Ultimately, a positive end for Israel will lead to a dual benefit of strengthened regional security and stronger bonds with the wider Arab world.
The current sectarian violence in the Middle East gives credit to some scholars’ belief in a looming war between the Sunni Arab states on one side and Iran and its allies on the other. It would be in Israel’s best interests to ensure that the Sunni Arab states win this conflict. The 13 August 2020 historic peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates is just the latest brick in the foundation of this realpolitik-based cooperation. But even as relations normalize, Israel must carefully calculate aid to Sunni states given there will be constraints on Israeli action. Ultimately, a positive end for Israel will lead to the dual benefit of strengthened regional security and stronger bonds with the wider Arab world.
The two important factors for Middle East watchers to examine are the early warning signs of an impending war and the scale of the hostilities. These two factors are essential in determining the international will to tolerate such a conflict and the regional states’ will for escalating conflict. Past conflicts offer the best insight into these questions.
Yemen, Syria, and Iraq all represent flashpoints from which a more extensive conflict could escalate. Current Yemeni and Syrian hostilities have primarily consisted of attritional fighting, with some forces holding out away from strategically important areas. This situation leaves Iraq, which has been crippled by war for decades and has a weak central government, as the primary matchstick for wider regional conflict. Additionally, Iraq represents the crown jewel for both Sunni and Shia factions to control. Geographically, it creates a highway between allied states; economically, it could tip petroleum output in favor of the victor; and demographically, it contains a large population of both Shia and Sunni Muslims. The latter creates the optimal casus belli for both Shia and Sunni states to come to the aid of their respective peoples, while the former points represent critical strategic factors for establishing regional hegemony.
Much of what could be a precursor to such a conflict might mirror the situation in the region today, including the movement of funds and arms to support local proxy groups. In Syria, Iranian influence was not truly felt until major Hezbollah elements arrived on the scene with Quds Forces supporting them. This pattern would likely repeat itself in Iraq. As in Syria and Yemen, these events could occur after a Shia proxy setback in a civil conflict. The scenario for starting hostilities would be similar, including a weak central state and ongoing civil strife. Any significant movement or organization of Shia forces in the country would likely trigger a response from both Israel and major Sunni states. The forces initially participating in the conflict would likely be a mixture of local paramilitary forces and specialized units from the respective combatants. However, as seen in Yemen, if Sunni populations are threatened, Saudi Arabia is willing to deploy conventional forces with the UAE and Bahrain supplying specialized Guard Units. Israel will likely combat any major Hezbollah or Quds movement with airstrikes, as seen currently in Iraq and Syria.
At the onset of any potential conflict, Hezbollah and Iran would likely supply the ground elements on the Shia side via paramilitary forces and proxies, but they will be unable to deploy regular units due to international constraints. However, Syria and Iran could supply conventional arms to comparatively inexperienced local proxies in an expanded and then asymmetric conflict. However, these forces would not have the same competency as their more hardened fighters, like those who fought in Syria. Given these constraints, Iran is unlikely to pursue a strategy that would result in escalation beyond a low intensity conflict. Even so, advanced equipment could be brought into the theater. As seen in Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon, the use of advanced drones, missiles, and stand-off weapons are critical to the effectiveness of Shia forces’ asymmetric fighting style. Sunni states like Saudi Arabia exhibit major weaknesses when addressing a hybrid conflict.
This difficulty manifests itself as some Sunni states are unable to adopt a population-centric approach to low intensity conflict, combined arms fighting, and proper training of proxy forces. However, other states such as the UAE and Bahrain have proven effective when combating asymmetric violence outside their borders. While major flaws within the Sunni Arab states have been exposed when fighting Iranian proxies in a hybrid conflict, Israel could tip the scale in its favor to bring about an Iranian defeat by pursuing military, diplomatic, informational/intelligence, and economic efforts.
Israel’s military actions will be severely constrained in a hybrid conflict based in Iraq. Preparatory bi-lateral or multilateral war game exercises between Israel and any Arab states are highly unlikely, and Israel would certainly have no say in which forces would be employed in combat. Additionally, no Arab country would let Israel deploy ground forces in its theater of operation willingly. All of this makes Israel’s forward preparation for a regional conflict exceedingly difficult.
That said, Israel would be able to respond to hostilities in Iraq or Iran via air interdiction using conventional air sorties or Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). Israel’s air superiority would enable it to support Sunni military operations, as in the Syrian-Civil War and Iraq’s own fight with ISIS. Arab states had previously tolerated Tel Aviv’s intervention when Israel carried out coordinated airstrikes against Iranian targets operating in Iraq and Syria. In the event of a wider war, Israeli airpower could significantly affect any major confrontation in Iraq, let alone any other country in the region.
In addition to airpower, having Israel Defense Force (IDF) ground units stationed near the Israeli border would also draw away resources from a fight between Sunni and Shia states by forcing Iranian fighters and proxies to defend multiple fronts. In the case of an outright attack against Israeli home soil, Tel Aviv would have the legal justification to formally enter into open conflict with Iran’s axis of power. Depending on Israel’s political climate, Tel Aviv could use the IDF to make conventional attacks on neighboring capital cities to compel Iran’s allies to surrender, as in Lebanon in 2006 and Syria in 1973. While the Second Lebanon War in 2006 largely demonstrated the development of Hezbollah’s defensive tactics, the lasting effects of the IDF’s devastation in Lebanon provide a recent reminder of the might of Israel’s conventional forces.
