In the wake of Saturday’s intrusion by an Iranian drone into Israeli air space, which was followed by Israeli strikes on targets in Syria and the shootdown of an IAF F-16I, the commentary has been predictable.
This is unquestionably “big.” The last Israeli warplane lost in combat was more than three decades ago, in the first Lebanon war in 1982. (A helicopter was lost in 2006.) Judging by Syrian regime-friendly reporting and themes in social media, regime forces are over the moon about their achievement in bagging an IAF “Sufa.”
But it’s also the biggest counter-strike by Israeli forces in Syria since the civil war erupted there in 2011. The IAF has conducted comparatively large-scale strikes on logistic and infrastructure targets in the last several years, interdicting, among other things, deliveries from Iran and convoys to Hezbollah. But counter-strikes against weapon systems involved in surveillance of, and attacks, or potential attacks, on Israeli targets or territory, have been very limited.
SAA soldiers distribute sweets to citizens to celebrate the shot down of the Israeli F-16 plane. pic.twitter.com/ely5i98Sa8
— Yusha Yuseef (@MIG29_) February 10, 2018
In fact, the Israeli attack package on Saturday was also limited, compared to what it could have been. Especially after the F-16I shootdown, Israel could have justifiably chosen to attack more targets – but did not. In not retaliating further for the F-16I shootdown, the Israelis de-escalated first.
I assume they did that because their tactical intelligence told them Iran and Syria were not about to escalate further.
But that doesn’t mean Iran’s gambit was a one-off. It certainly doesn’t mean that it represented no real danger, or that Israel overreacted.
In fact, Iran’s probe with the drone is the latest in a growing series of probes and pushes in the region: probes against the postures of others, pushes against the status quo, pushes to establish new “realities on the ground.”
The region itself isn’t in balance anymore, and hasn’t been for some time. The last chance to certify balance without an extended shoving match first was right around the latter half of 2013, when the Obama administration failed to defend a publicly declared “red line” on Syria, and did nothing to thwart the rise of ISIS.
In default of a “hyperpower” (as France used to call the U.S.) enforcing stasis, the natural state of human affairs is probing and pushing. We forgot that after nearly 70 years of a Pax Americana. But since the Arab Spring – and with hints of it even before that – we’ve been reminded of it almost daily. Eventually it may sink in.
In the Middle East, Iran has been the chief prober and pusher, with ISIS, until last year, close behind. But additional probes have developed through first- and second-order effects, and they are ongoing almost literally everywhere, from Morocco to the Philippines.
Iran affects, and is affected by, the whole complex mix of these probes. The situation is especially unstable because the biggest factors for Iran are all changing at the same time. Internal stability is crumbling. The mullahs’ chief power projection project – the land bridge through Syria – has bogged down in recent weeks.
And the status quo in the larger region is in significant flux. Events that Western observers don’t even recognize as related are presenting Iran with the prospect of unmanageable changes to the strategic status quo.
Anything that thwarts the revolutionary regime in Iran can be held to have a salutary effect. But the more such effects there are, the more Iran will shift tactics and try to create problems where problems are advantageous to Iran.
That’s not a caution against thwarting Iran. It’s a reality check. I think Iran pulled this latest stunt because things aren’t going the mullahs’ way at the moment. But the right response for the U.S. and Israel is to slap back hard when the revolutionary regime tries to create new problems.
Let’s look at the drone probe on Saturday in outward-flowing layers, to illustrate the point.
The Iran-Israel nexus
In the most basic sense, Iran probed on 10 February where Israel could not ignore it or let it go. That Iran did this is indisputable if we look at a map. And there are multiple reasons Israel can’t tolerate such probes and still maintain effective defenses. They have to be met with an iron fist, imposing a meaningful cost.
Everything in the profile of the drone incursion bespeaks an intentional probe of Israeli reaction. I am basing the shootdown location of the drone on Seth Frantzman’s map:
To get an idea of the extent of the sirens in northern #Israel in the morning and approximate location of the downed Iranian drone heading toward Beit Shean and the site of the F-16 crash at Harduf, I've put them on a #map to show in relation to #Syria and other points pic.twitter.com/A9WcuaJWqF
— Seth Frantzman (@sfrantzman) February 10, 2018
The second map below depicts how the drone probably got to Israeli air space. The claim from Syria was that there was surveillance of ISIS locations in Daraa province going on at the time. On the assumption that that was a pretext for getting the drone close to Israel, the notional approach route originates from the ISIS-held area (in gray).
