Weeks after Hamas’ unprecedented attack into Israel, the Israeli government is on the verge of a ground campaign into Gaza and Iranian-affiliated elements have begun to offensively orient themselves throughout the Middle East. In the latest Contours episode, host Carolyn Moorman breaks down the most critical nodes of the conflict for U.S. policymakers with expert Calvin Wilder.
Hello and welcome to the Contours Podcast by the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy. This is your host, Carolyn Moorman.
On October 7, Hamas simultaneously launched barrages of missiles and conducted ground incursions into Israel from Gaza. Over 1500 Israeli citizens are reported to have been killed in one of the bloodiest terror attacks of the 21st century. And over 100 people are believed to have been kidnapped and taken hostage into the Gaza Strip, including both Israeli soldiers and civilians. The Israeli government, having received what is being referred to as a “green light” to defend itself by the Biden Administration, began to heavily bomb Gaza and experts say a ground campaign is imminent. Here to break down all of these rapidly unfolding events and the ramifications of this on the region, is Calvin Wilder. Calvin Wilder is a senior analyst for the Special Initiatives portfolio at the New Lines Institute, where he leads the non-State actor Accountability Project.
Prior to joining the institute, Calvin was a research assistant at the Washington Institute for Near East Policies’ Program on Arab Politics, where his research focused on economic and humanitarian issues in the territories held by non-state actors in Syria. He previously worked as a research assistant on the Chicago Project for Security and Threats’ Arab analysis team, translating and analyzing Arabic language propaganda produced by Isis, Al-Qaeda, and other extremist groups. He was a Boren scholar in Amman, Jordan, from 2019 through 2020, working as a research and translation intern at Syria Direct.
Calvin, thank you so much for being here and to get us started, I’m wondering if you could bring us up to speed on the attacks themselves on the seventh, and everything that has occurred since then. I’m wondering why this is being heralded as such a big deal. Is it because it came unexpectedly or because this is outside of the realm of what people usually expect to be the capabilities of Hamas? And also while you’re at it, some people have been speculating online that the Israeli government was aware of something like this and that this was part of some kind of long held idea of using this attack for political purposes. So I’m wondering what your take is on all of this.
Yeah, absolutely. And thank you so much for having me here today. It’s good to be here and to be talking about these issues. So first off, as far as why this is making headlines and why this is so shocking to people, first and foremost, it’s just one of, as you mentioned, the deadliest terrorist attacks of the 21st century. The scale of the civilian death toll, and obviously the news that we’re getting now as far as the manner in which many of these civilians were killed is just really shocking and appalling. So even setting aside the intelligence implications, the intelligence failure, the geo-strategic implications, the implications for the United States, and the fact that you have US hostages being taken into the Gaza Strip and so on and so forth, just as a starting point, just the scale of the attack itself I think is really, really shocking, and if not unprecedented in the 21st century, fairly close to unprecedented, I think it’s fair to say.
In terms of what is particularly shocking about this event beyond that, I think first off there’s been an element of shock in terms of how this forces us to revise what we think of Hamas’ intents, long-term. So over the course of the past few years, there’s been kind of a developing consensus among analysts and definitely among strategists within Israel that Hamas could be contained, and by basically strategically reining in Hamas when necessary with strategically assassinating certain high ranking members when they engage in certain behaviors. But first and foremost, focusing on attacking other armed groups within the Gaza Strip to sort of isolate them to drive a wedge between them and Hamas, you could essentially shape Hamas’ behavior over time and convince them that it made more sense for them to focus on governance in the Gaza Strip rather than fundamentally revising the status quo between Israel and the Palestinians. Obviously that is not the case anymore.
So part of what was so shocking about this is that it’s really forced people to reevaluate what exactly it is that Hamas wants to achieve. Obviously the fact that they’re not just able, but willing to break out of the Gaza Strip and conduct these attacks, means that their actual long-term goals are very, very different than what I think people imagined six months ago when it was possible to tell a story that Hamas was beginning to focus more on governance within the Gaza Strip. The second thing is that it’s really shocking in terms of how we evaluate Hamas’ capabilities, and at the very least how we evaluate Hamas’ capabilities relative to the security apparatus that Israel had in place surrounding the Gaza Strip. So the assumption was, one that Hamas didn’t want to conduct an attack like this, that it would be counterproductive, but two, that they couldn’t, that if they tried to conduct something like this, they would fail miserably.
