Over the past couple of years, several wars in the Middle East have died down. The U.S. ended most of its Inherent Resolve combat missions against ISIS in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and the Houthis have observed a delicate ceasefire in Yemen. Primary combat operations of the Syrian Civil War have died down with meditations between Turkey, Russia, and Assad’s government.
With a relative yet uneasy “peace” in the region, low-level conflicts with the potential to become an open war have emerged. Iran and Israel have been waging a shadow conflict across the Middle East and South Caucasus that could have broader U.S. implications as Iranian proxies have targeted American forces in the region on several dozen occasions. Initially, these acts were seen as low-level tit-for-tat operations that could not have gone into an open conflict. Still, due to geopolitical tensions, it is now possible, and the U.S. should be prepared for any scenario.
The Shadow Conflict Between Israel and Iran
Hostile relations between Israel and Iran have put the region on edge. When the Mullahs took power from the Shah in 1979, they later declared a fatwa and intention to destroy Israel. Realizing they could use their new personal military, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), to export their theocratic interests, Tehran would strike against Israel and the West in several nations.
In Lebanon, the IRGC formed the militia and terrorist organization Hezbollah. The Iranian-backed militia was responsible for the Marine Barracks and Embassy bombings along with frequent guerrilla tactics against the IDF for several decades.
The IRGC has also armed the Houthis in Yemen and Palestinian factions along with Shiite Iraqi militias that killed hundreds of U.S. forces during the occupation. It should be noted the notorious Quds Force Commander, Qasem Soleimani was an UN-designated global terrorist and was killed for directing these militias.
Israel would strike back against Iran’s proxies which formed in their backyard, by likewise conducting the same in the South Caucasus. Azerbaijan’s 2020 victory against Armenia was due to the help of drones purchased from Turkey and Israel. In return for the assistance, Baku has given Tel Aviv access to their airspace to conduct operations against Tehran, putting the Islamic Republic in a panic.
Growing Tensions in Syria
Though the Syrian War is a frozen conflict between rebel and government forces, a new dangerous phase has occurred between international actors. Iranian-backed militias have stepped up attacks against U.S. forces in Eastern Syria—assessing the red line limits. At the same time, Washington has been distracted by tensions in Ukraine and the Korean Peninsula.
The Pentagon had admitted it has not reciprocated to the number of provocations by the militias, which the IRGC could see as a sign of weakness. With Congress convening on a potential troop withdrawal from Syria, the Iranian militias would look to humiliate U.S. forces from the country, akin to how the Taliban waited for the end of combat phases to overrun the Afghan Army.
Israel has not been idle to these militias in the Levant and has stepped up strikes on IRGC and Hezbollah commanders in Syria. The Israeli Air Force targeted IRGC warehouses and command posts throughout the war, holding Assad accountable for weapons transactions between the militias. These attacks have heightened as Russia has become militarily degraded to where it can no longer provide adequate protection.
The Islamic Republic has attempted to build a coalition on Israel’s northern borders in Southern Syria as the nation has now become a vassal of Iran and Russia all but in name. This has allowed an illicit captagon drug trade that has turned Syria into the world’s largest narcotics state and a potential stream of weapons through Jordan to the West Bank paramilitaries.
Israel’s Turbulence Gives New Life
Mid-2022 saw Iran go through its most significant series of protests in years, which Israel looked to take advantage of. This has changed as Tel Aviv has gone through its own major series of protests instead of Netanyahu’s planned judicial reforms and legislative consolidation.
The ongoing protests have seen radical elements backing Netanyahu’s coalition that have given degrading remarks toward the Arabs in the nation, which could lead to potential recruitment by IRGC cells. Initially firing his defense minister to major controversy, Netanyahu has reversed this decision due to the significant security situation. Hezbollah, Assad’s Baathist party, Palestinian militant factions, and the IRGC will look to take advantage of this in the upcoming months.
Drifting US-Israeli Relations
Over the past several months, there have been worrying signs that Iran is close to making a nuclear bomb, with Israel preparing strike plans in their contingency. Despite Secretary of State Blinken, Secretary of Defense Austin, and General Milley visiting the nation, the current administration has not given understandable signs over its Iran policy.
Initially wanting to revive the nuclear deal, also known as the JCPOA, the White House has remained indifferent. Israel has stated they would act unilaterally in this indifference as a rogue theocracy with nuclear weapons is detrimental to their national security. Both Biden and Netanyahu have had a dispute over the latter’s autocratic stance that has also caused friction in relations.
Relations between Washington and Tel Aviv will remain tantamount due to the ever-changing geopolitical shifts in the region. Now bolstered by what they perceive as weakness, the IRGC and its proxies will continue to push red lines to see how far their operations can go unless they are forcibly checked.
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