The intercept of the drone reportedly occurred near Beit Shean, and the drone was in Israeli air space for a minute and a half, entering from Jordanian air space. So the incursion crossing point was close to Beit Shean.
The drone was nearly 20 miles from the closest square inch of Syrian territory held by ISIS. It obviously didn’t stray inadvertently to such a location. It had to thread the needle of Syrian, Israeli, and Jordanian air space to get there.
Moreover, Israeli air defense forces would have been tracking it the entire time. In the video released by the IDF, showing the drone shootdown, the drone is operating at a very low altitude. It probably dropped to that altitude as it approached Israeli air space, and the Israelis presumably saw it do that. The drone was up to no good.
As others have pointed out, Israel has every reason to be concerned that an Iranian drone may be armed. Iran has recently made a point of touting her advances in that regard. The drone in the video looks like a back-engineered copy of the U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel, the type of drone recovered by Iran in 2011.
About 7 seconds into the IDF video, the drone suddenly accelerates and appears to increase altitude slightly. The drone controller appears to be aware that it’s in danger, and is trying to evade the Israeli AH-64 Apache responding to the intrusion.
After shooting the drone down, the IDF announced on Saturday that it had the remains in hand, which means the shootdown indeed occurred over Israeli territory.
Before moving on to the counter-strike, we need to note that it is expensive and resource-intensive to mount a defense of this kind. From outside the IDF, we can’t know all the particulars of how Israel came to have an Apache on the spot to intercept and shoot down the drone. But Apaches don’t fly fast, and the IAF’s Apaches operate from their home air base at Mitzpe Ramon in the Negev, about 90 miles away from the intercept location.
Of course, they refuel and make logistic stops at bases further north. But to react as immediately as the helicopter did on Saturday, this one would have been airborne already, or able to launch – from a nearby base – as soon as the Iranian drone was over Daraa province in Syria.
Perhaps Israel already keeps a constant Apache air patrol on station in the area, for that matter. But if Iran and Syria pay no price for preoccupying an airborne patrol maintained for general defense, they can quickly confound Israeli defenses at relatively low cost. The IDF can’t let that happen.
Also worth noting: the area of the shootdown is well populated, with farms, orchards, fisheries, residential neighborhoods, and manufacturing facilities. A drone can’t be assumed to pose no threat in such an area. Ever.
In order to keep a cost-effective defense posture functional and realistic, Israel has to deter incursions like this one, not just keep responding to them. Hence the counter-strikes: first against the drone command vehicle, and then against the Syrian air defense force, to ensure that Syria pays a price – one that is useful to Israel and does relevant damage to Syria – for letting Syrian territory be used by Iran.
LTC (IDF, Ret.) Peter Lerner forwarded the list of counter-strike targets on Saturday in a tweet. They included an S-200 (NATO SA-5) surface to air missile (SAM) installation, an SA-2, and an SA-17, along with the command vehicle for the drone.
IDF sharing locations of the strikes, and the targets including the surface to air missile (SAM) batteries SA-17, SA-5, SA-2 and the mobile command position. https://t.co/f428fBOb8t
— LTC (R) Peter Lerner (@LTCPeterLerner) February 10, 2018
These SAM systems are important to the defense of Damascus, and taking them out is not merely a political warning. Damascus is now less defensible than it was two days ago – less defensible, that is, if Syria has to do it herself.
Assad is also less able to reach out with missiles toward Israeli air space. There’s a new hole in Syrian capabilities. Israel’s statements that the strikes did significant damage are correct.
Target selection and the strategic picture
Each of the SAM systems would have been Syrian owned and operated. Syria has had the SA-5 and SA-2 for many years, and has been operating the SA-17 for much of the current decade.
The command vehicle for the drone would be operated by Iranians.
In other words, Israel confined herself to striking targets under the control of Iran and the Assad regime. The IAF didn’t go after the Russian air defense assets that now dominate the air power picture over Syria.
That choice by Israel avoided escalation. But it also left room for escalation, if it becomes necessary. The counter-strike was well calibrated.
That said, we must note that the presence of Russia forced such a choice, and may also have been significant to the Syrians’ success in shooting the F-16I down.
Part of that success probably came simply from the size of the Syrian missile volley, which reportedly involved 12 or 15 missiles. Syrian and other commentators have also hinted that the IAF strike aircraft were “ambushed” with air defense tactics combining the older, less agile SA-5 and SA-2 and the more advanced, mobile (but shorter-range) SA-17 (improved “Buk”). That’s certainly possible (see tweet thread).
