WASHINGTON — War between Israel and Iranian proxy forces is imminent, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators warned Tuesday after a trip to the Middle East last week.
“Any time you leave a meeting where the request is ammunition, ammunition, ammunition, that’s probably not good,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said of a meeting with Israeli officials. Graham is the Senate’s lead appropriator for the U.S. State Department and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Hezbollah — the powerful pro-Iranian Lebanese party — has built a plant in Lebanon to convert rockets into precision-guided munitions, and it has integrated its fighters into civilian infrastructure like apartments, schools and hospitals, Graham asserted.
“When they tell you we want help to deal with the blowback that might come from attacks on civilian targets where Hezbollah has integrated military capability, that was pretty striking,” Graham said of talks with Israeli officials.
Fresh from leading a bipartisan congressional delegation last week to Israel, Jordan, Greece and the U.K., Graham told reporters: “This was the most unnerving trip I’ve had in a while.”
The conflict is escalating, said Sen. Chris Coons, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and a senior appropriator. Coons, D-Del., pointed to the Iranian drone shot down in Israel and the Israeli fighter downed by Syrian air defenses during a retaliatory offensive in Syria.
“The tempo in terms of potential for conflict in Syria has gone up; the technologies Iran is projecting into Syria and southern Lebanon has gone up; Iran’s willingness to be provocative, to push the edges of the envelope, to challenge Israel, has gone up,” said Coons, D-Del..
Graham and Coons saw a link between increased pressure on Israel and the lack of a strategy to push back against Russia and Iran from the Trump administration and America’s European allies.
“We have done a pretty good job of dealing with ISIL,” said Graham, using an acronym for the Islamic State group. “But I don’t see a coherent plan.”
Graham described an array of threats on Israeli’s border with Syria. Near the Golan Heights, there are Syrian villages controlled, respectively, by rebel forces, ISIS fighters and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad who are integrated with Hezbollah.
“Israel’s worst nightmare is to have Assad forces with Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guard elements on their border,” Graham said. “It’s in our interest to stop the Iran-Assad machine.”
Coons and Graham called on the administration to present Congress with a plan to counter Iran and Russia. Graham called on the international community, to “step up its game.”
The warning comes days after U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was worried about the possibility of a direct confrontation between Israel and various militia groups in Syria approaching its borders.
The United Nations, which operates an 11,000-member peacekeeping force in Lebanon, has maintained forces there since Israel occupied southern Lebanon in 1982. The Jewish state withdrew in 2000.
Israeli officials hailed U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the U.S. embassy there, but they and other allies showed concern over America’s unclear direction in the region.
“The lack of a clear next step or path forward — in Syria with regards to Iran, in Syria with regards to the Turks and the Kurds, in Israel with regard to Israel and Palestinians — was a theme in all our meetings,” Coons said. “It wasn’t uniformly positive or negative. It was: ‘We want to know where you’re going.’ ”
Without a resolution, Iran, through its proxy, Hezbollah, may “entice” Israel into a war in Lebanon, Graham said. The real question is: What’s Trump’s next move?
“What I want to tell the president is the Iranians are testing him,” Graham said. “This would not be happening if there was a coherent policy [toward] Russia and Iran in Syria.”
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.