With American presence in the region waning in recent years, Sunni Arab states may be more willing to allow Israel to become a surrogate for advanced military aid.
Israel would be in an advantageous diplomatic position to support the Sunni Arabs. Never in the country’s history have the majority of Arab states been aligned with Israel in any conflict. However, since the 1973 war, cooperation with the Israeli state is neither unprecedented nor unappreciated. Israel has proven committed to supporting its neighbors’ stability, as seen with its current support for Egypt in its Sinai campaign. Also, given the American move toward re-entrenchment starting with President Barack Obama, Israel, and its Arab neighbors have begun to see their strategic interests aligned. With American presence in the region waning in recent years, Sunni Arab states may be more willing to allow Israel to become a surrogate for advanced military aid.
Major Arab partners, like Jordan and Egypt, have already been moving toward casting aside their anti-Israel stance through unconventional channels. This shift is evident, for example, with a United Arab Emirates minister advocating for a “strategic shift” from boycotting Israel, regular diplomatic and cultural visits, and informal meetings on confronting Iran, as in Warsaw in February 2019. Additionally, many Arab states like the UAE view the traditional cause for contempt with Israel—Palestinian-Israeli relations—as less of a priority in their foreign policy. It seems that the significant diplomatic pieces are in place for Israel to have a means of communication with Sunni Arab states in the event of a greater Middle Eastern conflict. Although fostering good relations with Israel is still unpopular in Arab culture, it seems as though Arab leaders are willing to compromise in an effort to counter the threat that Tehran poses. Increasing the frequency of multilateral talks or bilateral exchanges with Arab states over countering Iran, even if not done openly, would provide an avenue of mutual interest to improve relations and formalize a contingency plan if hostilities ensue.
Intelligence and information sharing are vital in any conflict. However, this collaboration proves even more critical in coordinating a low intensity conflict with unconventional logistics, training, and strategies. Israel’s human and signals intelligence apparatus is unequaled in the Middle East. Despite lacking normal relations with Arab states, Israel has developed a robust intelligence sharing capacity with Sunni Arabs when it comes to Iran. Although the extent of this relationship is still relatively secret, it provides the critical infrastructure necessary to facilitate proper targeting, strategy, and coordination efforts in the event of a wider conflict. While Israel has openly opposed sharing intelligence-gathering technologies, basic means of cooperation are already in place to address any Shia force. This relationship could be strengthened directly, prior to or during the conflict, with the establishment of secret intelligence liaisons. Since the methods for sharing and gathering intelligence in a conflict with Iran are already largely in place between Israel and the Sunni Arab states. Before any conflict, both sides already have the capacity to share common targets and relevant communication.
Aside from military intervention, improving economic security is one of the most significant ways that Israel can bolster potential Sunni Arab partners. Bilateral exchanges could include selling sophisticated security and surveillance platforms to protect strategic infrastructure from cyber or physical attack. Economic and industrial partnerships might also include limited access to Israeli industrial technology in automation, desalination, and manufacturing. During conflict, protecting critical energy infrastructure and maintaining productivity levels is essential to preserving the Sunni states’ capacity for conflict. While it is unlikely that public acknowledgment will correlate to economic exchanges, improving technological capacity that can be done in secret or through a go-between like the United States could prove useful to aiding Sunni states in preparing for conflict. Overtly, Israel could send humanitarian and medical aid to Sunni states should an economic or civil crisis ensue, as it has previously helped Arab states and even Iran during disasters. If there were continuous, direct attacks on Israel or Sunni Arab states, both would likely have to rely on American economic support to weather the storm: Israel because it might have to call up its reserve force and Sunni states due to their limited medical and agricultural production.
A way ahead
Israel is in an optimal position to aid Sunni states should conflict break out between an Iranian-led alliance and the Sunni Arab world. Iraq could prove a fertile battleground, valuable for both sides, and with substantial Sunni and Shia populations for respective Arab states to support in a conflict. This alignment could easily cascade into a wider conflict, but it is unlikely to escalate to a conventional war given the Shia’s disadvantage in such a fight. While there are no current military cooperation agreements between Israel and any major Sunni state, Tel Aviv could still support its preferred side by bogging down Syrian and Lebanese Hezbollah elements with its air and ground presence. Wisely, the Sunni states and Israel have already developed intelligence and informal diplomatic networks. These networks could likely be improved upon through further liaisons and summits. Strengthening the Sunni states’ economies would be another avenue for Israel to prepare its partners for a wartime footing. Victory over Iran and its allies in any conflict would immediately improve Israel’s security, resulting in a weakened Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah and a Pro-Gulf Iraq. However, the greater triumph for Israel would be the potential for normalized relations with its Sunni neighbors, which would prove invaluable to the Jewish state’s longevity.
Andrew Narloch is a recent graduate of Georgetown University’s Security Studies program concentrating in terrorism and sub-state violence. He has previously worked for the Department of State Bureau of Political-Military Affairs. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.
Photo Description: President Donald J. Trump, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bahrain Dr. Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Foreign Affairs for the United Arab Emirates Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan sign the Abraham Accords Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, on the South Lawn of the White House.
Photo Credit: Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian