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Source: National Review

Feb 10, 2024

Biden-Style ‘De-Escalation’ Won’t Contain Iran

The goal of crisis management is not de-escalation at any price, but de-escalation that suits American and allied interests. The U.S. needs a better strategy.


In an old story, a psychic tells a man that he will die because of water. Fearing the sea, the man relocates to the desert. There, he dies from thirst. What one wishes most ardently to avoid can twist into one’s fate. The late January killing of three U.S. servicemen in Jordan by Iran-backed proxies was a predictable outcome of the Biden administration’s fear of escalation, which resulted in . . . escalation. Forced to act, President Biden responded. But there will be more such cases, because weeds do not stop growing unless pulled out by the roots — and Iran is the root of the proxy attacks.

Iran’s proxy campaign against the U.S. and Israel rests on a theory of strategic unification. Iran’s proxies link together the different theaters in the Middle East, creating a coherent, unified threat that simultaneously deters U.S. and Israeli action while imposing costs on both Jerusalem and Washington. The U.S. response should be to impose Iran’s strategic logic in reverse, punishing Iran for its disruption in the Red Sea and Iraq through pressure on its assets in Syria. This would meaningfully degrade Iranian combat capacity, signal America’s willingness to escalate, and come with only limited risk of strategic reprisals.

Tehran’s ultimate objective is to dominate the Middle East and export the Islamic revolution throughout the Muslim world. Islam, per the dream of contemporary Iran’s founding legislator, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, will regain its place amongst global civilizations in world history, with a series of Islamic Republics stretching from North Africa to Central Asia, all directed by Tehran.

Israel and the U.S. are the only regional actors seriously capable of countering Iran’s drive for regional dominance. Turkey’s interests are too narrow, and its domestic politics too fractious, for it to intervene robustly beyond the edge of the Levant. Egypt since 2011 has vacillated between the Muslim Brotherhood and military dictatorship, all the while beset by a festering economic crisis. The Gulf States are entirely uninterested in regional leadership, lacking the resources, population, or military competence to achieve it.

Instead, they seek to transform their societies without foreign interference. Pakistan is far too removed and distracted to act. It is nigh-impossible to envision an organic coalition emerging from this matrix of actors considering their contradictory strategic aims.

This explains the centrality of Israeli and American power. Israel is the only regional actor with a military capable of seriously damaging Iran. The U.S. could dismantle the Iranian military independently and has the intelligence and strike capacity to destroy Iran’s proxies. Thus, Iranian rulers’ foremost strategic goal: The U.S. must be ejected from the Middle East, and Israel destroyed, to ensure Iranian ascendancy.

Iran’s strategy balances its desire for total regional dominance with the strategic need for indirect confrontation through its proxies. Termed the Axis of Resistance, this alliance of proxies, non-state groups, and rebel movements now spans Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, including Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in Gaza and the West Bank and the Houthis in Yemen.

The Axis’s proxy character gives Iran crucial strategic flexibility. Iran clearly organizes, coordinates, trains, and directs all its regional proxies, from Hezbollah in Lebanon to Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces and the Yemeni Houthis. But each group is nominally independent, allowing Iran to insist, and sympathetic ears in the West to repeat, that Iran lacks a direct operational relationship with specific Axis member actions.

All the while, the Axis executes Iran’s strategic plan. In each target country, the lead Axis proxy slowly captures the security services, and then state institutions. Lebanon serves as the model. Hezbollah has expanded from a small but effective anti-Israeli militia into a full-fledged shadow state with greater military capabilities than the Lebanese Armed Forces, a de facto veto over Lebanese state policy, and the ability to access Lebanese intelligence.

Iran has yet to achieve state capture in its other theatres — Syria, Iraq, the West Bank, and Yemen — but it is on its way. It has picked favorite militias in Syria and, since 10/7, deployed tens of thousands of Iraqi militiamen to the Syrian–Israeli border. It has continued to expand the power of its preferred militias in Iraq. In the West Bank, it supports Hamas’s erosion of Fatah–Palestinian Authority leadership through a concerted smuggling effort. And in Yemen, the Houthi movement functions as a pseudo-state.

