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The Middle East and the Threat of an Expanding Conflict

Israel, its neighbors and various anti-Israeli militant groups in the Middle East are no stranger to conflict. As a result, there is an ever-present concern that when there is an uptick in hostilities, the conflict will spread and engulf the region.

Unsurprisingly, political and news media commentary on the potential for a regional conflict have certainly dominated public analyses. There has also been talk of the human toll of loss and destruction, such as the BBC’s coverage of the Hamas attack on Israel and the Gaza Strip.

Though some concerns border on the far-fetched, the potential for an expanding conflict in the Middle East is certainly worthy of discussion. So far, the Israeli government has not initiated a full invasion of the Gaza Strip. However, Israel continues to rely on air power and small raiding parties collecting intelligence on the potential locations of Hamas-held hostages.

The Potential for Other Nations to Get Involved in a Middle East Conflict

At some point in the near future, Israel can be expected to launch an invasion to destroy Hamas. Although the scope of such an invasion is not yet known, it is likely that Israel will do what it can to degrade – if not destroy – Hamas.

Consequently, the potential for other nations creating havoc to serve their national goals cannot be entirely dismissed. For instance, of the nations that directly border Israel, only Jordan and Egypt formally recognize Israel. Syria and Lebanon are openly hostile, but both nations are barely functioning due to incompetent leadership and internal conflict.

Syria has a functioning military, although its military forces are largely engaged against various internal factions fighting the Assad regime in the northern areas of Syria. Even with support from Russian and Iranian military forces in Syria, the Syrian civil war is still ongoing, making it difficult to see how Damascus could insert itself into the current Israel-Hamas conflict.

Lebanon, too, is barely functioning as a state, though the militant group Hezbollah could conceivably launch attacks on the Lebanese-Israeli border. In fact, Hezbollah has already launched some attacks, but its actions have been limited up to this point.

When the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) enter Gaza, then Hezbollah can be expected to increase their attacks, but a Hezbollah invasion is unlikely. During the Israeli-Hezbollah war in 2006, known as the “Second Lebanon War” according to Just Vision, Hezbollah acted effectively as a light infantry group operating among a civilian population on their territory.

An invasion of northern Israel with the IDF reinforcing its position along the Lebanese border is unlikely, because since the elements that aid Hezbollah in Lebanon would be absent in Israel. The use of small raiding parties into Israel would remain a possibility, however.

Related: Hamas: The Basics Behind This Middle East Terrorist Group

Iran Is Capable of Entering the Israel-Hamas Conflict

The one regional power in the Middle East capable of entering the current Israel-Hamas conflict would be Iran. Though Iran does not border Israel directly, Tehran has its forces deployed in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and even Yemen to a smaller extent.

Additionally, Iran has numerous Shia militia groups, along with Hezbollah. These groups are not only capable of launching attacks – both conventional and unconventional – but could also potentially target American forces deployed in the Middle East. Iran has an interest beyond the ideological in sowing chaos among Israel and its nascent partners, too.

The U.S. has been brokering talks between Saudi Arabia and Israel. As a result, Iran was facing down the prospect of a larger, regional bloc opposed to Tehran’s expansion of influence in the greater Levant, but with the added capabilities of Israel’s military and intelligence services.

Iran has long supported Hamas. Although Iran may not have ordered the October 7th attack, Iran stands to gain from it. Washington grasps this fact as well and has made pointed, public statements warning Iran not to attempt an intervention or attack U.S. forces or citizens, according to Bloomberg.

U.S. warnings may not be sufficient to dissuade Iran from taking action, however. Iran has a long history of engaging in terroristic attacks and assassinations to further its foreign policy and has often not suffered much in the way of consequences.

The Guardian and the U.S. Department of Justice note that there were two recent assassination attempts targeting an Iranian journalist and a former National Security Advisor on U.S. soil. However, these attacks were not enough to prevent Washington from reaching out for a new nuclear deal with Tehran.

The situation with Israel and Hamas, however, has already shifted Washington’s position, with the U.S. asking Qatar to prevent Iran from accessing recently released funds that were part of the ongoing nuclear negotiations. Any hope that the Biden administration had for a new nuclear deal appears dead, but how the U.S. plans to respond to any Iranian aggression is an open question.

Related: Iran’s Nuclear Weapons: It’s Time to Be Concerned

The US Is Preparing for More Attacks in the Middle East

The potential for an expanded conflict in the Middle East doesn’t have to be constrained to Israel, and the U.S. is preparing for that possibility by moving military assets to the Middle East. The issues that led to this current conflict have not gone away, nor will they be resolved when a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas is reached, making the issue of an expanded conflict in the Middle East difficult to dismiss.

William Tucker serves as a senior security representative to a major government contractor where he acts as the Counterintelligence Officer, advises on counterterrorism issues, and prepares personnel for overseas travel. His additional duties include advising his superiors in matters concerning emergency management and business continuity planning.

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