By Evan Wolf
Many others, smarter than I, are writing now about the Hamas attacks in Israel and the response in Gaza. Journalists are reporting the details. Political leaders are advocating for their preferred sides, while many debate the morality of violence, occupation, and civilian casualties. With so many areas covered so well, I thought some might find a dispassionate exploration of the strategic implications helpful.
First off, there are many more “sides” involved than Israel and Hamas. The U.S. has long been a supporter of Israel, while Iran has backed Hamas for decades. One step more removed but equally important, Saudi Arabia has been a longtime regional rival to Iran, while Russia has been a supporter and partner.
Hamas doesn’t move without at least permission from Iran, if not actual material support and marching orders. Iran is nowhere near as beholden to Russia, but they do value Russian support and are more than willing to act when their perceived interests intertwine.
To be clear then, the Hamas triggermen were Palestinian, but the attacks came from Moscow and Tehran. Putin doesn’t care at all about murdering Israeli teenagers at a music festival of course. He wants to see a 10% reduction in artillery shells being sent to Ukraine.
Leaders in Tehran, at least the strategic-minded leaders planning operations, if not the religious propagandists, know that these attacks will not weaken Israel militarily or benefit the Palestinians in any way. What they want is threefold: plausibly deniable payback for Israeli efforts to disrupt their nuclear program, a wedge between the wider Muslim world and Saudi Arabia, and a low-cost favor to everyone antagonistic to the United States, especially Russia.
Hamas is actually the least likely to benefit in any way from these events, and in fact may be functionally destroyed by an Israeli ground offensive. That is the nature of asymmetric warfare, however, in that often the best the weaker side can hope for is to terrorize and demoralize the enemy, draw out ever-increasing responses, sway world opinion, and possibly exhaust the enemy. If even a small armed group can survive longer than a powerful army’s resolve to continue the conflict, they can prevail.
Most factors here though do not favor Hamas. World opinion is not decisively against Israel. The Israeli population are largely unified in their response, and the conflict feels local and existential — very different from America in the Vietnam War or the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Also, Gaza is much worse geographically than dense jungles or rugged mountains for a prolonged insurgency.
Politically, this will likely be a small boost to President Biden. Crises generally are helpful to sitting presidents unless they completely fail, and Biden has shown general competence in foreign affairs thus far.
Additionally, the executive branch doing anything right now serves to highlight the dysfunction in the GOP. Sen Tuberville continues to hold up military promotions, House Republicans can’t pick a leader and keep trying to end support for Ukraine, and Putin’s fingerprints on the whole conflict remind everyone that the new MAGA orthodoxy is pro-Russian isolationism.
In the end, Russia and Iran will get the small diversion of resources and attention they wanted, but it will not cripple Ukraine or Saudi Arabia. Hamas and Gaza will be devastated at a huge cost in lives for both the Palestinians and the Israelis, and the Netanyahu government will fall after the immediate crisis has passed.
In the U.S., President Biden and congressional Democrats will receive a small boost from foreign affairs, which may nevertheless prove decisive when paired with good economic news and Republican division.
The two large unknowns, as I see them, are if China or North Korea will take this opportunity to make aggressive moves in their respective theaters, and whether the other states in the Middle East will widen the conflict into a regional struggle.
— Evan Wolf is a former Army intelligence officer and retired history professor.