By MATT MCGARRY
Around dinner tables and cafes in Beirut these days, discussions are increasingly turning to one topic: the likelihood of another war with Israel.
It has been an ongoing debate for several years now, gaining renewed vigor each time Israeli and Hezbollah leaders publicly promise to inflict more harm on each other than ever before if, indeed, the countries went to war.
However, Iran’s blatant and growing military presence on Israel’s doorstep, and Tehran’s rapidly deteriorating relationship with the United States, is introducing a greater likelihood of conflict.
Fresh from a March 5 meeting at the White House, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly told his cabinet he believes President Trump will pull out of the Iran nuclear agreement before the next sanctions waiver deadline on May 12.
Although President Trump has given no public indication what he will decide, his repeated threats, tweets and vocal dissatisfaction with Iran –- and specifically with the Iran nuclear agreement -– are reigniting fears that Washington is paving the way for a new Middle East clash.
Along with Israel, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is also a very strong opponent of growing Iranian strength and influence in the region. This week, he is being greeted with open arms and with great affection at the White House, with the question of what to do about Iran no doubt being one of the main points of discussion.
The latest rumor swirling around the Arab world speculates on the possibility of a preemptive aerial strike –- by the U.S. or Israel, or a combined show of force – against Iranian forces and militias building up inside Syria.In addition to his speculation about Mr. Trump’s intentions toward the Iran nuclear agreement, Netanyahu also returned from Washington declaring that he had secured historic contributions toward Israel’s “national security.” The educated guess is that he received some kind of promise from Trump on not only withdrawing from the agreement, but perhaps even a tacit approval on military action.
Israel most certainly faces a dilemma over Iran’s increasing reach. Eventually, Netanyahu -– or his successor — will have to decide to either carry out a military strike to push Iran back from southern Syria or to simply accept the new reality of a permanent Iranian threat just across the border.
In any event, there is greater satisfaction in Jerusalem lately over America’s shift against Iran, thanks to the Trump administration. Instead of Obama-led policy leaning toward more diplomatic engagement with Iran and nudging the country into the international sphere on social responsibility, America has reverted to classifying Iran as a clear threat to its principles and interests.
So far, the threatening arsenal of rockets owned by Hezbollah, Iran’s staunch ally in the region, and the overwhelming retaliatory response promised by Israel, has served as a worthy deterrent to conflict in Lebanon.
But how long can this last?
Taking into account Iran’s close relationship with Hezbollah, any attack on Iranian targets inside Syria, or any attack on Hezbollah targets inside Lebanon, would likely, and very quickly, escalate into a greater region-wide war involving many more nations.
Both Russia and the United States have large numbers of troops in the region.
With considerable Russian tactical and strategic assistance, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been able to bounce back off the ropes and defeat many of his anti-regime rebel foes. His continued survival is thanks to partnerships with Russia and Iran — two countries that see benefit from maintaining a long-term military presence inside Syria.
Amid the rush to defeat the rising ISIS threat, Washington injected a considerable number of American troops into Syria to work alongside partner militia fighters in northern and eastern sections of the country. As of December, the Pentagon officially acknowledged there were about 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria.
Yet even though ISIS has been largely defeated, those troops still remain, presumably to disrupt further Iranian gains and to prevent an unbroken supply highway stretching from Tehran all the way to the Mediterranean Sea.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard is building military bases across Syria and commanders have taken leading roles in battles against Syria’s enemies. In addition to its relationship with Hezbollah, Iran continues to back powerful militias inside Syria. Iranian drones now regularly cruise the skies above the Israeli-Syrian border to spy on enemies and to possibly even launch air attacks.
There is no doubt another Israeli-Lebanese war would be far more damaging, and far more costly to life and property, than the last one in 2006. Israeli military leaders have repeatedly accused Hezbollah of hiding weapons inside civilian buildings, leading many to believe Israel is preparing a case for far more liberal targeting strategies this time around; i.e., many more civilians will likely be killed and the Lebanese civilian infrastructure destroyed.
For Israel, the greatest risk would be from waves of missiles raining down, indiscriminately, on cities and towns across Israel. Add to this mix a potent Iranian presence across the northeastern border in Syria —- with a possible invasion attempt across the Golan Heights —- and it shapes up to be an extremely tough challenge for Israel.
Notwithstanding all of these threats, Netanyahu may consider the timing for a preemptive Israeli strike to be better now, politically, than it has been in many years –- and most likely better than it would be again if Trump were to somehow lose a reelection bid to someone less staunchly conservative.
One thing potentially holding Netanyahu back are criminal investigations that will probably end his own stint in power before he could jump into a war. Either way, Netanyahu is aware that his era will soon be coming to an end. The question will be, does he choose to end his public career quietly, or amid a maelstrom of warfare?
Also happening in May that could stoke the flames: the U.S. is planning to officially move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem sometime in the middle of the month; elections are planned for May 12 in Iraq, where pro-Iranian parties are expected to make even more gains; and elections are also planned for May 6 in Lebanon, where MBS’s heavy-handed attempts at changing the government there show just how sensitive he is to Hezbollah gaining even more power.
Israel is keeping a close eye on all of these events, analyzing what’s happening and attempting to predict the direction President Trump will go from here.