Zsolt Csepregi
International Relations and Security Policy Expert

Can Israel build a security coalition after Iran’s attack?

Israeli Air Force F-15I gets ready to shoot down Iranian drones, amidst the 2024 Iranian strikes in Israel, April 14th 2024
(Photo credit: Israeli Defence Forces Spokesperson's Unit/Wikimedia Commons)
Israeli Air Force F-15I gets ready to shoot down Iranian drones, amidst the 2024 Iranian strikes in Israel, April 14th 2024 (Photo credit: Israeli Defence Forces Spokesperson's Unit/Wikimedia Commons)

Iran launched an unprecedented aerial attack against Israel on Saturday night, April 13. The assault was extraordinary both in its scope and in that the main barrage was launched from the territory of Iran. Tehran and its allies have fired 170 suicide drones, 120 ballistic and 30 cruise missiles towards supposedly selected military targets in Israel. The scope of the attack by Iran and its junior partners in the ‘Axis of Resistance’ has already promised that the Middle Eastern conflict has entered a new era, in which states openly and directly attack each other from their own territory. Nevertheless, I will argue that this Iranian show of force might just shifted the balance of power in favour of Israel, fostering a systemic change in the regional competition. However, that mostly depends on the Israeli leadership whether they can effectively utilise this historic opportunity to lock in a regional security cooperation partnership with the Arab states and the outside backing of the Western powers.

The Iranian attack came as a retaliation for the April 1 airstrike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus killing at least seven Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officers, including two generals. The strike, which was attributed to Israel, was not unprecedented, but it was indeed a major attack in the framework of its Campaign between Wars (CBW), with which it aims to erode the military capabilities and coordination of Iran’s hostile proxy network surrounding Israel, especially in Syria. For Iran however (and mainly for the IRGC) this was a step too far, showing a trend of ever increasingly devasting attack on Iranian officers and their allies in Syria.

I must note that Iran does not fear Israel itself as a peer competitor, as the Jewish state is not a potential hegemon in the Middle East. However, by weakening the Iranian led Resistance Front, Israel can create security vacuum in the Western axis of the Iranian sphere of influence which can be used by other, potentially hegemonic regional great powers to threaten Iran’s security and existence. The escalating Israeli strikes on Iranian assets and personnel in Syria has created the need for a show of force by Iran and a will in Tehran to change the usual practice of permitting Israeli military actions without retaliating.

In the past Iran has utilised its proxies to launch retaliatory attacks after Israeli strikes, often opting to punish US forces in the region as Iran was afraid of directly challenging Israel and sparking an overwhelming retaliation. The calculus has changed in Tehran after the April 1 strike and they chose to make a statement by openly launching a massive (but not overwhelming), direct aerial assault on Israel. This aimed at changing the equation in the Israeli calculation over the risk of future strikes on Iranian assets, and to reinforce the eroded Iranian deterrence posture vis-à-vis Israel.

Iran has made no secret of its intention to launch the massive attack and in fact did everything to communicate that it will happen and leave time for preparation. This does not mean that the attack was not dangerous. The amount of drones and missiles could have locally overwhelmed Israeli defences leading to significant civilian casualties and material damage. However the attack turned out to be a failure in its military, diplomatic and political aspects as well. The attack highlighted that Israel is a member of a wide and effective multilateral security partnership and it is more than up to the challenge to defend itself against a mass assault of drones and missiles.

The unprecedented defensive coalition should be highlighted, as Israel effectively coordinated under the umbrella of CENTCOM, which enabled US, UK, France and indeed Jordan and other regional states like Saudi Arabia to come to its defences. The political will and the military capabilities needed to defend Israel were all there, showing that even after six months of the Gaza War Israel has the backing of its partners when the need arises. Israel has proven that it can defend itself from the long-feared mass aerial assault launched by Iran and its proxies, creating an ‘emergency’ level security challenge. This is beyond the ‘routine’ level Israel is facing every day but below an ‘existential’ level threat. The latter would undoubtedly spark a massive, potentially nuclear retaliation from Israel and therefore presenting such a challenge to destroy the Jewish state would be a suicide mission for any hostile country.

