Smoke billowing during Israeli bombardment in the Gaza Strip, Palestine, Nov. 2, 2023. (AFP Photo)

Apocalyptic turn in the Middle East

The operation launched by Hamas against Israel on Oct. 7 continues, accompanied by Israel’s extensive air and ground operations. Israel’s military attacks carried out to overcome the shock experienced within the country, reestablish military deterrence and eliminate Hamas through the collective punishment method have now completed their 24th day.

The operation launched by Hamas against Israel on Oct. 7 continues, accompanied by Israel’s extensive air and ground operations. Israel’s military attacks carried out to overcome the shock experienced within the country, reestablish military deterrence and eliminate Hamas through the collective punishment method have now completed their 24th day.

Israel’s primary strategic objective is to occupy Gaza through full-scale ground operations. However, by the 24th day of the war, there were doubts about the realization of this goal. The civilian casualties resulting from the disproportionate bombardment of Gaza, the reactions of the international community and the possibility of the conflict evolving into a regional war are increasing pressure on Israel and weakening Tel Aviv’s determination to sustain military operations.

Although Israel’s operations against Gaza and the ground operation appear to be tactical and operational, the asymmetric nature of the conflict and its complexity may yield strategic outcomes not only for Israel but also for the entire region. Considering Oct. 7 and the developments since then, the tactical, operational and strategic dynamics of the current situation can be listed as follows:

  • Hamas’ Oct. 7 operation caused a strategic shock in Israel, undermining Israel’s security doctrine built on military deterrence.
  • Israel is using all available means to overcome this strategic shock.
  • In the current situation, Israel is not interested in returning to the status quo on the Palestinian and Gaza issues, as it did in previous years.
  • Israel’s first objective is to establish a new status quo to restore its deterrence.
  • Israel’s short-term goals include the (partial or comprehensive) occupation of Gaza, the elimination of Hamas and the establishment of a new post-occupation administration.
  • Israel’s strategic objectives include the dehumanization of Gaza and the displacement of the people of Gaza to Egypt.
  • The Israeli government tries to legitimize the war on theo-political grounds dominated by religious references.
  • Depending on Israel’s mode of operation, the possibility of escalation of the conflict is quite high.
  • Although it is unlikely that the region’s countries will develop a common position in the short term, radical changes in the positions of the main actors may occur depending on the prolongation and spread of the conflict.
  • The possible proximate effects of the conflicts have largely ended regional normalization.
  • Israel’s aggressive military operations and collective punishment methods involving war crimes may trigger a new process of radicalization, especially in the Middle East, and may lead to radical organizations gaining ground.

Escalation of the conflict

All these dynamics indicate that several scenarios are possible in the coming weeks. The first of these scenarios is that Israel, in its ground operation against Gaza, does not limit itself to the northern sector and attempts to occupy the entire Gaza Strip. This alternative, which is based on Israel taking control of the northern sector of Gaza first, may be aimed at pushing some of the Gazans toward Egypt and bringing the rest of the Gaza region back under Israeli control after prolonged and heavy-loss urban battles. In this scenario, Israel would suffer heavy casualties on the Gaza front, while the potential for Hamas and other Palestinian formations to respond to Israel would be eliminated. In this scenario, the military conflict is likely to escalate. In the event of a ground operation, low-intensity fighting is likely to take place in the West Bank and on the Syrian and Lebanese fronts. The escalation of clashes and casualties may lead to the mobilization of Palestinians in the West Bank and Palestinians living in Israel, who are Israeli citizens, and the expansion of the conflict within Israel. The spread of the conflict would also mean an increase in conflicts between Israeli society and Palestinian Arabs, which could further facilitate the realization of the third Intifada.

