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By John Ubaldi
Contributor, In Homeland Security
American public attention has been focused on the recent school shooting in Florida and gun reform, as well as Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation of President Donald Trump and Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. One issue that remains on second-tier status is the ongoing conflict in the Middle East.
Most Americans are tired of anything dealing with the Middle East. With the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) and the ongoing civil war in Syria, however, the United States faces many difficult challenges in the region. If the U.S. takes no action, there is the potential for a regional war to reignite.
Israel on Collision Course with Iran
Just last month, Israel shot down an Iranian drone that flew from Syria into Israeli airspace. Israel subsequently bombed the site from where the drone was launched.
During follow-up missions, Syrian antiaircraft fire downed an Israeli F-16, which was the first Israeli fighter jet to be shot down in decades. Israel responded with a massive retaliation against Iranian and Syrian targets.
Since that incident, Iran has built a military base northeast of the Syria capital of Damascus, according to Amos Harel of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. This base is headed by Iran’s Al Quds force and commanded by Major General Qasem Soleimani, who is responsible for the deaths of many U.S. military forces in Iraq.
The region is now sitting on a tinder box, and the situation is only going to get worse.
The Syria civil war has only exacerbated tensions in the Middle East. About 500,000 people have been killed and six million displaced from their homes, not to mention five million refugees who have spent years in neighboring Jordan and Lebanon. These countries have struggled to keep pace with the influx of refugees, and inhabitants just want the refugees out of their country.
Will There Be War between Israel and Hezbollah?
The military campaign against ISIS is nearly over. With its conclusion, all the alliances of convenience among the protagonists are also ending.
As the alliances fade, so too will the shifting balance of powers among all the participants and outside powers. That change in regional power will include how to deal with governance and reconciliation.
For example, the shifting balance of power between Israel and Hezbollah needs to be considered. At any time, a conflict between Israel and Hezbollah could erupt that would dwarf their encounter in 2006.
Hezbollah lost almost 2,000 fighters during the Syria civil war and its finances were in tatters. But with the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, the unfreezing of Iranian assets and the lifting of crippling international economic sanctions, Tehran diverted financial resources to help Hezbollah reconstitute itself.
Hezbollah Growing Stronger in Lebanon
Hezbollah’s reputation was damaged because of its support for the regimes in Syria and Iran. However, Hezbollah has always remained popular with its core constituency – the Lebanese Shiites.
Hezbollah has now solidified political agreements with Lebanon. Many people expect that the Lebanese parliamentary elections to be held in the spring will result in huge wins for Hezbollah. These elections will be conducted under the first new electoral law, which created a proportional representation system.
Even with Hezbollah’s losses during the Syrian civil war, its military capabilities have grown. Hezbollah’s renewed operational experience and its ability to acquire advanced weapons from Iran have made the organization much more than a terror group. It is now a bona fide independent army inside a nation.
The Changing Nature of Israel’s National Security
Israel’s strategic security has changed considerably since the onset of the Syrian civil war. The Golan Heights are unstable, and now Israel has to deal with Hezbollah’s military evolution on its northern flank and prepare for the next conflict with Hezbollah fighters.
The timing couldn’t be worse for Israel. The Palestinian Authority is nearing collapse, there is a humanitarian crisis in Gaza and Israel faces instability on its northern border. To make matters worse, there is a political crisis surrounding the alleged corruption of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Hezbollah’s growing capabilities may lead Israel to act in self-defense.
Challenges for the US in the Middle East
All of these activities in the Middle East leave the United States in a precarious situation. The U.S. must to deal with broad instability in the Arab world, Iranian and Russian intervention in Syria, and Turkey’s undeclared war with the Kurds.
The U.S. has focused on defeating ISIS. Unfortunately, Washington hasn’t developed a clear strategy for dealing with insurgencies and the other challenges in the region.
So far, the U.S. has thought only in terms of pursuing an operational and tactical strategy to Middle Eastern wars. American leaders have never fully addressed the need for a strategy that focuses on the resolving the region’s political instability and the lack of economic development.
This lack of strategic foresight has hampered U.S. efforts in the region since 2001. Without building the fundamental institutions needed for a functioning nation-state, the U.S. is failing to address the rudimentary causes that allow terrorism to exist and ultimately thrive.
U.S. policies during the last eight years geared to the Middle East have made the situation extremely difficult to resolve. If Middle East problems are left unchecked, the situation will only get worse, not better.