So the fact that they not only managed to break out of the Gaza Strip, but also managed to overrun police stations and overrun military targets, take military hostages. Again, this is not to discount the terrorism and the slaughter of civilians as well, but the fact that on a military level they were able to do all of that and that they were able to range outside of the Gaza Strip for hours, and then it took six to 12 hours for Israel to even begin to really mobilize reserves and get them into place to begin combating Hamas, that really shows that they’re much, much more capable than they were, in terms of the equipment they have access to, the coordination that they’re capable of, the sophistication of the attacks that they’re capable of. But as far as the question about whether or not Israel knew about this, I think that there is quite a bit of evidence that, one, if Israel didn’t know, they absolutely should have known, that this was something that Hamas has been planning for months if not years.
And it also required obviously thousands of Hamas operatives to be working in coordination with each other at the very least in order to get something like this off the ground. So if Israel didn’t know about this attack, they absolutely should have and it’s a stunning intelligence failure. And there is some evidence that they probably had some intelligence that would’ve pointed to an attack like this being in the works, and perhaps even attack like this being on the works on that specific day within the week leading up to the attack, they may have picked up some intelligence. I think obviously the idea that they had that intelligence and deliberately suppressed it in order to allow the terror attack to happen is, I think, ludicrous and doesn’t make a lot of sense on its face. The idea that Israel would deliberately allow a terrorist attack to happen because that would be good for it politically.
One, it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny because you can obviously see that this has been awful for the Israeli government, the Israeli citizenry are extremely unhappy with the Netanyahu government. So it just doesn’t make sense on its face that Netanyahu or anyone in his government would think it would be a good idea, because it hasn’t been. But I think that what you’re basically seeing is on some level, maybe a failure to collect adequate intelligence and definitely a failure to maybe synthesize that intelligence. And that gets back to what I was saying previously about what Israel and the United States thought was Hamas’ long-term goals, that you get these little bits of intelligence that maybe force you to reevaluate that, but you don’t integrate them in the correct way. And that kind of leaves you with a big gap in your understanding of what exactly they’re planning.
After this initial attack, Israel reacted in a way that a lot of people are calling to be very aggressive. They were in part emboldened by the Biden administration’s speech giving Israel room to react as it deems necessary, but beyond conducting the bombing campaign to target Hamas and its networks and to free the Israeli hostages that you mentioned, Israel has cut off most of the electricity going into Gaza, it has made it very difficult for humanitarian aid to get in, all of which has made the Israeli government subject to a lot of criticism by the international community. To Israel’s defense, it has been calling for civilians to leave Gaza, only to spark questions about where these citizens will go. And so I’m wondering what calculus do you think Israel is using right now, especially given the impending ground invasion that people are saying will be happening soon into Gaza?
Yeah, absolutely. So I would just say, first off, I think part of Israel’s calculus, Israel has been, I think really stunned by the success of Hamas and by the savagery of their attacks. And certainly senior members of the Israeli government and of the military have concluded that everyone in the Gaza Strip is on some level culpable for this. Obviously, from the perspective of international law, that’s not true and punishing civilians of the Gaza Strip for the actions of Hamas is a war crime on its face. So definitely there’s been a calculation on the part of the Israeli government that restricting anything going into the Gaza Strip, electricity, water, food, anything that could be used by Hamas. And obviously Hamas needs water just like anybody else. So on its face, all of these things going into the Gaza Strip could theoretically be used by Hamas.
Anything that you could theoretically [inaudible, 7:47] is going to be used by Hamas shouldn’t go into the Gaza Strip. I will say they’ve walked back on this, to some extent, but definitely that was their line at the opening, and I think that their calculus is that you basically squeeze Hamas as hard as you possibly can. We don’t worry too much about whether or not that causes civilian suffering, and then you kind of hope that you can reach some deal with Egypt, that Egypt will take responsibility for the citizens of Gaza, which obviously has not come to pass. So I think frankly, part of the reason that you’ve seen the ground invasion get pushed back and pushed back and pushed back, is they’ve realized they don’t actually have very much of a plan as far as what to do about the citizens of Gaza. Egypt doesn’t want to take them.
