On the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, Hamas, a Palestinian militant faction fighting against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, launched Operation “Al-Aqsa Flood.” Israel was caught off-guard by this surprise attack from Hamas, and the fighters successfully made inroads into Israeli territory. Hamas fighters operate just a few miles from the West Bank and Jerusalem. U.S. President Joseph Biden has pledged to support Israel amidst the terrorist onslaught, and his exact words are, “Let there be no mistake: The United States stands with the State of Israel.” U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) has announced they are moving the USS Gerald Ford, their biggest aircraft carrier striker group, towards the Eastern Mediterranean to aid the Israelis.
Reportedly, Iranian proxies operating out of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon have announced that in case of direct American involvement in the conflict would make the American assets and bases in the Middle East legitimate military targets. Wall Street Journal also claimed that the Iranian Quds force generals and Hezbollah commanders planned Operation Al-Aqsa Flood months ago. Iranian officials have refuted the claims about their involvement in the recent conflict. It is important to note that before the conflict erupted in occupied Palestinian territories, Saudis were very close to recognizing Israel and joining the Abraham Accords. In an interview, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman accepted that we are engaging with Israel. In the wake of recent conflict, Saudis have informed U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken that all talks are off with Israel.
The first Geo-political casualty of this ongoing conflict is the Saudi-Israel diplomatic normalization. The question arises as to whether this conflict can spread horizontally in the Middle East.
The United States has unequivocally pledged support to Israel amidst the so-called terrorist onslaught on Israel. If the U.S. intervenes in the battle to save the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) from capitulation, Iran would likely respond via its proxies out of Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. The most important and well-trained of those proxies is Hezbollah, which operates out of South Lebanon and shares a contiguous border with Israel. Hezbollah has 20,000 active troops and approximately 1 lac reservists who are not well-trained as active fighters but can aid the regulars in an all-out war. Reportedly, Hezbollah possesses an arsenal of 2 lac short-range rockets, Short-range ballistic missiles SRBM) and scud missiles. Hezbollah’s maximum range of the Scud-B/C missile in its arsenal is 500 km. This missile can even go beyond the Israeli territory and strike deep into the Sinai Peninsula. Similarly, Khaibar-1 has a range of 100 km, Zelzal 2 has an effective range of 210 km, and Fateh-110 has an effective range of 300 km.
Iran has proxies in Syria and can launch attacks from the west into the Israeli-occupied territories. It is crucial to remember the Golan Heights, which Israelis occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israel war, and the Israelis have never vacated from those heights. The reason for the Israeli occupation of the Golan height is the military importance of those heights. Below the Golan heights are vast flat lands of Syria, and IDF can easily observe and neutralize any movement originating from Syria. The second most important reason for the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights is because they are critical to the water security of Israel. The water that flows from the Golan accumulates into the Sea of Galilee, and Israel depends heavily on this only fresh water source, which is available to Israelis. Along with Iranian militias, the Syrian Arab army may vouch to regain control of strategic Golan heights for the same reasons as the Israelis.
Americans and Israelis may respond to this escalation by going for counter-value and counter-force targets.
Counter-value targets include Iranian oil and natural gas deposits and reserves because the Iranian economy relies heavily on the exports of petroleum products. Iran’s Oil revenues in 2022 were figured at 42.6 Billion dollars. The counter-force mark includes the Iranian command and control structure, ballistic missile sites, and nuclear enrichment facilities. They may go for the decapitation strike to eliminate Iran’s complete political and military leadership of Iran, but it’s easier said than done.
Iran would likely respond to this horizontal escalation by targeting American assets and bases in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. has stationed at least 44000 active troops in their headquarters across the Persian Gulf. The three largest among those widespread U.S bases are in Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait, which houses 33000 soldiers alone. Iran has a robust ballistic missile program and would likely respond to American and Israeli strikes by launching ballistic missiles at U.S. bases in the region and Israeli heartland. Iran would likely mobilize its SRBM and Medium-Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBM) arsenal. The range of those missiles varies between 300 km to 2000 km. Emad-1 and Ashura MRBM could target Israeli territory, and various SRBM could target U.S. bases next door to Iran in the Persian Gulf.
This conflict’s geopolitical and economic repercussions would be catastrophic for the whole world.
The geopolitical cost would be the spread of conflict to the whole of the Middle East, the end of normalization deals with Israel as evident, the likely use of nuclear weapons, a surge in terrorism and militancy, the end of American presence in the region, and very likely become a catalyst for the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region.
The economic cost of this likely escalation in conflict would be enormous on the global supply chain of fossil fuels, which are already under strain due to the Russia-Ukraine war. Persian Gulf countries produce 17 million barrels of oil and 3.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas daily, accounting for 20% of global fossil fuel needs. All of this gas and fossil fuel passes through the Strait of Hormuz.
In war, the supply would be completely cut off, or Iran may deliberately block the Strait of Hormuz by placing sea mines or targeting ships and tankers passing through this narrow Strait. The saner voices in the Middle East and globally should call for an emergency UN Security Council meeting to develop the framework to end the hostilities because if this conflict spreads, everyone will suffer, whether close or far away from the Middle East.
The author is currently working as a Research Assistant at Strategic Vision Institute, Islamabad. His research focuses on the Middle East and its security issues, strategic stability, and Nuclear Non-Proliferation.