Hezbollah’s willingness to get involved in the conflict within the current dynamics may characterize the conflict as a multi-actor one. With the Israeli ground operation, it is a possible scenario that the current conditions of military engagement on the Lebanese-Israeli border, which is currently subject to low-intensity conflicts, will change, and Hezbollah will be fully involved in the war. Both the direct statements made by Iranian officials and the discourse of Hezbollah leaders may directly involve Hezbollah in the conflicts with the deepening and expansion of the ground operation. Considering that Israel has increased its military deployment in the region, it is seen that Israel has made serious preparations against this possibility. Since the 2006 war and the Arab uprisings, it is seen that Hezbollah has significantly improved its capacity as an asymmetric power element, has missiles of different ranges and capacities, and has a serious inventory in terms of kamikaze drones and anti-tank systems. Hezbollah elements mobilized in the south of Lebanon, Shebaa Farms and the Syrian Golan Heights are capable of using the topographical structure of the region to their advantage.

While Israel will face serious resistance in Gaza during the land operation, Hezbollah’s involvement in the process with all its capabilities is likely to force Israel militarily. Apart from the losses on the Lebanese border, Hezbollah’s missile saturation may exceed the defense threshold of the Iron Dome, and serious damage may be caused by missiles on the Israeli surface. At this point, Israel will be faced with the dilemma of whether to invade South Lebanon from the ground or not, while Lebanon and, if there are attacks from the Golan, Lebanon or Syria could be bombed intensively from the air, damaging the civilian and military infrastructure of these countries together with Hezbollah. At this point, if the United States does not get directly involved in the war, Israel may be forced into a cease-fire.

Another scenario is the mobilization of Hezbollah and Iranian proxy elements in Iraq, Syria and Yemen and their involvement in conflicts as Israel’s ground operation expands. When we look at the behavior of the relevant actors so far, they have been involved in the process as a deterrent force. Again, the military structures affiliated with the Yemen-based Ansarullah movement attempted a missile attack on Israel over the Red Sea, but these attacks were prevented by the U.S. warships in the region. These low-intensity military engagements, which have so far manifested as a show of strength and a test of deterrence between the U.S. and Iran, may lead to a multifront conflict situation if Israel continues the process of squeezing the Gazans first to the south and then driving them to Egypt with a land operation.

If Israel is forced militarily on two fronts, the U.S. may launch airstrikes against Hezbollah, especially in Syria. In such a situation, it seems likely that Iran and its affiliated groups will mobilize and strike U.S. bases in the region, especially in Iraq and Syria, and launch attacks against Israel through Syria. It is estimated that there are more than 100,000 military elements affiliated with Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq, while the number of Shiite militias affiliated with Iran in Syria is around 70,000. These elements, which also have serious military equipment, seem to have a serious deterrent effect with their asymmetric power elements.

A regional war

In the face of such a spiral of conflict, the U.S. may need to evacuate its military bases in Iraq and Syria. Alternatively, though less likely, it could increase the number of its troops and attempt to fortify its own proxy elements, such as the YPG, the PKK’s Syrian presence, using them as a resistance against Shiite militias, especially in Syria. However, given the KCK/PKK’s engagement with Iran, this possibility seems remote. In this scenario, it can be anticipated that the U.S. would conduct aerial bombardments in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, resulting in significant blows to the military, political and economic stability of these countries. While Iran would continue to support proxy elements, Russia would indirectly back these asymmetric elements, further undermining U.S. interests.

In a situation where Israel initiates a ground operation, and Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies engage in conflicts against the U.S., it raises the possibility of direct Iranian involvement in the war. This scenario could come to fruition if the U.S. holds Iran responsible for its proxies and launches airstrikes against Iran or if Iran takes direct military action against Israeli and U.S. assets. Iran would face the dilemma of either endorsing the elimination of Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon or becoming directly involved in the war. In such a scenario, the entire region, including Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Israel, would witness a serious war involving states and their proxies. If a cease-fire is not promptly established, the likelihood of a regional war is considerable.

In summary, Israel’s rhetoric of war, its war methods in the conflict and its genocidal policy toward Gaza are pushing the region into a chaotic and conflict-ridden process.

[Daily Sabah, November 1, 2023]

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