The Iranian assault was calibrated to be a low tier ‘emergency’ level threat and thereby change the balance of power in the Middle East, deter Israel from continue its attacks in Syria and thereby elevate Iran’s standing and widen and deepen its influence. However, I argue that Israel’s near-perfect defence and both the open and the clandestine support of a coalition of the regional and Western states created the opportunity to choose other, more strategic options than relying solely on an immediate massive retaliation against Iran.

Israel had two major options during and after the Iranian attack. The first was to launch an even greater and more effective retaliatory attack on Iran and try to reestablish the status quo in which Iran is deterred from launching such direct assaults. The logic behind such a response is solid, however it would have carried significant risks. Iran would have not accepted a net loss after such an exchange and engage in more direct and indirect attack against Israel at a time when the Israeli Defence Forces are stretched between at least three fronts, Gaza, West Bank, and the North. The US would have probably opted to stay out from the escalation, together with the other members of the defensive coalition so effectively taking Israel’s side during the Iranian attack. That would have put Israel into an even worse position by opening fractures between it and its partners at a time of already strained relations due to the Gaza War. Iran would have won the long-term game if Israel would have retaliated directly and with full force.

The second option, Israel seems to be taking is not retaliating immediately, but utilising the political capital gained from the successful defence and following self-restraint to build a lasting security coalition. Such a coalition comprised of Israel, regional moderate Arab states together with the backing of the US and other Western powers can create a more stable framework for deterring Iran than any direct attack Israel would launch. Under the umbrella of such political work a more favourable situation in Gaza and on the Lebanese border can be also achieved.

Three aspects must be highlighted. First, Israel will reserve the right to continue its Campaign between Wars in Syria and other locations, wherever the Iranian threat arise. Israel must demonstrate that the unsuccessful attack by Iran has not deterred it from guaranteeing its security and that it has maintained its freedom of action. Secondly, Iran must be notified that this was the first and last time it was able to launch such an attack against Israel without prompting an immediate and massive retaliation and the only reason this singular time Israel will has not launched an overwhelming military attack is that the assault did not create significant damage or casualties. However, Iran and Israel’s partners need to understand that a second Iranian attack in the future would create an unbearable pattern, where Israel can be attacked at will by Iran and others, therefore Israel would be left with no other option than a mass retaliation, regardless of any other considerations.

Thirdly, Israel must also conduct gradual, measured but also devasting and effective retaliation missions against Iran and its proxies beyond the usual scope of its Campaign between Wars. This retaliation campaign can be a combination of kinetic and cyberattacks with targeted killings and target a wide array of targets in Iran and other members of the Resistance Front as well. The difference between a massive and immediate retaliation and this gradual approach is not the sum of the damage Israel makes to reestablish its deterrence posture. The real difference is only the careful time selection and coordination efforts Israel undertakes to prepare and conduct the attacks whenever and wherever it is most favourable from an Israeli perspective without derailing the above outlines regional coalition building process.

If the latter approach can be followed by Israel, then the balance of power will indeed change in the Middle East, but contrary to Iranian intent, the shift will benefit Israel. There are of course significant dangers inherent in any approach Israel takes in the upcoming days and months. If the response is too weak, then not only will Iran and its proxies will be emboldened to stage further challenges against Israel’s security but also Israel’s regional partners will the main reason for building their relations with the Jewish state, the latter’s overwhelming ability to deter Iran and punish it. Israel must therefore navigate a narrow path between mounting a response Iran will never forget in its future calculations on challenging Israel but avoid an uncontrollable escalation which leads to regional war and the breakup of the security coalition emerging in the Middle East.

The stakes could not be higher, as a regional war in the Middle East could break the back of the crumbling rules-based order weakened by global terrorism, COVID pandemic Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the systemic competition between the USA and China just to name a few. However, if an Israeli-Sunni Arab security partnership with the backing of the USA and the European powers can solidify, deterring rogue groups and states it could act as a security provider in the Middle East. This new coalition would radiate much needed stability to the neighbouring regions, acting as a vital contribution to reestablishing global peace and stability.

About the Author
Zsolt Csepregi is an Intelligence Analyst and a Ph.D. Student in Military Sciences based in Budapest, Hungary. He is an expert on Security Policy and the Eastern Mediterranean region, specialised in Israeli foreign policy.
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