Part of the reason that Egypt doesn’t want to take them is that senior members of the Israeli government have been very, very clear over the course of the past year that what they would like to do is annex as much Palestinian territory as possible and then gradually squeeze as many Palestinians out of that territory as possible and then leave the remainder in essentially a one-state reality where the remaining Palestinians enjoy fewer rights, vis-a-vis the Jewish majority. So the fact that you have essentially senior members of the government, I’m talking specifically about Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, talking really openly about these things. It means that Egypt is rightly concerned about the idea that if you squeeze these people out of the Gaza Strip, they’re never going to be allowed back in, because senior members of the Israeli government have made it pretty clear that they would actually view that as desirable.
So that’s really complicated, the situation. In the short term Israel’s calculus has been, “Hey, maybe we can move some south to the southern part of the Gaza Strip”. Obviously there are huge logistical challenges just to doing that. There aren’t enough hospitals to treat people in the Southern Gaza Strip, there’s not enough resources, so on and so forth. But I think right now there’s some really tough conversations happening between Israel and Israel’s allies about what Israel’s allies view as the expectations for how it would conduct a ground offensive and what steps it would take to minimize civilian casualties.
So you mentioned this big problem with Israel’s [inaudible, 9:29] the spread of civilians and where all of these civilians in Gaza will go. And I will say the other side of that is, Hamas is considered a foreign terrorist organization by the US, and there’s concerns by a lot of experts that if Israel goes in and tries to get rid of Hamas. So I’d love to hear your take on if that’s possible, but if that were to happen, there’s a fear that a group that would come to power after Hamas, if Hamas was wiped out, would be even worse, be more powerful, and would have even more vengeful attitudes towards Israel. All the while, of course, as you mentioned, the Palestinians would be subject to mass violence. Do you share these concerns about what the end goal of this whole counter-attack on Gaza could bring to light and to the Strip?
Yeah, absolutely. So I think, yeah, that it’s fair to say that there’s kind of concerns on a tactical level and on a strategic level. So on a tactical level, I think the concern is that, the Israeli government in immediate aftermath of the attack, as I discussed previously, hasn’t displayed a great deal of concern for the suffering of Palestinian civilians. And so if you extrapolate that out into a ground campaign, what you’re probably going to see is an enormous amount of civilian suffering in the Gaza Strip. You’re going to see an enormous number of civilian casualties.
I should add that urban combat inherently against an entrenched defender like Hamas that is operating in an environment where there are tons of civilians that can’t or won’t evacuate. That’s inherently going to involve a lot of civilian casualties. It’s not just about how the IDF conducts the campaign. But if you think about extrapolating that campaign all the way to its conclusion, you’re going to have an enormous number of civilian casualties and an enormous number of damage to the Gaza Strip that would obviously, as you said, incite an enormous amount of loathing and hatred towards the people that inflicted that damage, which the Palestinian would obviously perceive Israel as being primarily responsible for that.
So there’s a concern that then, yeah, what you get after that is going to be even worse than Hamas. So that’s the tactical level question is, is Israel really willing to commit to the level of averting civilian casualties that would be necessary to actually conduct this campaign in a way that wouldn’t just incite something even worse than Hamas, to fill the vacuum? But on a strategic level, part of the problem is that there’s just been no plan for what would come afterwards, as far as I can tell from the messaging from the Israeli government. So you basically have one of three options. So option A is you go in, you don’t try to topple Hamas, but you essentially try to rein them in, reestablish some level of deterrence. Hamas remains in power, but they’ve learned their lesson, so to speak. I think everyone in Israel has basically ruled that off the table. They don’t think that’s possible anymore.
So then your two remaining options are one, you depose Hamas and then you go in and directly occupy the Gaza Strip. But the problem is that Israel doesn’t really want to do that. And again, it still doesn’t really get you out of the question of, unless you’re planning to annex the territory, you still need some end game that involves building Palestinian governance there, which they don’t have. And the third option is you move in the Palestinian authority or some other authority that’s in the West Bank already and try to see, get them to take over, but they’ve already been so thoroughly delegitimized, and they’re deeply unpopular in the West Bank, the idea that they could suddenly step in and start governing the Gaza Strip is also not really realistic. So you kind of run through all three options and none of them look like something that could actually be implemented properly.
It’s a fair question of what would actually happen after Israel finishes a campaign like this. I don’t think anyone really knows. I think some people quietly, and some people very loudly, in the Israeli government, are saying that there is a fourth option, which is that you just get as many of the Palestinians out of the Gaza Strip as possible, you never let them back in. And then if Israel has to govern the Gaza Strip indefinitely, at least they’re governing a Gaza Strip that is significantly depopulated and doesn’t… if they annex it ultimately back into Israeli territory. It doesn’t undermine the demographic imperative that they see to maintain a Jewish majority. Again, that’s not to say that that’s the calculus of everyone in Israel, but certainly there are senior members of the Israeli government that would like to see that happen as well. And that’s a kind of a fourth option that’s basically being talked about in certain circles. So as for what would happen afterwards, I think it’s really unclear, but all of the options look quite grim.
Now, the conflict itself is bad enough as we’ve outlined, but there is another angle that the US government is very interested in and is paying attention to, which is that of Iran. So Iran has always been quite involved with Hamas. They don’t have the most direct command relationship with Hamas as opposed to a group like Hezbollah, where Iran says, “Jump”, this group says “How high”. That’s not always the way it’s been with Hamas. I’m curious how you think Iran is viewing this situation. Do you think they ordered this attack? Do you think they were aware of it? Do you think they were surprised by it, et cetera? And I’m really also interested in how you think Hamas’ objectives with this differ from what Iran would want here?
Yeah, it’s a really important question, and oftentimes when we say someone is a proxy of Iran, we kind of assume that that means they have the exact same goals as Iran, which is not necessarily the case. And you’re seeing that even now with Hezbollah, right, that I think Iran is very gung-ho, or at least a little bit more gung-ho about the idea of Hezbollah entering the war, whereas Hezbollah is a lot more reluctant to do it cause it’s their own troops on the line. So there’s always this kind of friction between the proxy and the person funding or directing the proxy in terms of what exactly, what their risk tolerance is, what their end goals are, things like that. When it comes to Hamas, when you’re talking about the difference between Hamas’ end goals and Iran’s end goals, or what are their strategic level friction, you might say?
So Iran’s goal with these proxy networks, part of it is to basically undermine the security of the state of Israel and to get as many precision guided missiles pointed directly at Israel as possible, getting as many troops on the border on as many different borders as possible with Israel. Hamas is very happy with that. They also like the idea of Israel feeling extremely insecure and feeling like they have to potentially even compromise with these proxies or compromise with Iran. That’s good news for them. The place where they differ is that we’ve seen how Iran establishes proxy networks in Iraq and Syria and in Lebanon now. So we know exactly how they operate. These groups, they’re still fundamentally expected to benefit Iran geostrategically and to benefit Iran economically where possible. So in that sense, they’re kind of imperialist or even colonial, you might say. So certainly in Iraq, there’s efforts to essentially use these proxies to capitalize on Iraq’s oil reserves and turn those into lucrative networks that Iran can tap.
So in that sense, there’s a lot of friction because Hamas does not gain in any particularly direct ways by doing Iran’s bidding vis-a-vis, Saudi Arabia for instance. There’s nothing particularly beneficial to Hamas, if it comes down to it, of putting pressure on Saudi Arabia. So in that sense, there’s these big picture geostrategic objectives that Iran has that really have nothing to do with Hamas. And in the long term, if you were to see Hamas reach some sort of peace deal with Israel, you might see that come to the forefront, because what Iran would want to get out of that, would be really different from Hamas. In terms of the level of coordination. I think we’ll know more in the coming days and weeks. Certainly it seems like Iran was aware that Hamas was planning something or other. I think at this point we can say pretty clearly, from what has already been leaked, that they were aware that Hamas was planning some sort of attack.
It’s possible that Hamas itself was surprised by how successful the attack was. So it seems like Iran was surprised too, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they were out of the loop more so than Hamas was. But right now, I think the million-dollar question is, did Iran organize and order them to conduct this specific attack? And we definitely don’t have enough evidence to say that. What we’ve already known for years now is that Iran funds and backs Hamas, that they view themselves as benefiting from providing them with weapons and material and money. And then in exchange, Hamas to some extent aligns itself geostrategically with Iran and with other Iranian proxies. So in that sense, Iran is already implicated in the attack, certainly, they’re culpable sort of from a moral perspective in terms of the terror attack if you want to make that argument. But how much they actually knew about the order of battle and when it would happen, what would play out. I think that that’s actually still somewhat unclear and we’re still waiting to learn more about that.
We’ve seen differences in strategic objectives between Hamas and Iran, for example, on Syria policy when the civil war broke out. So it’s something to watch. And while we’re on the topic of Iran, you mentioned it yourself, but this kind of axis of resistance, Iran’s so-called proxy network within the Middle East, and we’ve seen a little bit of movement in different areas around Israel because of this conflict. So I’m interested in your take on them. I mean, we know that a multi-front war would be very difficult for Israel to deal with. We’ve seen a little bit of back and forth rocket fire between Hezbollah and the IDF and Southern Lebanon, but not a war, because as you mentioned, Hezbollah’s strategic objectives and its risk tolerance would be different than Iran. We’ve also seen that the Assad regime has reported that Israel has struck airports in Aleppo and Damascus, and we know that this is very characteristic for Israel to do stuff like this, to target Iran-backed groups in Syria.
We’ve even seen some back and forth between Syria and Israel in the Golan Heights, which is of course land that is occupied by Israel and has been annexed by Israel, but is known to be Syrian. And OSINT has reported that some Iraqi Iranian-backed groups are starting to mobilize towards the Syrian-Jordanian border, and some Iranian proxies in Iraq have even claimed that if the US helps Israel, that these groups will start to attack US troops in Iraq. So I’m wondering if you can kind of game out for us how you see this axis of resistance reacting to this, and the possibility that we’ll see greater conflict in the Middle East.
Yeah, absolutely. So Iran has been developing a network. They have essentially, I guess you might say, a theory of victory vis-a-vis Israel that they’ve been developing over the course of the past 10 or 20 years. It essentially involves this idea of you establish proxy networks that spread across the Middle East. These proxy networks have both ground troops, and then they also have missiles that are provided directly or indirectly by Iran. And then all of these proxies essentially serve to put pressure on the Israeli government and to basically make them feel strategically vulnerable. And so now you basically have a test of how effective these are. And so we’ll see. But I mean, yeah, basically to recap, if you’re looking at it from 10,000 feet, you essentially have an Iranian proxy network of a bunch of different proxies that are operating all across Iraq. Now, those proxies sort of bleed into Syria to some extent, and you have a sort of a similar umbrella of proxy networks in Syria.
Then you obviously have Hezbollah in Lebanon, which is generally considered to be kind of the crown jewel of this proxy network in terms of their capabilities, in terms of the material and the weapons they have access to. And in terms of just how many fighters they have. It’s also worth emphasizing that Hezbollah specifically has a ton of experience fighting in the Syrian civil war, and what exactly you make of that kind of differs. People go back and forth on that. That could mean that they’ve suffered massive attrition and that they’re not as powerful as they look. But the flip side of that could also be that they’re actually much more capable and they have a lot more experience conducting urban combat than any of these other proxies. And then lastly, you have the Houthis in Yemen as well.
So you’ve got this whole network, and right now you can clearly see across this entire constellation of proxy networks, that they’re all sort of probing defenses and essentially increasing their readiness and just sort of sending out signals to the United States and to Israel saying, “Hey, I’m here and I could do a lot worse if I wanted to”.
So you’ve seen that in Syria in the course of the past 24 to 48 hours. You’ve seen attacks both on Al Tanf, which is the US base in the south of Syria, and now also on the Conoco base in eastern Syria, where you’ve had several injuries. You’ve also had now drone attacks that were in the general direction of a US fleet off of the coast of Yemen, launched by the Houthis. Whether or not that was intended to target the fleet, is somewhat up for debate. And then you’ve also had an increase in attacks on US forces in Iraq too. And then on top of all that, you now have this tit-for-tat obviously happening across the border with Lebanon and Israel. So I think right now it’s fair to say everyone is kind of probing each other’s defenses, they’re seeing capabilities. These militias in Syria and Iraq are probably curious if they even can get through US air defenses.
