The following paragraphs are a brief and overly simplistic explanation of the realism of how we got here in 2023 in the Middle East. It does not include moral judgments of who actually did what to whom, because in realpolitik such ideals lose all of their value early on. Moreso in our information age where we cannot even trust pictures we see or, in the case of some leaders do not see but claim they did. There are no “good guys” in all this, and the only innocents are infants that did not cause it and can’t stop it. There is only geopolitics and ideologies clashing against each other in the shape of religion (secular religion for some, spiritual for others).
Let us be clear about a fact. The United States and Iran have been at war for a very long time, perhaps and probably since the Shah was deposed. On October 23, 1983 there was no doubt as the IRCG made it clear in the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon that 1) a state of war existed and 2) from the Iranian perspective the Levant was a strategic near abroad that they would contest. We must be clear about something else that was obvious to many before but perhaps not to the extent that it exists. The strategic interests of Israel and the US are intertwined. Stated more accurately, the strategic interest of Israel are intertwined into US policy is such a way that the two are inseparable. In the world, as it is, Iran is existentially committed to the Levant just as the US is to Israel.
But war has raged between the two, and or their proxies, for decades. Most of it has been skullduggery, and if one were to keep score based upon tonnage of explosives perhaps, Iran has gotten the worst of it. It is a known fact that US troops engaged with and were killed by Iranian proxies in Iraq. The US/ISR, before early 2020 at least, was more nuanced. assassinations, malware, and spies lurking in the dark comprised the bulk response, an incomplete list of such activities is available here. My only purpose in pointing this out is to scope the problem. The US and Iran have been at war for a long time. What has happened in the last two weeks and what is likely to happen must be viewed through that light.
There is plenty of punditry about who did what to whom before, during and after the Hamas attack on Israel a week and a half ago. Let’s move past that. In the aftermath Israel mobilized 300,000 reservists and began using analogies about 9/11 and eliminating Gaza altogether. By Friday 13 October Israel had conducted four days of shaping operations via airstrikes and had positioned forces in significant numbers around Gaza proper. Most of the supposedly expert and impartial “OSINT” community was convinced and said so with confidence that a ground incursion/assault would begin on the 14th of October. An IDF spokesman said on the 14th that the assault would begin in hours. And then it did not.
In the midst of all that, in fact, in the days prior, The Iranian Foreign minister had been a very busy man, shuttling from one Muslim country to the next. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and even Turkey made official statements in the days prior that broke with the script of American hegemony. Hezbollah had made bold statements indicating it had every intention of intervening if Israel went into Gaza. In fact, on the 14th on at least two occasions, Israeli air defenses appeared susceptible to spoofing and/or swarming.
The US of course had done its part. The USS Ford CSG steamed to the Eastern Mediterranean, at one point the big lady steamed ahead of her escorts it appears from satellite imagery, highlighting the urgency. Elements of the 101st were repositioned from Romania to Jordan and a MEU embarked in Kuwait to also steam to the east Mediterranean.
Israel eventually announced, late on the 14th (GMT) that the operation in Gaza was delayed because of “weather”. Radar images at the time displayed clear skies. Video from earlier in the day in Tel Aviv and along the Gaza border showed clear skies. Video from just a couple hours before the “weather” announcement displayed air defense systems in Tel Aviv engaging targets, with stars visible. Within minutes of the IDF announcement, OSINT accounts began circulating a picture of a flooded street in daylight hours that was flooded (again with sunny skies). These stenographers of whatever the preferred story is never questioned the IDF rationale. Some offered that the previous IDF claims of an impending and imminent attack were just feints by the IDF. While the feint excuse has become popular in the Ukraine conflict when “experts” get it wrong it is feasible that their arguments could have been correct. After all, the civilian population of Gaza had not left, after being told to leave -never mind there are no actual exits from Gaza for them to utilize. Also, the shaping operations prior to the 14th seemed inadequate. But all of that is juxtaposed against a big invisible ticking clock. The longer Israel waited the greater the chance that international pressure could rise to thwart them and the larger the chance that Netanyahu’s government might collapse. All of that might have been up for debate as to which was most likely, until Sunday morning.
We noticed a shift beginning with various talking heads appearing on the Sunday morning talk shows. The US very often uses that format on that day to float policy shifts. US officials began speaking of “proportional response”. Blinken departed to begin the exact same efforts the Iranian FM had carried out the week prior. The world got to witness Blinken being lectured by foreign ministers in Qatar and Egypt. Blinken was relegated to meeting with the Saudi FM while MbS spoke on the phone with the Iranian president. It looked frantic and a bit pathetic and perhaps far too late. If there was room to debate what occurred on the 14th, the walking back of hard words and the arm’s length shunning of US diplomatic efforts beginning on the 15th removes that doubt.
