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Will the Hamas attack on Israel lead to a broader regional war?

Even bitter adversaries have tools to control escalation.

- October 12, 2023

Last weekend’s horrific attacks inside Israel and the ongoing Israeli response have raised the specter of a wider war in the Middle East. On Sunday, a Wall Street Journal story claimed Iran knew about the attack and gave its blessing in the weeks before, based on details from anonymous Hezbollah and Hamas officials. In the days since, U.S. and Israeli official statements and anonymous comments given to news media have strongly contradicted this claim. Yet as Good Authority’s Marc Lynch noted

Of course, Hamas is far more than an Iranian proxy, and has its own reasons for this dramatic move. But many in the region will read the unfolding crisis as part of the conflict between Iran and the American-led regional order that has long defined regional politics. Israel could decide that attacking Gaza or bombing Lebanon isn’t enough this time, and seek to target Iran directly. If so, we are looking at a potentially uncontrollable regional war that could directly impact Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the flow of oil.

It’s easy to think of ways the conflict might spiral out of control. What might stop escalation? I asked Austin Carson, a scholar of international security whose book Secret Wars looks at how countries at war can send signals that they want to limit escalation – even as they are engaged in brutal fighting.

Elizabeth N. Saunders: In your book Secret Wars, you describe how sworn enemies can collude to keep a conflict from escalating too far. Can you explain how that is possible?

Austin Carson: Enemies cooperating to control escalation is actually a regular feature of modern conflict. Escalation control is, in essence, a collusive enterprise – that is, it takes two sides collaborating to make it work. 

The famous economist and political scientist Thomas Schelling argued this in the early years of the Cold War. He observed that fighting a limited war requires a tacit form of cooperation by opposing sides to keep the location and form of hostilities limited. Adversaries communicate “messages” during war through their actions. When it works, both sides show visible signs of restraint and reassure one another that they share an interest in keeping the war limited in certain ways. We see a lot of this in Ukraine right now. Despite the brutality of Russia’s invasion and occupation, both sides have used verbal threats and behavioral restraint to confine the conflict geographically – for example, not reaching NATO territory – and avoid the risk of nuclear escalation. 

Secret Wars focused on one tool countries use to control escalation: secrecy. There is a lot the public does not see in war. Some of it is intentionally hidden. Some of it is simply hard to see from afar. Governments make decisions about what to publicize and what to stay quiet about. This creates a kind of “backstage” of war that runs parallel to the “front stage” we all witness in real time. If two sides want to keep a conflict contained, the backstage can be a way for them to manage the political and reputational stakes that flow from certain aspects of a war. Keeping things off the front pages – or simply creating or maintaining ambiguity about what is happening – can ease the pressure each side feels to escalate a war to new levels.

In the book, I focus on major powers providing covert support during war in the form of weaponry, military advising, and even combat participation. I argue that enemies usually know what the other side is doing covertly. Yet both sides may stay quiet if they value escalation control enough. For example, both the United States and the Soviet Union kept secret that the Soviet air force was engaged in combat in the Korean War. U.S. covert activities in Laos during Vietnam also stayed on the backstage during the Johnson years. The shadow of a larger regional war, I found, was an important reason for this careful management of information.

We’ve seen some examples in the last few years of the U.S. and Iran – and others in the region – engaging in this sort of communication. What happened then and how is this different?

Carson: The most relevant pattern has been the emergence of a “shadow war” between Iran and Israel over the last decade or so. Analysts call it a “shadow” war because it is fought using secrecy and official denials – and fought through proxies. The Iranian regime has provided overt and covert support to groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. These groups can threaten Israel while keeping Iran’s role at an arms’ length. Israel, for its part, has reportedly undertaken assassinations and isolated military strikes on Iranian targets but often done so without public acknowledgement.

That is why the question of Iran’s role in Hamas’s initial invasion is so important. Here we have seen some very interesting developments in the last few days. First were separate statements by U.S. and Israeli officials disputing the substance of the Wall Street Journal article claiming Iran’s involvement. Then, on Wednesday, the New York Times reported on “several American officials” who had seen intelligence conclusions “that show that key Iranian leaders were surprised by the Hamas attack in Israel.” And NBC News followed suit, quoting a U.S. official that described the intelligence as “exquisite” and stated that the surprised Iranian official was “high enough that they would usually be informed about Tehran’s support for Iran’s proxies before an attack.”

These statements increasingly suggest intentional messaging to discourage the narrative that Iran was directly involved. To be clear, these same Israeli and U.S.officials tend to emphasize that Iran is complicit since the Iranian regime has been essential to Hamas’s training and military capabilities. But the official line seems to emphasize the distinction between a general proxy relationship and Iran’s direct role in planning, vetting, or even being aware of the attack. Note, too, that this messaging – and in all likelihood private, indirect diplomatic messaging as well – surely reaches leaders in Tehran.