The more I read about last night’s clash, I find myself less concerned about the drone (which was easily neutralized) but I am alarmed at what appears to be a more effective Syrian air defense.
— Jonathan Schanzer (@JSchanzer) February 10, 2018
But the main advantage the Syrians have now is integrated tracking and targeting information from the S-300 and/or S-400 radar and command elements. The air picture they would have access to, just with the S-300 surveillance radar, is far better than what they had a mere 5-6 years ago without it.
It isn’t clear how much information is being supplied to the Syrian air defenders by Russian operators of the S-400 system (or any S-300 element in the country that is operated solely by Russians). Interestingly, a Twitter account with a pro-Russian slant (and using the service emblem of the Russian Federation Space Forces) made a point of tweeting on Saturday that “Russian Air Defense System in Syria always see much more than Syrian AD.”
Russian Air Defense System in Syria always see much more than Syrian AD.
Green: civil. flights
Yellow: US Coalition etc pic.twitter.com/GYak9NoAJU
— Military Advisor (@miladvisor) February 10, 2018
The purpose seemed to be emphasizing, through inference, that Russian surveillance and command/control elements were not involved in the Syrian attack on IAF strike-fighters during the Israeli counter-strike.
In any case, Israel showed restraint in not taking out an S-300 air defense radar, one of which is installed on the outskirts of Damascus (links below), and thought to at least be co-managed by Syrian operators, if not managed solely by them.
That radar alone (aside from the more advanced capability operated by Russian forces) has made a significant change to the air operating picture in the Levant, and to all the calculations Israel has to make to operate over Lebanon and off the coast, as well as over Syria (see here and here). To my eyes, in not taking it out, Israel signaled two things: first, that she won’t deal Assad such a blow this time; and second, that she is giving Russia a chance to rein Iran and Syria in.
Israel is well capable of taking the S-300 radar out. But she appears to be saving that move for later, if it becomes demonstrably necessary.
That observation leads to the next layer of strategic instability, beyond the direct confrontation with Iran.
Instability in the neighborhood: Syria
Syria is one of the biggest, most throbbingly unstable instances of today’s probe-and-push “normal.” Yemen and Iraq are others, but Syria is clearly where Iran and Russia are both focused.
It has been foreseeable for some time that Russian air defense systems in Syria would inevitably become a regional stability issue for Israel. After the counter-strikes on Saturday, a number of commentators raised the question of whether Israel deconflicted the strikes with Russia. That’s a valid question, although in this case, Israel had no obligation to, and probably didn’t.
Israel was responding to a breach of her territory, a provocation for which she has the right to act in self-defense. Russia cannot properly exercise a veto over that right. In terms of the spectrum of self-defensive actions, the counter-strike on 10 February was closer to “hot pursuit” than to strategic preemption.
Strategic preemption would involve things like attacking weapons manufacturing plants in Syria, or arms deliveries from Iran and transport convoys to supply Hezbollah. For those, Israel would be more likely to notify Russia, at least as IAF aircraft were entering Syrian air space, if not before.
But on Saturday, Israel was exercising a sovereign national right to deter foreign intrusions with counter-strikes. For such reprisals, Russia can have no expectation of advance “deconfliction.” Russia’s tacit acknowledgment of that may have been reflected in the tweet embedded above.
The day may come, however, when Israel’s right of self-defense does come in conflict with something Russian forces in Syria are participating in. Israel may be faced with the necessity of attacking a target where Russians are located, or engaging in combat in a location where Russians are implicated.
That complicates Israel’s national defense picture (and potentially Russia’s military picture in the theater).
But it also highlights a way Iran can benefit from creating new trouble – because it complicates things for Israel, and forces a reaction from Jerusalem.
How things become Israel’s problem (and vice versa)
The significance of this is in turn highlighted by something that happened just a few days before Iran decided to run a drone into Israel for the first time. That something was the U.S. air strike on Syrian army forces, which had crossed the Euphrates near Deir ez-Zor and were menacing the U.S.-backed Syrian Defense Force (SDF) rebels on the east side of the river.
The U.S. has taken care to mostly avoid targeting Syrian regime and Iranian-backed forces in Syria. Russia and the U.S. agreed last fall to back their clients in Syria’s eastern Deir ez-Zor Province on opposite sides of the river: the SDF and Kurds on the eastern side, and the Assad regime and Iran on the western side.
Until the regime forces’ river crossing in early February, that accord had been effectively honored. In the 48 hours or so prior to the U.S. air strike on 7 February, the Syrian regime forces breached it.
