moreover, wants Iraq to become stable as soon as possible, especially after the collapse of the Islamic State's caliphate. Israeli military action could lead to escalation and spook foreign investors who want to rebuild Iraq.

But the greatest danger is that the Israeli-Iranian conflict spills into Lebanon, triggering another war between Israel and Hezbollah. This outcome is quite possible for several reasons. Iran's imperial expansion should generally be understood as part of its strategy to build a "land bridge" from its borders to the Mediterranean Sea (with Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon in between), a continuous corridor of political and military control from which to exert influence across the Middle East, weaken America's role in the region, and, of course, destroy Israel. Because securing routes between Iraq and Syria is a crucial part of this effort, ongoing Iranian construction on a new border crossing, which may open in the next couple of months, is troubling. Among other purposes, Iran wants to use such crossings and the larger land bridge to traffic weapons to Hezbollah. In fact, ensuring a survivable pathway to Hezbollah is one of Iran's chief reasons for intervening in Syria—an objective that Israel is determined to thwart. Hezbollah also has thousands of fighters deployed in Iraq and Syria to support Iran's expansionism. In this strategic environment, it is all too easy to imagine Lebanon, which Hezbollah dominates both politically and militarily, becoming more directly involved in the fight.

A war between Israel and Hezbollah would be catastrophic, embroiling much of the Middle East and causing unimaginable destruction. Hezbollah has an estimated 130,000 rockets ready to fire at Israel, and because Israel is such a small country with few key strategic targets, Jerusalem would need to act immediately in a conflict with overwhelming force. The Israelis have learned from the last war in 2006, which was not the overwhelming success that Israel usually enjoys against Arab armies—they will not hold back this time. (Gabi Ashkenazi, the former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, said that in the next war it will be forbidden to ask who won. Presumably the answer will be beyond any doubt.) Furthermore, the Lebanese military closely collaborates with Hezbollah. The two are effective allies, making it likely that Israel would need to regard the state's armed forces as hostile in a war.

Critically, such a war would not just include Hezbollah and its Iranian masters. For years, there have been growing signs that Iraq would be involved. Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has said that a future war with Israel could draw thousands of fighters from Iraq. A commander of Iraq's PMUs warned earlier this year that the militias are ready to respond to Israeli acts of "hostility." Last year, the head of a powerful Iraqi Shiite militia pledged to stand alongside Hezbollah if a war breaks out with Israel, saying his group will fight with its Lebanese ally "in a single row, on a single front, just as we stood with them on a single front in Iraq or Syria." One key question is whether and to what extent the Iraqi government would get involved, as many of the Iranian-backed militias are part of Iraq's security apparatus. Regardless of Baghdad's role, however, Iran's recent military emphasis on Iraq, and the Israeli responses that it triggers, only makes it more likely that Iraq will be belligerent in a future conflict.

Beyond Iraq, Iran would bring in Shiite fighters from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and possibly Yemen (not to mention Iran itself) to fight Israel in the event of a third Lebanon war. And Iran could possibly coordinate with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, two Palestinian terrorist organizations it supports, to barrage Israel with rockets from Gaza and the West Bank as the Jewish state is focused to the north, where it borders Syria and Lebanon. The regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad would also support the Iranian-led axis.

War between Israel and Hezbollah would be a perfect storm, and Israel's reported strikes in Iraq are a reminder of how far-reaching that conflict would be. Israel's clear willingness to use any and all means, including its immense military power, to counter Iran's goals has deterred Tehran, forcing the regime to alter its calculations. And a mutual understanding of how terrible a new war would be has prevented full-scale conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. But Israeli deterrence, while essential and potent, is no panacea. Here is where America can help.

If the United States wants to prevent a devastating war in the Middle East and support a critical strategic ally against their mutual enemies, then Washington needs to establish a level of credible military deterrence in Iraq and Syria, working with Israel to signal to the Iranian-led axis that acts of aggression will carry heavy—and perhaps deadly—costs. In other words, the United States needs to strike Iranian targets if necessary. Those who argue such actions are reckless and would trigger a war with Iran should be asked to explain how Israel has been striking these targets for years. The American military would only enhance Israel's deterrence.

There are many additional steps to be taken. One is to continue to impose sanctions on Iran and Hezbollah. Perhaps most important, however, the United States must provide Israel steadfast political and diplomatic support in the event of war and do everything in its power to push Western governments to do so as well. Hezbollah knows it cannot defeat Israel on the battlefield, so it embeds its forces and weapons throughout civilian areas to force Israel to kill innocents. The terrorist group used human shields in 2006 and, according to reports, plans to do so in a future fight. Israel does all it can to avoid killing civilians, but, in the fog of war, it is impossible to ensure zero civilian casualties. Nonetheless, Europe and the United Nations condemn Israel and effectively take the side of Israel's enemies, emboldening Hezbollah to be aggressive. The United States should not only support Israel's right to counter Iran and Hezbollah by any means necessary during a war, but also before one. Only through concerted, consistent action today is it possible to avoid catastrophe tomorrow.