By capturing each state from within, Iran has created a comprehensive strategic framework that spans the Middle East. Hamas executed 10/7 with weapons smuggled from Iran through Iraq and Syria, and then likely through Lebanon and to the Egypt–Gaza Rafah crossing. After they’re funneled through ratlines from Damascus, Hamas uses those same weapons in the West Bank. Hezbollah’s sustainment also relies upon the Baghdad-to-Damascus pipeline.

All these groups, along with the Houthis, are coordinated from Iran, enabling Tehran to apply pressure to the U.S. and Israel across the Middle East. Hezbollah constantly threatens Israel’s northern border, while Hamas receives weapons from Syria through Jordan, Syrian and Iraqi militias attack U.S. assets in the Levant, and the Houthis attack international shipping and launch ballistic missiles at Israel. The goal is to overwhelm the U.S. regional strategic system while holding Israel in an indefinite state of military readiness and bogging it down in a series of peripheral campaigns.

Iran’s hope is that enough bad press will lead to an Israel–U.S. rupture, and the U.S. will withdraw from the Middle East in the face of persistent harassment. With Israel then isolated and exposed, Iran will be able to liberate al-Quds as the Jewish state collapses like a spiderweb, to use Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah’s preferred analogy.

Israel alone cannot counter this strategy. It can, of course, strike targets in Lebanon and Syria. But it cannot hit Iran directly and hope to land a crippling blow, by virtue of Iran’s improved air defenses. Nor can the IDF execute an air campaign in Syria capable of destroying Iranian infrastructure rapidly enough to avoid a major reprisal, delivered through Hezbollah rocket fire and cross-border raids into the Golan. Israel, in other words, must remove the threat Hezbollah poses on its terms, in a primarily Lebanese war, not in a Lebanese–Syrian War with a concurrent threat to the West Bank.

America, however, can apply force with only a limited chance of serious counter-escalation by using Iran’s own strategic logic. Specifically, a large-scale bombing campaign in Syria would undermine Iranian combat power and demonstrate that the U.S. understands the totality of the Iranian threat, while improving Israel’s strategic situation in the north.

Syria is the linchpin of Iran’s strategy. Iran expended enormous resources, and fully committed Hezbollah, to the Syrian Civil War to ensure its ally Bashar al-Assad remained in power, and thereby to cement its access to northeastern and southern Syria. This has allowed Iran to expand Hezbollah’s capabilities, pressure Israel from Syria directly, support Hamas in the West Bank, and increasingly threaten Jordan.

Major U.S. responses in Iraq run the risk of provoking an Iraqi political crisis that ultimately cancels U.S. basing rights — and the two most significant remaining U.S. installations, Erbil and al-Asad Air Bases, provide America with control of the Baghdad-to-Damascus roads. By contrast, responses in Syria will not precipitate a major legal reaction in Baghdad. Moreover, considering Iran-directed attacks on U.S. assets in Syria, President Biden need not achieve congressional authorization for attacks that are quite obviously in self-defense.

President Biden recently ordered air strikes against Iran-backed proxies in Syria and Iraq. These will stop neither the Houthis nor attacks against U.S. positions in the Levant that may result in more casualties. During the next instance of Iraqi or Houthi escalation, then, the U.S. should execute a multi-day bombing campaign against Syrian targets. Syrian air defenses themselves are limited, meaning U.S. attacks are unlikely to be opposed, while Russia’s limited presence poses no immediate threat, since Russia has no escalation appetite now that it is wholly occupied brutalizing Ukraine.

Iran may well respond with additional attacks, but this simply provides rationale for another strike wave. By killing high-level Iranian and Axis commanders, hitting ammunition dumps and matériel caches, and destroying Iran’s Imam Ali Military Base in eastern Syria, the U.S. can disrupt Tehran’s ability to sustain Hezbollah and Hamas, making Israeli pressure against Lebanon much more credible.

The goal of crisis management is not de-escalation at any price, but de-escalation that suits American and allied interests. The U.S. must abandon its nonsensical strategic paradigm, while identifying the pressure points most likely to disrupt the Iranian-led Axis of Resistance. Only through the prudent application of force can the U.S. regain strategic initiative, and thereby resolve this regional crisis before it explodes into all-out war.

SETH CROPSEY is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of MAYDAY and SEABLINDNESS.

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