We need not go down rat holes trying to assign blame over this. Having accords that one or both sides have strong urges to breach is itself the stupid situation here. In this case, it’s worth noting that the Syrian army and the Russians got their noses out of joint because rising waters in the Euphrates had broken up a pontoon bridge laid by the Russians a few months ago, and the Syrians, at least, thought that was because the SDF had released water from a dam upriver.
— Syria frontlines (@SyriaWarReports) February 6, 2018
This is perfectly emblematic of the kind of thing that can become Israel’s problem because Iran is there, and the whole Deir ez-Zor enterprise for Iran is about establishing her land bridge.
The U.S. is not acting decisively to cut off the land bridge. That’s not the problem for Iran. The problem is that the U.S. has a stated purpose of not allowing Iran to consolidate the land bridge – and is maintaining light, non-decisive, but persistent stakes in the ground on either side of it.
Our posture is thus a pesky one, irritating Iran but not pursuing a positive end-state. We are operating with the SDF east of the Euphrates, and helping the SDF maintain an enclave to the southwest around At-Tanf, the border crossing that faces the Anbar desert in far western Iraq.
These support positions put us on either side of Iran’s land bridge, meaning the U.S. is in position to hold the land bridge at risk. The At-Tanf position, in fact, cuts off an ancillary route for the land bridge. Without At-Tanf, the only option for completing the land bridge is the one going through Deir ez-Zor.
Take a look at where the U.S. has shown the determination to strike back at Syrian regime and Iranian forces, with air attacks that target them directly.
It is clear from this record of direct engagement that the current U.S. administration means what it says about not allowing Iran to consolidate the land bridge. We’re backing that up by countering swiftly any moves by Iran and Assad to upset the status quo of territorial holdings we’ve decided to defend.
That’s all well and good, but it’s a defensive posture, not a conclusive one. Defensive postures all erode over time. And if Iran wants her land bridge desperately enough, she will look for ways to make the currently-defended status quo unstable and less defensible.
That’s a big thing – although not the only thing – that creating the new problems is about.
Sending a drone through Daraa to breach Israeli air space and draw Israel into a level of reaction she hasn’t had to mount so far is an excellent way of creating such new problems. It kills two birds with one stone: it causes new noise and military mess on a geographic axis that is meaningful to the U.S. posture, which relies significantly on Jordan and is concerned in general about Israel being sucked in; and it disturbs Israel’s peace, which revolutionary Iran will always be anxious to do in one way or another.
I am not convinced that Iran means to start anything bigger at the moment. It looks to me like she is in no position to maintain a larger-scale offensive against Israel, or at least not one (even an asymmetric one) in which Iran is involved directly. More likely options for harassing Israel and trying to knock her off balance are campaigns by Hamas and Hezbollah.
Part of the credit for that frustration of Iran must go to the defensive determination for our respective postures shown by both Israel and the U.S. over the last year. The U.S. posture in Syria may be strategically unsatisfactory, in the sense of offering no prospect of a better peace. But we have at least maintained it, with force, for a year now, instead of throwing out Delphic one-liners about our intentions and then folding like an accordion every time we’re pushed.
That’s a big reason I said at the outset that Iran is feeling thwarted at the moment. Iran is pushing and probing, and where we have said we’ll push back, we’re doing it.*
Instability across the region: The outer layer
Israel, with the defense of a very small territory at issue, must do it or perish. Iran, meanwhile, which has been trying to project power all over the region, is now encountering the dynamic consequences of that, both at home and abroad.
In Iran, the people are still showing up day after day and night after night to protest the regime’s foreign adventures, demanding that Iranian resources – their resources; their life savings and their toil and sweat – be of benefit to them, and not go to wars waged for a radical ideology on foreign soil.
This internal resistance is going to break the regime, in one way or another, at some point. We need not doubt that; nothing as radically dysfunctional for daily human life as the Iranian regime’s oppressions is sustainable. The oppressions will kill their progenitors eventually. The questions are how long it will take, and how bloody it will have to get.
But in this section, I want to look at just a couple of other instabilities erupting in the region – out of dozens – which affect Iran, and were largely made inevitable by Iran. They happen to be occurring contemporaneously (or maybe, in hindsight, it will be clearer that they didn’t just “happen” to). And unlike powers from outside the region, and their pundits and politicians, the Iranian leaders see these things in a geostrategic light, and cannot dismissively deem themselves unaffected by them.
