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America Stands to Lose in a Middle East World War

A quagmire conflict with Iran or its proxies does not serve U.S. interests.

Taiz,_,Yemen,_,21,Feb,2017,:,Soldier,Fighting
akramalrasny

Amid last Thursday’s strikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen, the assassination of a Hamas leader in Lebanon and the possibility of an escalation in the Israel-Hamas war, the United States should disentangle itself from the current conflict. Potential quagmires await from confronting Iranian proxies in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon, and American interests would be harmed by misadventures in these places.

The U.S. has been recycling the same playbook since 2019 in dealing with Iranian proxies: sanction them, conduct strikes, and wait for the ensuing blowback. Since October 17, there have been 134 attacks on American personnel. The lack of fatalities has helped keep escalation low, but circumstances and not prudence have shaped this outcome.

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If American troops are to be anything other than bait for rocket attacks, they cannot be left in this tenuous position. Iran’s grip on militias in Iraq effectively gives them tens of thousands of loyal fighters, who can be equipped with advanced drones and missiles in short order. The JV squad may not be able to harm U.S. troops, but Iran has a plethora of more advanced systems in reserve that it can disperse if conditions merit their use.

American troops, with limited air defense coverage in the Syrian desert, would pay the price.

Following rocket attacks in northern Israel and last week’s assassination of a Hamas leader, Israel’s war may also spread to a second front against Hezbollah in Lebanon. An Israeli invasion of Lebanon would likely fare poorly, given Israel’s already strenuous commitments to the Gaza front and their lackluster performance in the 2006 war. Moreover, Hezbollah’s capabilities in both depth and quality have grown tremendously since that war.

These factors mean that Israel’s successful prosecution of a war in Lebanon would likely depend on substantial and direct American involvement. Washington should make it clear that this is a non-starter, or the preventable costs in blood and treasure will be borne by America’s youth.

Yemen is another potential flashpoint. The United States’s principal role has been the protection of shipping in the Red Sea following a series of attacks on commercial ships. To this end, the U.S. recently targeted Houthi gunboats in the Red Sea. As the administration considers further strike options, Washington should resist the urge to press further than this protective role.

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The Houthis have been targeted by American-made bombs for nearly nine years; they have only consolidated their position further and augmented their missile arsenal. Further American intervention in Yemen would not yield a different outcome, and would likely encourage the Houthis to exacerbate their attacks on shipping as their only means of retaliation.

Iran has been operating with unusual brazenness as the confrontation in the Red Sea continues, sending an Iranian warship; it is likely to provide intelligence to the Houthis and signal a willingness to risk more. The United States should take this signal for what it is; the strategy up to this point has not deterred Iran or its proxies. Moreover, there are limitations to using convoys to protect shipping. The longer this Red Sea situation continues, the more likely it is that shipping is diverted regardless—which is already happening—and the benefits to American interests rendered moot.

Direct confrontation with Iran and not its proxies is also a risk. The bombing in Kerman which killed over 100 civilians has not been attributed to Israel by either U.S. or Iranian officials. The targeting of civilians commemorating the killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani is likely to inflame tensions regardless of the perpetrator.

In response to this enhanced threat perception in Iran, the United States should open backchannels to de-escalate while both nations have the political bandwidth to do so. Iranian leaders have been deliberately trying to avoid direct intervention in the Israel-Hamas war, and providing off ramps to avoid a U.S.–Iran war is in line with both sides’ strategic interests.

The United States risks stumbling into war through escalation with Iran’s proxies. But the current flashpoints can be removed without sacrificing anything in America’s interest. The anti-ISIS mission in Iraq and Syria has accomplished its purpose of denying the group its territorial caliphate; the troops there should be withdrawn. The Houthis can likely not be coerced into changing their behavior, and escalating will likely prompt them to disrupt more shipping than inaction. Israel can deal with the border skirmishes from Hezbollah without U.S. assistance. The balance of risk and reward matter. The rewards for staying are intangible, dubious, and largely imaginary. The risks for staying are bloody, costly, and catastrophic.

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