Why America should care about Israel’s ‘War Between the Wars’

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Most Americans are unaware of the phrase “War Between the Wars.” It describes Israel’s low-grade war with Iran, Hezbollah and Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria to stop Iran from transforming “Syria and Iraq into missile-launching pads,” as it has in Lebanon. The goal is to prevent a permanent Iranian presence on Israel’s doorstep with advanced weaponry that could tip the scales against Israel’s qualitative military edge. 

In 2012, Israel began targeting the transfer of missiles from Iran to Lebanon through Syria and Iraq. In response to Israel’s success, Iran began building missile and drone factories throughout the region, which Israel subsequently also attacked. Preventing a permanent Iranian presence in Syria analogous to Iran’s foothold in Lebanon is a “red line” that Israel will not allow Iran to cross again, or the War Between the Wars will turn hot very quickly. 

Israeli security, intelligence and military analysts have little doubt that there will be a significant war between Israel and Iran-directed proxies in the future; the question is merely when it will occur. The goal of Israel and the United States is to postpone that regional war as far into the future as possible.

Why is this important for American national security interests? Israel is America’s only stable and reliable ally in the Middle East. The best hedge against the U.S. getting drawn back into a Middle East conflict is a militarily strong Israel and a non-nuclear Iran. A strong Israel that deters its enemies is a U.S. security imperative for regional stability. America’s Central Command in the Persian Gulf now will heavily rely on Israel for intelligence, since America is leaving the Middle East. Israeli intelligence — the best in the region — has become even more vital to U.S. analysis and planning, with America’s human intelligence presence almost totally depleted.  

How Israel and the United States react to the developments of the Iranian nuclear program will determine how quickly the War Between the Wars turns into a regional war. According to Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, “Israel cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran … leaving Israel little choice but to act upon its existential instincts. Therefore, escalation in the use of force to reverse the Iranian ascendance in Middle East politics, prevent its nuclearization, as well as the encirclement of Israel by Iranian proxies, is probable, adding a new dimension to the Iran-Israel war already under way.”  

The reaction by Israel to Iran’s attempts at further expansionism into Syria, Lebanon and Iraq is another trigger point that could ignite a large-scale conflict. This would draw in not only neighboring states but outsized actors such as Russia, Turkey and China. That is something that must be considered by an American executive branch that is perceived as weak and unwilling to act. Both the Biden and Trump administrations’ inaction in response to Iranian attacks on international civilian shipping in the Persian Gulf has sent the wrong message. One of the reasons for global order was America’s commitment and self-interest in policing the oceans since the end of World War II, a great engine of American economic prosperity.  

What else can disrupt the War Between the Wars? One domino fell with the American withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan and its shrinking military footprint in Iraq and Syria. The reverberation was felt in Tehran, Tel Aviv, Beirut and Damascus. Iran has interpreted American actions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria as evidence of a lack of U.S. commitment that increases the chances for a major regional war involving Israel and Iran — something certainly not in America’s interest. 

Russia also will play a vital role in either quieting or exacerbating the War Between the Wars. Until now, Russia has allowed Israel to attack Iranian and Iranian-allied military facilities with impunity, especially those for drone and precision missile production. Earlier this year, however, Russia said it no longer would allow Israel a free range of action in Syria.

Russia controls Syria’s anti-missile system and has the most advanced S-400 missile system in its airbase in Khmeimim and sea base at Tartus on the Mediterranean Coast. Limiting Israel’s preemptive actions will not deter Israel if it thinks it is a military necessity. That means this is another potential land mine that could be set off in the War Between the Wars. A few years ago, a Syrian missile mistook a Russian plane for Israeli and shot it down. The next accident could ignite the region.  

Donald Trump trusted Russia to police the Syrian border with Israel. Today, Iran, Hezbollah and Iranian-controlled militias are on the Israeli Golan border — proof again that the U.S. cannot trust Russia. This miscalculation also increases the chance to convert the War Between the Wars into a real conflagration. Russia, however, does not want a war; it intends to solidify its gains in the region. 

According to Yaakov Lappin, writing in the Fathom Journal, Russia remains concerned about a possible scalation — “a ‘spark’ that could end up igniting the region, (while) Iran has shown an ability to march to the brink without going over the edge, the danger of unintended consequences always remains. (Knowing) Israel is determined to do whatever is necessary to prevent Iran from creating a second Iranian division in Syria, alongside its primary military division in Lebanon….Iran’s actions (can) metastasize and turn the whole of the northern front into an intolerable threat to Israel’s home front.” 

That is why America must not let the War Between the Wars turn hot. It must not concede a nuclear weapon to Iran, or Israel will act. Israel will not allow Iran to cement a foothold in Syria because it knows Iran’s eyes next would turn to Jordan and the Gulf States. Americans may not have heard about the War Between the Wars, but if we care about our security, we need to tell our representatives not to relegate this war to a third-tier security status, or it will come back to bite us.

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN (Middle East Political Information Network). He regularly briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides, and is the senior security editor for the Jerusalem Report/Jerusalem Post.

Tags Donald Trump Iran–Israel proxy conflict Iran–Israel relations Israel Nuclear program of Iran

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