June 17, 2024

IntelBrief: Two October 7-Related Fronts Near Eruption

AP Photo/Leo Correa

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Escalation of hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah, and between the Houthi movement and a U.S.-led coalition, threatens to erupt into all out warfare on both fronts.
  • Observing that Israel might be preparing for a major offensive against Hezbollah, U.S. and French officials are accelerating diplomacy to try to calm the Israel-Lebanon frontier.
  • As attacks by the Houthi movement in Yemen continue to strike and disable commercial ships in the Red Sea, U.S.-led forces are expanding the set of Houthi targets they are striking in Yemen.
  • An eruption on either front has the potential to bring the U.S. and Iran into the direct conflict both have sought to avoid since the October 7 Hamas attack into Israel.

Since October 7, global diplomats and experts have warned of the potential for Israel’s war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip to expand into a regional conflagration drawing in several regional and global powers, including the United States. Recognizing that potential, U.S. and Iranian officials have undertaken a series of indirect negotiations in the Sultanate of Oman to avoid a direct conflict that might result from Iran’s backing for its “Axis of Resistance” allies attacking Israel, U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, and commercial shipping in the Red Sea. Despite the engagement, the region has come to the brink of all-out war as U.S. and Arab diplomats have failed, thus far, to end the Gaza war. In April, Israel and Iran engaged in an unprecedented direct clash over Israel’s attacks on Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force (IRGC-QF) in Syria.

The IRGC-QF operates in Syria to advise and organize weapons supplies to Lebanese Hezbollah. Iran’s large missile and armed drone attacks on Israel on April 4 - an effort to establish deterrence against Israel - drew in U.S. and Western, as well as moderate Arab, support for Israeli efforts to intercept almost the entire barrage. Israel has continued to strike IRGC targets in Syria since, increasing the potential for another large Israel-Iran clash that, in contrast to the exchanges in April, did not draw Iran and the U.S. into direct hostilities with each other.

U.S., European, and regional diplomats initially took comfort in the fact that the April spike in regional conflict subsequently de-escalated back to a pre-existing baseline in which Israel, the Axis of Resistance, and the U.S. and its allies engage in relatively low-intensity conflict aimed at establishing deterrence. The optimism might prove short-lived, however, as signs grow that Israel might try to achieve by force what U.S. and French diplomats have failed to do thus far – force Hezbollah to withdraw its elite units to at least five miles from the Israel-Lebanon border (“Blue Line.”)

Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had promised Israelis that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) would, if necessary, push Hezbollah units back from the border to provide 60,000 Israelis from northern towns and villages the confidence they can safely return to their homes. In May and June, both Israeli and Hezbollah units began to strike and retaliate deeper inside each other’s countries, causing significant damage as well as concern among U.S. officials that Israel might be preparing the battlefield for a sweeping IDF assault. These officials are increasingly concerned that Israel will start a war against Hezbollah in Lebanon that it cannot finish without American support. On June 11, an Israeli strike killed Taleb Abdullah, one of the highest-ranking commanders of Hezbollah’s military wing, triggering significant reprisals and raising fears all-out Israel-Hezbollah war might erupt. On June 13, Hezbollah said it fired 150 rockets and launched 30 suicide drones at Israeli military positions – its largest-scale response since it began firing on Israel on October 8 in an effort to tie down IDF forces that might otherwise deploy to the Gaza front.

In addition to warning Israeli leaders that an all-out assault on Hezbollah would cause vast destruction in Israel as well as Lebanon, and possibly draw Iran into the battle as well, U.S. and allied officials have accelerated their diplomacy to try to de-escalate the Israel-Lebanon front. On June 13, French President Emmanuel Macron put forward a proposal to try to advance a longstanding but largely stalled U.S. and French effort under which Hezbollah’s elite Radwan unit would not deploy within at least five miles of the Blue Line - in exchange for an end to Israeli attacks on Hezbollah forces. “With the United States, we agreed on the principle of a trilateral [contact group] – Israel, the United States and France – to advance on the roadmap that we proposed, and we will do the same with the Lebanese authorities,” Macron said.

Israeli leaders have expressed a clear preference for U.S. officials to be lead mediators in Lebanon. Apparently reflecting that preference, Amos Hochstein, a top diplomatic adviser to President Biden, arrives in Israel on June 17 to work on de-escalating the conflict, according to a U.S. official. The diplomacy follows a June visit to the United States by Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) commander Joseph Aoun to discuss the role the LAF would be expected to play in securing the southern border area if Hezbollah agreed to withdraw its elite forces from the area. A lead LAF role in securing the area between the Litani River and the Blue Line is enshrined in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, but Hezbollah has consistently violated the Resolution by deploying right up to the border.

The ongoing war in Gaza has also prevented resolution of the Red Sea crisis created by leaders of the Houthi movement in Yemen (Ansarallah), who have attacked commercial shipping in the Red Sea in support of Hamas in Gaza. Recent long lulls in Houthi armed drone and anti-ship cruise and ballistic missile attacks on U.S. and allied warships and commercial shipping in the Red Sea led experts to assess that the Houthi arsenal might have been depleted by the group’s attacks and by U.S. and UK strikes on its weapons stockpiles. However, in June, the Houthis appeared to resume their prior near-daily pace of attacks.

On June 12, a Houthi drone boat and missile strike disabled the M/V Tutor, a Liberian-flagged, Greek-owned and operated bulk cargo carrier, off the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah. The mostly Filipino crew abandoned the ship and were rescued by U.S. and partner forces, with the ship adrift and taking on water. Other attacks the same week damaged another vessel, the Verbena, in the Gulf of Aden, which was also abandoned by its crew on June 15, and two other commercial ships, “marking a significant increase in [Houthi] effectiveness,” the British security firm Ambrey said.

The June Houthi attacks demonstrated that U.S. and UK airstrikes on Houthi missile and drone stockpiles and launchers since January have failed to deter the Houthis. In response, a U.S.-led coalition has apparently decided to expand the target set to try to cripple the Houthis’ capacity.  On May 30, U.S. and British strikes included a civilian facility - a Houthi-controlled radio station - killing at least 16 people. It was the deadliest coalition attack acknowledged by the Houthi rebels to date.  On June 14, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), the U.S. military command responsible for the region, announced it had successfully destroyed seven Houthi radars that “allow the Houthis to target maritime vessels and endanger commercial shipping.” The strikes appeared to represent a U.S. attempt to “blind” the Houthis from locating ships to target and detecting coalition aircraft and other weaponry.

In recent weeks, U.S. and British attacks have also reported targeting Houthi patrol boats, helicopters, and other military equipment to render the Houthis weaker and less confident that they can sustain their campaign against Western interests. The expanded target set might also reflect what U.S. military officers acknowledge to journalists has been “grumbling” among the crews of the U.S. warships under constant threat in the Red Sea, who are reportedly agitating for the U.S. Navy to strike harder against the Houthis. Still, U.S. leaders are likely to escalate against the Houthis only gradually and in small increments, seeking to avoid provoking conflict with the Houthis’ main mentor, Iran, or contradicting efforts by Saudi Arabia to seek a peace deal with the Houthis in the Yemen civil conflict.

U.S. commanders tell journalists that the chances are substantial that the growing Houthi expertise might enable the movement, at some point, to successfully strike a U.S. or allied warship – an attack likely to cause casualties because of the large volume of highly explosive weaponry aboard warships. A high-casualty event would be almost certain to cause U.S. leaders to bring to bear the full force of U.S. capabilities on the Houthis, even though doing so carries with it a high risk of expanding warfare throughout the region.