And it turns out that, actually yes, they can in certain instances, which is very concerning. So right now they’re probing capabilities. They’re probably waiting for some message from Iran about whether or not they should actually dial this up to 11, so to speak. In the case of Hezbollah, I think that they’re playing a game of trying to see what exactly Israel does in Gaza. I think that if they can use these sorts of tit-for-tat forms of pressure to persuade Israel against the ground invasion in Gaza, that they would probably take that and they would back off and they’d call that a win. But it seems that Israel is now very, very committed to a invasion of the Gaza Strip, at which point the entry of Hezbollah becomes far more likely.
And you’ve outlined for us how this conflict in Israel-Palestine has the potential and the real possibility of affecting multiple other nodes of Iranian influence in the Middle East. And at the same time, there’s multiple different areas where this conflict can have long-term implications for US policy in the region. So I’m going to touch on three different nodes and then leave the floor open to you to conclude the podcast.
The first is within Israel itself. You’ve written for New Lines previously about how settler militias working with the tacit support of the Israeli government have committed violence against Palestinians in the West Bank. So I’m curious how you see the situation in Gaza affecting the West Bank in the long term. And if you see it as plausible that the Israeli government will use these attacks in Gaza to justify increased security measures in the West Bank in the future, thus further aligning these settler militias with the Israeli security apparatus. So that’s the first topic.
The second would be this idea of broader normalization within the Middle East, Israel. The Biden administration has been working for a long time to get Saudi Arabia and Israel on the same page. And I’m wondering if you think this kind of conflict will cause ripples there. And also we’ve seen since the conflict began, publicly, Saudis, MBS and Raisi spoke on the phone. This kind of highlights the significance of the conflict. So normalization is the second node. And then the third one is larger questions about US force activity. You mentioned in your last response how some of these Iranian backed militias are starting to attack US bases in Syria and now Iraq. And so I’m wondering if you think these kinds of increase in attacks by these proxies and Iranian-aligned militias will cause the US to think critically about its forces in the Middle East and maybe cause some changes there?
Yeah, absolutely. No, these are really important and big questions. So I’ll try to just at least provide some kind of food for thought on them. On the first question about sort of settler militias. So what I’ve written about in the past is this way in which basically you have organized or semi-organized settler groups across the West Bank that conduct regular or semi-regular attacks against Palestinian property and against Palestinians, and occasionally kill Palestinians. And then you essentially have the IDF essentially tacitly cooperating. So in some cases you have them show up and essentially appear to cooperate with these settler militias. In other cases, they essentially wait until things start to get out of hand and then they disperse the Palestinians, as opposed to dispersing the settlers who instigated the violence. And basically the big picture problem is that none of the settlers are being arrested for conducting the violence.
So they’re essentially, it creates a culture of impunity. And in the long term, what I’ve written about, which might be slightly more controversial, is the way in which this might be to some extent by design, that there are certain people within the Israeli government that basically view this type of routine violence as being important for a state building project in the West Bank, that you essentially need to make life unlivable for Palestinians and you need to sort of subjugate them on some level in order to make a political project of annexation possible, which again, is the stated goal of a significant portion of the Israeli government, not necessarily the specific means, but the idea of annexing the West Bank is, I think, increasingly mainstream within the Israeli government at this point, unfortunately. So what we’ve seen since October 7th is basically what I’ve written about in the past, essentially going onto steroids.
So you’ve seen understandably, extremely high tensions among these settler groups. They’re obviously outraged and furious about the terror attacks on October 7th. In many cases, they’re taking that out on Palestinians. So sort of right after the attack, within 24 or 48 hours, you had several fatal incidents, which are relatively rare. I don’t want to say that they’re unheard of. They happen actually reasonably frequently, but it’s not common to have multiple fatal incidents of settlers killing Palestinian civilians within a 24 or 48 hour period. So you were already seeing kind of an increase in the tempo of the violence. And since then it’s continued to accelerate. And you’ve had the IDF, which was never terribly interested in stopping, arresting these settlers are now a hundred percent just saying, we’ve got better things to do. We’re worried about Gaza, we’re not going to get involved in this kind of thing.