Iran accomplished something that has been impossible in the Muslim world. Only Saladin could rally Turks Kurds and Sunnis to a crusade against the West. Iran, for a day or two at least, seemingly did more. Just the specter of that reality was sufficient to stand the entire IDF down and confound US gunboat diplomacy and force a shift and a rethink.
The shift lasted until Monday, 16 October. It was apparent from Iranian statements and others that no longer did they merely oppose a full-scale ground operation, they opposed leaving the Gazans to die of starvation and dehydration. When this became evident, Israeli messaging shifted, first to a clearance of northern Gaza, and then waffling between all of Gaza and perhaps southern Lebanon.
It is a rock and a hard place for each side. Israel cannot back down. It is impossible to maintain a complete embargo of food and water on a population of a couple million. Time is ticking, very soon the number of deaths from cholera, dehydration and simple dysentery will mount to a level that will sway international opinion against Israel. The backpedaling performed by the US had no apparent effect on Iran, in fact the opposite, Iran has, as discussed, issued proclamations that expand the scope of the threat. Thus, Israel must act and they must act soon.
All of this is occurring within a matrix of problems the West faces. A two-year war in Ukraine drew upon the arsenals of the West in a way its industrial base is simply not configured to accommodate. All of the symptomatic problems of a civilization in Spengler’s winter are evident. Almost everything people argue abut on social media is just a symptom of that reality, not the cause. It comes on the heels of a colossal twenty-year failure in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it comes at a time when Chinese soft-power efforts have placed it in a position outside and above the fray, almost a shining city on a hill to many compared to the current order. All of these matters are well-known and often discussed in the media and social media. Seldom are they all tied to the root cause and seldom is the implication of the holistic dilemma discussed openly. The root cause, a civilizational hegemon that is waning, will continue to birth new symptoms that are themselves seemingly unsolvable. All of this will continue to manifest as a sick old man in geopolitics to those who seek to fundamentally change the paradigm.
Summary of what it is really.
In simple terms, the 14th of October 2023 was a watershed moment in the decades-long war between Iran and the US. The Muslim world found a common cause that they could stand around if not on for at least a moment. It is different than the Israeli-Arab wars in both meaning and potential scope. That it is potentially Pan-Muslim rather than Pan-Arab makes it more civilizational and more Huntington than most understand. Israel has no choice but to act soon, the crisis is now existential. Iran cannot cede this momentum and it certainly cannot risk allowing the conflict to expand into the Levant unopposed, that is existential to them.
The Way Ahead
We are told that Joe Biden will visit Israel on Wed, 18 October and that he will sit in on the Israeli war cabinet, just as Blinken did – for anyone still confused as to the symbiotic nature of the US/ISR relationship. I would anticipate that Hezbollah and Hamas will behave, in terms of rocket attacks on Tel Aviv. I would anticipate that US warplanes will fly combat air patrols over Israel during Biden’s visit. It is a black swan, and possible, but I do not expect that Hezbollah or Hamas would do what they are likely capable of, closing the international airport in Tel Aviv as Biden approaches or is on the ground – but it is a black swan. I reckon they will let him come, do his visit and his speaking, and fly away.
I anticipate Israel will begin an operation in earnest either Wednesday night or Thursday (18 or 19 October) and no later than Saturday 21 October. The clock on people dying horrible deaths to privation is real and would be entirely too visible.
Israel’s ground operation will not be, the beginning of WWIII, it will not immediately entice Iran to join the fight. Israel might begin with JDAMS over suspected bunker and tunnel complexes, the success of which is hard to predict at this point. If the population of northern Gaza has not left enmasse such an operation is perilous to the Israelis, in theory. Yet, the question of if a tree falls in the woods and nobody is there is relevant. Few will ever really know just how many civilians do or do not evacuate. It is possible Israel could proceed with such an operation without a full evacuation and the only people that will know and believe what has really occurred are those inclined to believe and know now.
JDAMS are beastly weapons, they penetrate about 15 meters in sandy soil and can carry about 2000 lbs of explosives. Cumulative use in a given zone has an effect on the foundation of surrounding buildings. That is to say, the JDAM has a shaped charge effect that focuses the blast into the ground but the explosion itself has seismic impact on surrounding buildings. It is precision-guided…but it is still a sledgehammer hitting the ground. Given this fact, the JDAM will destroy some, but not all of the underground complexes but the use of this munition alongside the other bombs that have been dropped will create massive rubble fields.
Rubble fields in urban terrain make it impassable for tracked vehicles, requiring engineering assets to clear paths. The upside for the attacker is the denial to the defender of preprepared defensive positioning. The defender is stuck with scrambling to establish positions in the rubble as the attacker clears lanes to advance.
