Israeli “Iron Dome” Missile Defense System in Action (Ap Photo: Tasafrir Abayov)
“You don’t have any communication between the Israelis and the Iranians. You have all sorts of local triggers for conflict. Having countries act on a hair trigger – where they can’t afford to be second to strike – the potential for a miscalculation or a nuclear war through inadvertence is simply too high.” Dennis Ross
As I write this the Israeli Army is beginning the mobilization of 30,000 reservists as the IDF continues to respond with great vigor to the missile attacks conducted by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad on Israeli cities including Tel Aviv. On the sidelines are Hezbollah and Iran while Egypt, now governed by leaders of the Islamic Brotherhood attempts to finesse support for the Islamists while not provoking a wider conflict with the Israelis. To the northeast, Israeli forces have exchanged fire with the forces of Bashir Assad’s Syria which are engaged in their own version of an Arabic Götterdämmerung against their own people.
In the past two days nearly 300 rockets launched from Gaza have hit Israel, killing 3 Israelis. The missiles that hit Tel Aviv were the first to hit that city since Saddam Hussein’s Scuds in the 1991 Gulf War. Over 100 more have been successfully intercepted by Israeli “Iron Dome” missiles. In response the IDF has launched numerous sustained attacks against Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other militant groups in Gaza, even killing the military chief of Hamas.
The Obama Administration has warned the Hamas forces to cease fire and urged leaders in Egypt and Turkey to help get the Hamas forces to stand down. Representatives of France are attempting to broker a cease fire even as the fighting escalates. The US Senate passed a unanimous declaration of support for Israel and demand for Hamas to cease its missile attacks.
The situation is escalating and could spread, especially in light of the fact that the Arab Spring swept away dictatorships like that of Hosni Mubarak which though they oppressed their own people also used their military and police power to just enough ant-Israel protest to defuse more extreme reactions. The fact that an Islamic Brotherhood government is now in control of Egypt is a wild card that no US administration has had to face since the days before the Camp David accords. Likewise the actions of the IDF two years ago against a Turkish flagged merchant ship attempting to break the Gaza blockade severely damaged Israeli-Turkish relations and crippled a previously strong Israeli-Turkish military alliance.
We are in uncharted waters. The US is tied down in Afghanistan and the burgeoning crisis in the senior leadership of the US military and intelligence services caused by the Petraeus scandal has the potential to cripple senior military and intelligence leadership. Likewise ongoing domestic political crisis brought about by a badly divided electorate and government as well as the Fiscal Cliff the timing could not be worse. Despite a decade of bloody and expensive military campaigns in the region United States now has less influence in the Middle East than it did in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and even the early 2000s.
As bad is the situation is the best case scenario is that it can be localized between the Israelis and Hamas in Gaza. As tragic and as devastating as that will be to both Israelis and Palestinians the possibility that the conflict could spread and become a regional war involving Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Syria and the United States is a distinct possibility. Syria is falling apart and in the middle of a brutal civil war. Lebanon is torn between its own historic divisions and heavily dominated by the Iranian backed Hezbollah terrorist group. Egypt is in the throws of its own revolution and in turmoil. Iran sits on the sidelines stoking the fires while making its own threats against Israel as well as its own Arab neighbors and the US forces in the region.
I am not going to try to predict what will happen next. The situation is developing and dangerous. One hopes for the best, that the conflict can be contained and the suffering of innocents minimized, but possibilities of a larger and more disastrous conflict are all too real not to downplay.