They are getting involved, obviously, in policing operations and counter-terrorism operations in the West Bank. So they do have the capability to go after Palestinians, but they’re not leveraging that against these settler groups. So it’s really, really concerning in the long term because it’s essentially an acceleration of this trend, which involves an enormous amount of violence and property damage against Palestinian civilians in the West Bank, and also sort of dovetails with a certain statebuilding project that it, would amount to annexing of the West Bank, in violation of international law. So that’s sort of the concern there. Taking the second question, which is about normalization, it’s a little bit unclear how this is going to play out. I think the consensus right after the attack was basically that this would scuttle normalization, both that the attack itself would scuttle normalization, but also that it would prompt an Israeli response that would be extremely brutal against the people of Gaza.
And that essentially it wouldn’t be politically feasible for anyone in the Middle East to be seen normalizing with Israel, as they were aerially bombarding the Gaza Strip. So that was the consensus. Now you’ve had some semiofficial, not official, but semi-official statements by people that are sort of former high-ranking officials in the Saudi government, that are indicating some willingness to pursue, or not necessarily pursue normalization, but not explicitly ruling it out as directly as you might expect at this point. So there might be some durability. I think what we can say for sure is that any normalization efforts are going to happen very, very quietly and behind the scenes, but they might not be as scuttled as we originally expected. Again, the sort of the geostrategic reasons for normalization have mostly to do with Saudi concerns about a nuclear Iran. And those aren’t going away, that the Saudi government feels enormously threatened after Iran demonstrated through its proxies that it could attack Saudi soil in 2019.
They still feel very, very vulnerable. And with Iran getting closer and closer to a nuclear weapon, they’re still going to feel the need to integrate into some broader security umbrella going forward, whether they like it or not, and even if it’s with people that they view as deeply distasteful. So that is still going to kind of push them in that direction, but I think it’ll definitely slow it down or scuttle it for the time being. And lastly, your question about sort of US activities and US vulnerability to Iran-aligned militias, I think that we will see in the coming days and weeks, I think the United States is not exactly helpless vis-a-vis these militias. In the past, the consensus has been that the United States exercises restraint because we don’t want to instigate a sort of escalating cycle of violence. So we essentially let Iranian militias attack certain bases with the understanding that they’ll refrain from lethal actions against US bases essentially.
So in the past 12 months to 24 months, you’ve essentially had basically settling into this routine where the US occasionally retaliates against Iranian militias, but mostly declines to. But the US isn’t totally vulnerable here. They know exactly where these Iranian militias are, they know where their bases are, and they have the ability to construct airstrikes among other things, among, raids and other things. So it’s a question both of what are the capabilities of these groups? Are they actually able to kind of go directly after US bases and hit them really hard? Would they want to do that? And also does the US have the resolve to hit back? But I think one thing that we’ve seen really, really clearly and consistently over the course of the past five years or so when it comes to Iranian militias hitting US bases is that when US troops are hurt, the US, CENTCOM’s resolve is extremely high to retaliate.
So oftentimes the assumption is, “Oh, if they can inflict casualties, the US will get scared and leave”. Empirically, if you look at what’s actually happened, it’s generally been the opposite, that the temptation to leave has actually been highest when Iranian militias aren’t hitting US bases, because then there’s this question of “What are we even doing out here?” But when they do hit them, the resolve to then hit back and to send a message is actually quite high and quite consistent. So I’m skeptical that it would actually lead to any sort of forcing the US to withdraw from these spaces. I think probably what you would see is the opposite.
Well, thank you, Calvin. This has been an incredibly powerful conversation. You’ve really dove into some of the biggest topics about this issue right now, including Iran’s role, including humanitarian ramifications, including the different implications this conflict will have for the region, and for US policy in the Middle East. To our listeners, thank you so much for listening to this episode of Contours. Make sure to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud, and wherever else you listen to our episodes. You can also check out further analysis in the geopolitics at www.newlinesinstitute.org. All the best.