During the COVID-19 crisis, one would have thought the United States and Iran would find ways to reduce tensions. Instead the Trump administration refuses to relax sanctions in the midst of a pandemic, and Iranian-supported Shia militias in Iraq continue to target U.S. forces. If this shadow war is going to continue, the United States needs to find more effective ways to protect its interests and counter Iran’s surrogates and proxies while avoiding an all-out war.
Previous presidents — from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama — have been hesitant to respond at all for fear of starting a larger conflict. The Trump administration’s strike on Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani represents the opposite — an unnecessarily provocative approach that almost led to uncontrolled escalation.
There is a middle ground that may be more effective. Israel’s “campaign between the wars” against Iran in Syria has been one of the most successful military efforts to push back against Iran in the gray zone. Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, and especially since early 2017, Israel has conducted more than 200 airstrikes inside Syria against more than 1,000 targets linked to Iran and its proxies.
American strategists and military officers studied the 1973 Arab-Israeli War to prepare for possible conventional warfare with the Soviet Union. Today, the U.S. military can take the lessons learned from Israel’s campaign in Syria and apply them to gray zone conflict with Iran.
For the past year, we have been studying the Israeli campaign and have developed the following lessons that could be applied to U.S. operations.
First, the Israelis focused on a clearly defined and limited operational objective to reduce the flow of precision-guided munitions into Syria that could overwhelm Israel’s Iron Dome system. This allowed them to develop a narrow target set and send clear, associated deterrent messages to Iran. In contrast, the current U.S. approach relies on 12 broad, overarching objectives that amount to eliminating all Iranian influence in the Middle East, making it challenging to focus on limited, effective military steps.
Second, Israel pursued this campaign in theaters where it could maintain an overwhelming intelligence and military superiority. As such, hundreds of Israeli strikes have only resulted in ineffective attempts at retaliation from Iran. The United States is certainly capable of developing this type of military and intelligence superiority, but it is expensive and challenging for a superpower with commitments across the globe and therefore should only be deployed when key national interests are at stake.
To further reduce the risk of escalation, Israel has limited adversary and civilian casualties — in some cases, purposefully firing warning shots to disperse Iranian fighters before destroying weapons systems. The late-December American operation that killed 25 Kata’ib Hezbollah fighters, in response to the killing of one American contractor in Iraq, triggered a dangerously escalatory cycle. The operation sparked the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the subsequent U.S. strike on Soleimani and Iran’s retaliatory ballistic missiles launches on U.S. troops.
A fourth lesson is to develop a subtle messaging campaign. Israel has refrained from embarrassing Iran publicly, in strong contrast to President Donald Trump tweeting a picture of an American flag after killing Soleimani. Still, through strategic leaks, the Israelis have made clear to Iran the costs associated with continuing to send precision weapons into Syria. The United States would not be able to conduct such a tightly messaged campaign, as the Israelis use a military censor. But previous U.S. campaigns against al-Qaida in Pakistan and Yemen have used a similar public messaging posture.
Yet, Israel has been willing to take calculated risks recognizing the large space between no kinetic action and full-scale war. Too often in the United States the debate is black and white. Leaders are either afraid to take any action for fear of the knock-on effects, as when President Obama did not respond militarily to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons in 2013. Or leaders go too high up the escalation ladder, as President Trump did when he ordered the killing of Soleimani.
Israel indeed employed an unorthodox approach to military planning. Instead of starting by outlining desired end states, which is how U.S. military planning is conducted, Israel took a gradual forward-planning approach, which started with testing very limited strikes and then, when Iran failed to retaliate effectively, slowly ramped up to more aggressive operations continuing with an iterative process of striking, watching Iran’s response and adjusting.
Pursuing complementary diplomacy to create space for military action is also key. Israel conducted most of these operations in Russian-controlled airspace. Leveraging Russia’s little interest in getting in the middle of an Israel-Iran confrontation, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s consistent engagement with Russian President Vladimir Putin led to deconfliction at the operational level to avoid conflict. The United States would be wise to pursue a similar approach with an Iraqi government that fears getting stuck in the middle of a confrontation between Iran and the United States but does not want U.S. forces to leave Iraq entirely.
A final lesson is to be humble about what such a campaign by itself can achieve. The Israel-Iran shadow war continues on a number of fronts, and Iran is already adjusting to this setback in Syria. With different responsibilities, capabilities and interests, the United States cannot and should not precisely replicate the Israeli approach. But the Israeli experience in Syria suggests that the United States has more options in gray zone conflict than previously assessed, if U.S. policymakers are willing and able to replicate at least some elements of the Israeli model.
Ilan Goldenberg is the director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, where Kaleigh Thomas is a research associate.