The dynamics in this case are extremely complex – not just Israel and Hamas, but Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and many others, plus the hostage dimension. Can the right people get to the backstage?

Carson: While this war in Israel features a number of important players, for the question of whether we will see a broader regional war, some players are more important than others. The structure of the conflict to this point is that Israel and Hamas are openly at war. Each of them has a key outside backer: Iran for Hamas, the United States for Israel. Iran’s actions and how the U.S. and Israel respond to it will be the most important factors in whether this becomes a regional war. Hezbollah’s actions in the north – which are supported by Iran as well – may influence whether Israel is forced to fight a more difficult two-front war. But even more aggressive action by Hezbollah will not create a broader, regional conflict.

Beyond what may be happening on the backstage, it is notable that the first week of this war has considerable front-stage signaling that we can all observe. Publicizing doubts about Iran’s direct role helps quell calls for direct and overt retaliation against Iran. Israel’s strong preference appears to be to focus on the extremely difficult military operations around and within Gaza. Iran, for its part, almost surely prefers to continue its longstanding pattern of working through its proxies (Hamas and Hezbollah) rather than fight Israel directly. 

These are the ingredients for what policymakers in the Cold War dubbed a “limited war” – a misnomer because such wars were often protracted and brutal, with immense human costs. But they were limited geographically despite the near-constant risk of spread. 

If both sides continue to engage in behavior and public messaging along these lines, this basic structure may well hold in the current conflict. There are also indications of similar signaling in the north, where Hezbollah and Israel have engaged in tit-for-tat, geographically limited exchanges of rockets. These seem to signal a shared desire to limit escalation.

Who is likely to be the restraining force here? Who calls whom to meet backstage?

Carson: There is no shortage of voices for restraint – especially from those outside the region. Leaders in the United States and Europe are almost surely emphasizing the importance of confining the war to Hamas and Gaza. Within the region, public statements by leaders in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have cautioned against escalation – a position Arab nations might not have taken even a few years ago. These reactions underscore that Israel does not face a united Arab front, as it has in the past. This is partly due to normalization as far back as the 1980s but also likely reflects the more recent diplomatic breakthroughs in the form of the Abraham Accords. Even the equivocating statements by China and Russia are far from a call for escalation.

The most important voices calling for escalation will likely come from within Israel and Iran. The more extreme and hawkish factions in these countries are what worry me. “Moderates” on both sides may push for keeping the war indirect and geographically limited to Gaza. But factions within the Israeli government may argue in favor of a military strike directly and overtly against Iran as the only way to credibly deter large-scale proxy attacks in the future. On the Iranian side, there is likely a hawkish camp that will urge counter-retaliation in such a scenario. We cannot know right now how much influence these hawkish factions have.

Time is, in some ways, on the side of escalation control. The longer the conflict remains limited to the Gaza area, the greater the number of opportunities to send verbal and behavioral signals that reinforce a shared message that all sides want to limit the conflict. I have argued something similar has happened in Russia’s war in Ukraine. Time has given the U.S. and NATO the chance to incrementally expand military aid in a way that helps control escalation risks.

Of course, there is a major difference between the war in Ukraine and the attack on Israel: although it controls Gaza, Hamas is not a government (and is dependent on support from other countries). Many of the cases I have studied featured governments driving the bus on escalation control. Governments were the ones initiating wars and using secrecy to manage escalation risks. Groups outside government, if involved at all, were junior partners in covert action programs. In this war, the use of force was initiated by Hamas, and we don’t know if its outside patron even knew about the attack. This could change the dynamics.

Will these changes alter the fundamentals of escalation? Iran and Israel remain the two most important actors determining whether this war goes regional. Hamas started the war but these two governments – who share a history of animosity and restraint in the form of a “shadow war” – will shape how large it gets. To be sure, new actions by other groups outside of governments could alter the calculations of both countries. For example, clashes in Jerusalem or the West Bank involving settlers and Palestinians could widen the scope of the conflict.

Yet even in that scenario, Iran could well remain at arms’ length and on the sidelines – or at least might want to remain so. A lot may come down to how independently Iran’s proxies operate in the weeks and months to come – or how much Tehran tries to rein them in. The other wildcard will be if U.S., Israeli, or other intelligence services find evidence of Iran’s direct involvement in the initial attack by Hamas.  If they do, they might still have incentives to keep it secret, but secrecy may be all but impossible at that point.