To paraphrase a remark attributed to Leon Trotsky: You may not be interested in the Middle East, but the Middle East is interested in you. After a decade in which the US reduced its military presence in the region, it has now returned with a massive show of force.
Two fighter aircraft squadrons recently arrived. This was preceded by the dispatch of two aircraft carriers, several air defense systems and extensive aid to Israel. Additional units were put on standby.
America’s goal is to deter attacks on American areas of interest, on Israel and, to a certain extent, on its Arab allies. But what happens if deterrence fails?
The frightening possibilities range from attacks on American soldiers to attacks on ships in the Persian Gulf to rocket attacks that knock out Israeli air defenses. Under what circumstances would the American armed forces be deployed? And could they be drawn into a protracted war in the Middle East that leaders had hoped would never happen again after the hell of forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?
America’s public warnings have become more severe
These questions are uncomfortable, but all too real. Attacks on American targets have increased even as Israel’s invasion of Gaza has been delayed. Between October 17 and October 24, there were 13 drone and missile attacks on American and allied troops in Iraq and Syria, according to the Pentagon. They came from “Iranian allies and ultimately from Iran”. Such activities have been relatively common in recent years. However, these attacks are significant because they break an informal ceasefire that has existed in recent months.
America’s public warnings have become more severe. “If Iran or its proxies attack U.S. facilities anywhere, they should be clear: We will defend our people, we will defend our security, and we will do so quickly and decisively,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the U.S. on Oct. 24 U.N. A day later, leaders of the militant groups Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad met in Beirut and vowed to achieve “a real victory for the resistance.”
The USA has massive military force in the region
If America must use force, it has a wide range of options. On the USS Gerald R. ford in the Mediterranean, it is the United States’ most modern aircraft carrier, commissioned just six years ago. With more than 75 aircraft and electromagnetic launchers, it can maintain a high operational speed.
The Nimitz-class USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, which is en route to the Gulf, has a similar range of aircraft. Both aircraft carriers will be escorted by up to five destroyers equipped with Aegis air defense radar and missile interceptors that could be used to protect Israel and the Gulf states.
They complement the approximately 30,000 American soldiers on bases in the region, who are reinforced by 2,000 Marines. More Marines could be added. The Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain, the largest air base is at Al Udeid in Qatar. The US is supplementing its ground-based air defense with Patriot and THAAD missile batteries. The latter have a long-range radar system that can penetrate deep into enemy territory.
The second stage of American escalation
How could these powers be used? There are probably three successive levels on the American escalation scale: intelligence gathering, defensive measures, and offensive measures. Let’s start with the information gathering, which is already underway. The aircraft carriers are huge information gathering platforms. The Gerald R. Ford has four EA-18G Growlers for electronic warfare, four E-2D Hawkeyes for early warning, and various helicopters and drones.
While NATO planes are active in the Black Sea collecting intelligence for Ukraine, U.S. planes are likely flying along the coasts of Lebanon, Israel and the Gaza Strip, collecting signals that are then sent to the Pentagon, the Israel Defense Forces and perhaps Arab allies to get redirected.
If deterrence fails, the next step on the American escalation scale is defensive action, which is still relatively easy to justify to the American public. There is already an example of this: On October 19, a US Navy destroyer intercepted missiles that had been fired from Yemen – apparently by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels who were targeting Israel. The Pentagon announced at a press conference on October 24 that these missiles had a range of more than 2,000 km.
The White House wants to avoid offensive measures at all costs
The US is already strengthening Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system, which is threatened by 130,000 to 150,000 Hezbollah rockets and missiles. On October 24, the US announced it would send two more Iron Dome batteries to Israel.
If Israel’s own air defense systems were overwhelmed, the United States would likely support them with its own carrier-based and land-based interceptors, which could only be useful against larger and longer-range missiles, not against shorter-range missiles that can be shot down more cheaply by other means. The US Navy could accompany merchant shipping in the Persian Gulf and defend it against missile or drone attacks if necessary.
After the defensive measures comes the third level of escalation, the offensive measures, a much larger and more controversial step. The White House and Pentagon will want to avoid it at all costs, but they may be forced to: Having signaled that it will respond to attacks with countermeasures, the US must follow through to maintain its reputation for rapid retaliation . Offensive action in retaliation for attacks on American forces is the easiest to justify.
2,500 soldiers are stationed in Iraq and 900 Americans are deployed in Syria alongside Kurdish forces. In 2021, American fighter bombers attacked facilities used by Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria in retaliation for drone strikes on American personnel.
The USA must be particularly careful when dealing with Iran
However, it is relatively easy to imagine scenarios in which American offensive actions occur in response to attacks on allies rather than Americans. If Israeli air defenses are overwhelmed, America could attack Hezbollah positions in Lebanon. America could also retaliate for attacks on allies in the Gulf region. After the Iranian-backed attacks on the oil company Saudi Aramco in 2019, which briefly knocked out five percent of global oil production, Saudi Arabia was outraged that America did nothing. Things could be different this time.
There are other steps on the escalation scale beyond intelligence, defense and base offensive. But they are steps America is reluctant to climb. Most experts believe Iran does not want a direct war with America. Emile Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank, assumes that Iran does not see the current situation as the “great battle” – an existential struggle for the Iranian regime – but that Hezbollah is too valuable an instrument is to risk it, even if you have no other concept for a surprise action.
America will likely avoid direct attacks on Iran (unless Iran itself enters the conflict directly) in order to keep further escalation options open. If American forces struck first, the Iranian regime might believe it has nothing left to lose.
There are still red lines to maintain
Through the massive use of war weapons, America hopes to prevent their use. But, as Hokayem says, deterrence is difficult when you don’t know exactly where the red lines of those you want to deter are. Those of Iran and Hezbollah are the hardest to assess. Would Israel cross an Iranian red line with a prolonged ground offensive in Gaza? And could Israeli attacks on targets in southern Lebanon reach a scale that would prompt Hezbollah to mount a more comprehensive response?
The fact that the White House has called for an “emergency plan” to evacuate up to 600,000 Americans living in Israel and Lebanon shows how worried Joe Biden is that things could easily spiral out of control. The American public, still traumatized by the deaths of thousands of Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq, will not want one thing in particular: sending large numbers of soldiers to the Middle East. The chances of this happening are small, but not zero. It seems like this is another chapter in the history of eternal wars.