Both involve Saudi Arabia, which has been doing a lot of things over the last two to three years because of Iran. In this first case, the issue is that the tide has been turning, to some extent, in the war in Yemen.
The tide in Yemen
Without suggesting that anything ever gets well and truly settled in Yemen, it is nevertheless the case that the Saudis have been doing as much with money in the last couple of months as with military operations. This is not because there’s no fighting still going on, or even because the government of Abdrabbuh Mansoor Hadi, backed by Riyadh (and Washington), is in a viable position in its “temporary” headquarters in Aden (instead of the nominal capital of Sanaa).
Hadi himself is in Saudi Arabia, and his government is holed up in a “palace” in Aden, under siege by a set of non-Houthi separatists backed by UAE. But Hadi’s Saudi-backed forces have taken back a significant chunk of territory in western Yemen from the Iran-backed Houthis. The Houthis are on the retreat in areas they held only weeks ago.
The Saudis are now in a position to shore up Hadi’s government with funding, and to foresee that actually doing some good. The shift in fortunes goes beyond that, however. And it entails a fundamental change in posture by Saudi Arabia, one that isn’t likely to change back any time soon.
I wrote about the initial outlines of this change a few months ago, after discussing a similar shift in Iran. The shift in question involves how the armed forces are resourced and commanded. (Note: my skepticism in the Saudi post was not about the defense reorganization, but about the report that King Salman was about to step down. The skepticism was well-founded; he’s still on the throne.) In both nations – Iran and Saudi Arabia – the change serves to enable a more agile and unified, and less consultative, use of force abroad.
The Saudis were clearly alarmed by Iran’s resubordination of her national army and other “national,” non-IRGC forces to the same command structure as the IRGC. That change was forced through in Tehran in November 2017.
It was within a couple of weeks of the reporting on the Iranian shift that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman put dozens of senior members of the regime under hotel arrest and began shaking up the Saudi kingdom’s internal arrangements – including the portfolio for controlling administration and command of the armed forces.
I believe we are seeing the first result of that in a 1 February report that Saudi Arabia is quietly deploying military forces into eastern Yemen (map further below).
Oman, not unnaturally, is eyeing this move with unease. Iran would be disgruntled as well – and with reason to lament that nearly a decade of arming the Houthis has not only galvanized the Saudis to intervene further west in Yemen, but prompted a new generation of the royal family to reorganize the kingdom’s internal power structure, and move assets and even armed forces into the east, closer to Iran’s vital interests.
If the Saudis are not blocked on the Arabian Sea by Yemen, but enabled on it by a pathway through Yemen, Iran’s strategic conditions suddenly look quite different. In that case, the Saudis are no longer bottled up in the Gulf on Iran’s southern flank, nor do they need to run the gauntlet through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait to take the long way around.
Instead, they can project power across the peninsula and flank Iran from a privileged position on the coast outside the Strait of Hormuz.
This is what happens when all bets are off, and probe-and-push becomes the new normal. Nothing is held in stasis anymore. The Saudi regime suddenly becomes as capable as the Iranian regime of deploying force abroad without slow, careful – aging – stakeholders exercising a veto over such adventures. Conditions begin to change, and, no matter who you are, begin to do so on someone else’s initiative.
This development, like the ones in Syria, would affect Iran’s urgency about her land bridge to the Mediterranean. It would very much affect how important it seems in Tehran to create noisy new problems, knocking things off top-dead-center, by harassing Israel. (Which always has the added political annoyance of making Arab nations tolerate Israeli self-defense moves – another non-dismissible factor.)
The second development is even further afield. But it is no accident that it too is happening now. Most Westerners haven’t even registered it, but it carries major import for the nations of Asia and the Middle East.
Malice in the Maldives
The development is the unfolding crisis in the Maldives, the tiny island nation off India’s southern coast. Small the Maldives may be, but their location is strategically spectacular, and especially so at a time of anything-goes instability. A stake in the Maldives, in terms of port leverage and potentially control of some of the atolls, and military basing, is coveted by China; India is equally determined to keep China out. Those are the broad strokes. But they don’t cover everything.
The current government of the Maldives, under Abdullah Yameen Gayoom, is Sunni Muslim and gained power in 2012 by ousting the democratically elected Mohamed Nasheed (famously defended against Maldivian charges by George Clooney’s wife Amal, who won Nasheed his freedom to travel to the UK for medical treatment, and thus to seek asylum there).
This current government has been close to Saudi Arabia for some time, suspending relations with Iran in 2016 – when the Saudi consulate in Iran came under attack – and with Qatar in 2017, at the same time the Saudis cut off contact.