This method creates the same problem that merely starving the Gazans presents. It is slow, ponderous, and produces a lot of debris that is easily used by those who oppose you to call you a war criminal. Current theories related to combat in dense urban terrain call for a more finessed approach. Ideally, the attacker sets a large cordon around a location, conducts strikes on known hard points, and then audacity, speed, and technology begin setting internal cordons around defended positions as they are found. The more rubble, the harder this becomes. It also requires an organizational skillset that is lacking in most armies. I suspect it is lacking in the IDF based upon it being a conscript constabulary force.
The less subtle but safer method is a cordon then clearing block by block, isolating the defense as practicable.
That all said, it appears to me, the IDF is in for a long, slow and ponderous clearance operation and that is the real problem.
Many say, and I am unconvinced, that Hezbollah will enter the conflict as soon as the IDF enters Gaza. And by enter they mean more than random rocket strikes. They say this because it is entirely possible that Hezbollah could overwhelm the Israeli air defenses and hit all the major airfields. This would force the hand of the US and we would see US bombers launching from the carrier strike group immediately as well as from bases in Jordon. Many hold to this scenario, and it seems obvious, but I am not convinced. Such an act would not stop the ground assault, it would merely slow it down, and it would immediately change the primary focus of both the US and Israel toward Hezbollah. No, if there is a planner worth his salt in Iran and or Hezbollah they will not force such an engagement immediately. They will instead remain very dangerous, they will harass and they will allow the US to continue to ship precision-guided weapons to Israel (as well as ammunition and beans). A wise planner would wait until international outrage, particularly outrage in the Muslim world is at a fever pitch.
Hezbollah will not force such an engagement until Saudi Arabia is in such a pickle that MbS has no choice but to assure Iran that the Saudis will not allow basing or flyover rights to US planes. Hezbollah will not attack until the Shias in Iraq are so angry that they scare the Sunnis into compromise. Hezbollah will not attack until some agreements occur in Syria related to who needs to be fighting whom right now. At such a moment, even those US bases in Jordan are not a guaranteed continuing asset.
Of course, it remains to be seen if there is such a planner with strategic patience in Iran. Thus far it appears there might be.
One thing Americans fail to grasp is that Saudi Arabia is the key to our hegemony in the Middle East, not Israel. Without the Saudis and their airbases and flyover rights, Iran can deny us access to the Persian Gulf. In such a circumstance all the supply for airbases in Jordan, Iraq, and Kuwait has to come by air, from the north. It is damn near impossible to sustain the sort of operations at scale America is accustomed to under such circumstances. The loss of flyover rights across Saudi Arabia would turn our entire focus on Iran, the US would initiate that kinetic event. US planners have on the books a Caucus option…one that did not envision the possibility that Azerbaijan just smacked Armenia around, and if Blinken can be believed Azerbaijan may invade the whole place. If you take the Caucus off the table what is the US left with? Shall the 5th Fleet force the Straits of Hormuz in the face of Iranian missiles and land based aircraft? Maybe, and maybe they would win that engagement but unless you invade Iran you have to refight that battle with every transit. The US has not conducted a large-scale amphibious operation like the one required in that scenario since WWII. Could we? Perhaps. Would we, no. Would Israel nuke Iran in such a circumstance? I think the possibility is pretty high – and that opens up more possibilities.
It is hard to see how this all plays out, precisely, except, the US and Israel cannot win, if by winning we mean a return to anything like what was before.
Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (MbS) is a shrewd and wise man, a man possessed of enormous strategic patience. He senses that the very air has changed and he recognizes his critical role in it. He can and does speak the double talk of western politicians, he is a man that believes lying to liars is not dishonorable. If there is anyone to watch closely it is MbS, not just what he says, but to whom he talks to and his body language when he speaks with them. At his pleasure, he may allow the US empire to escape this with only egg on its face, if it serves the Kingdom or he may toy with the idea of allowing the Persians and Americans to troll themselves and destroy Israel and Palestine in the process for a new paradigm after.
If I had to venture a prediction. Israel and the US viewed the Hamas attack as the opportunity to fix the Gaza problem but also Hezbollah and Assad in Syria. Just as the US quickly expanded 9/11 justification to “solve” old problems. Nobody in the region is unaware of this and are planning accordingly. The manner in which things have progressed robbed from Israel some of its initial fire and thunder, but it is not gone. Hezbollah will likely not await the perfect diplomatic storm, they will likely not fully engage in the first moments but they will engage and force Israel to extend the conflict. There is no winning this for Israel now, no Six-Day War resolution, no short operation. It will go long and arduous and there is no victory condition or exit strategy that works. This will hasten the demise of the US empire, ensure Russian victory in Ukraine, coddle Europe into separation from the US and embolden China. (all of that before Israel launches nukes at Iran).
Living in the days of a dying empire that has forgotten how to make peace is a painful experience.