Of special note, the Saudis have been in negotiations with the Abdullah Yameen government to make a major investment in developing a group of the Maldivian atolls. The project would entail artificial reef construction, and essentially result in new “territory” that the Saudis might then exert a level of influence over (and, in the minds of critics, proceed to do who knows what with).
Iran, of course, cannot regard this as a geopolitically neutral move by Saudi Arabia – especially if the Saudis are also squatting on the coast of Yemen, on the other side of the Arabian Sea from the Maldives.
The Saudis, naturally, view this exact possibility with enthusiasm.
It doesn’t simplify things that with Iran’s intensive development of the Makran coast – the coastline lying outside the Strait of Hormuz – has come a major growth in the last 18-24 months in the drug trade being run from that coast. The key destinations for this trade are in Eastern Africa. But the Maldives have emerged as an increasingly significant waypoint to East Asia for the lucrative “smack track,” as it is called. (See link for map and discussion.)
Wherever the Iranians tolerate and facilitate illicit trade, they are making money off of it hand over fist. They did it for years protecting the sanctions-evasion trade of Iraq in the Persian Gulf. They would be well satisfied for the current opportunities to remain in place, especially since they have a continuing need for back-channel cash for their political skulduggery.
None of these factors means Iran would go to the mat to either keep the current regime in Male, or bring it down. It does mean that if the Maldivian regime finds itself in trouble – as it now does – Iran will be invested in the outcome. That outcome will affect Iran’s strategic conditions, and in significant ways.
On 5 February, the crisis was launched in the Maldives when the nation’s supreme court voided the (always specious) charges against Mohamed Nasheed, who has moved from the UK to India and intends to seek office again in his native country. Abdullah Yameen put the court and the parliament under lockdown and removed the two judges who had ensured the charges were dropped. The remaining judges have since reversed the court’s original ruling. But the crisis is in full swing now, with factions inside the Maldives determined to either bring Nasheed in, preferably escorted by the Indian army, or – on the other side – keep him out, and ensure Yameen stays in power.
The Yameen government, just in the last three days, has reportedly sought assistance from China, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan (the Yameen government’s other major patron). All three nations are said to be taking a hands-off approach.
But it is unlikely that their public postures are exactly reflective of what’s going on behind the scenes. For one thing, it’s counterproductive to alert each other – or India or Russia – to what they’re up to.
And in typical Asian fashion, all three of the Yameen patrons are probably in secretive talks with Nasheed as well, in case he’s the one who ends up in charge again. We can bet Iran is trying to talk to him too.
The wages of radical activism
Iran is stretched thinner than she was two years ago, however. When Obama’s pallets of cash began arriving in January 2016, the “Great Crossroads” of Asia, Africa, and Europe – messy as it was even then – was a simpler place. Iran hadn’t consolidated the gains she has made since, in Iraq and Syria, and thus had less to defend outside her own borders.
Indeed, much of the region is now manifesting the consequences of Iran’s destabilizing activity: consequences that are unfolding in a region, and a world, in which the post-Obama USA could not simply assume dominance again. For what it’s worth, I don’t think Donald Trump would be inclined to resume the mantle of dominance that had become customary for the U.S. after the Cold War ended. But it’s a moot point anyway, because there was no prospect of doing it when he took office. We are out of position for it, and out of gas.
A “multipolar” world is invariably a poorly behaved multi-threat world, and one that starts to push back harder at the bad guys as well as the good. If Iran isn’t daunted by Israel’s pushback on Saturday, Israel will have to push back more. If Iran makes that “about” the strategic situation in Syria, the U.S. will have to push back more too. With resource constraints and trouble at home, and no Pax Americana holding things in stasis, Iran will find that she can’t do much about third-party developments elsewhere, even the ones with major implications for her national strategic situation at the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz.
We’ll see if that makes Iran change her behavior, at least on the margins. I’m not unhopeful. Iran’s new circumspection with the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf (which has been combined with an increase in maritime drone surveillance), has been interesting to observe.
It’s a time-consuming, often unsatisfying method of certifying where the red lines are. But it looks to be our new normal, for now.
* I’d still rather have a statement of positive U.S. interests and intentions: something that would justify the use of military force for what we’re doing now, which really isn’t covered by the post-9/11 authorization for the use of military force (AUMF), and hasn’t been for some time. But we’ve at least stopped backing, unwary, into undefended deployment situations for which we haven’t made the proper preparations. That’s something.