Washington, DC – As the war rages on in Gaza, the United States has moved one of the largest aircraft carriers in the world and an accompanying strike group to the Eastern Mediterranean, bringing its military might to the tense region.
US officials have framed the move as aimed at deterring Hezbollah and Iran from “taking advantage” of the conflict between Israel and Hamas.
list of 3 itemsend of list
But with that stance, analysts say President Joe Biden is effectively threatening to enter the war on Israel’s side should a broader conflict break out. Still, many believe it is highly unlikely that the US military would directly take part in the hostilities.
“The administration judged it to be important to take a step that would make it as clear as possible to Hezbollah and Iran that there is the danger of US military intervention on behalf of Israel,” said Steven Simon, a senior research analyst at the Quincy Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
“I’m pretty sure that President Biden does not want to get involved in this war. But sometimes you have to do these things to buttress deterrence,” added Simon, who previously served in senior positions on the White House National Security Council and in the State Department.
Biden said this week that his administration had enhanced its “force posture in the region to strengthen our deterrence” as a warning to any country or organisation considering an attack on Israel.
Days earlier, when the US announced it would send the USS Gerald R Ford Carrier Strike Group to the region, a defence official put Washington’s position more bluntly.
“These posture increases were intended to serve as an unequivocal demonstration in deed and not only in words of US support for Israel’s defence and serve as a deterrent signal to Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah and any other proxy across the region who might be considering exploiting the current situation to escalate conflict,” the official said.
“Those adversaries should think twice.”
USS Ford a ‘political and strategic’ signal
The status quo in the region was upended on Saturday when the Palestinian group Hamas launched a highly coordinated attack against Israel from the besieged Gaza Strip, killing hundreds of people and taking dozens captive.
Israel has responded by placing Gaza under a total blockade, preventing fuel and water from entering the strip. It has also bombed the territory relentlessly, as the Israeli military appears to prepare for a ground invasion.
Paul Salem, president of the nonprofit Middle East Institute, said the scale and brutality of Hamas’s attacks facilitated a “much clearer American response” in support of Israel than in previous Gaza conflicts.
“Having the aircraft carrier there is major political and strategic signalling,” Salem told Al Jazeera.
But he added that a US military intervention would be “far-fetched”.
“Definitely they’re signalling to Hezbollah and Iran: ‘Do not get involved. If you do get involved, you might have to deal with us,'” Salem said.
“It’s not clear what that would mean. And keeping in mind that Biden is entering an election year, it’s not great for him to enter a war in the Middle East. So he has political constraints as well.”
On Thursday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated US commitment to Israel’s security during a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“You may be strong enough on your own to defend yourself. But as long as America exists, you will never ever have to. We will always be there by your side,” Blinken told Netanyahu.
Israel, which has been accused by major rights groups like Amnesty International of imposing a system of apartheid on Palestinians, already receives $3.8bn in US aid annually.
The Quincy Institute’s Simon explained that while Israeli forces are capable of fighting on several fronts, the potential for US attacks against Hezbollah would help Israel in a possible war.
He noted that the USS Ford carries 90 combat aircraft that could keep up “serious operational tempo”, including intercepting communications.
“If the United States says to Israel, ‘We’ll pick up a little bit of a burden against Hezbollah, so you can continue to focus on Hamas,’ then I think the Israelis would be very happy,” Simon told Al Jazeera.
The Lebanese front
Experts say it likely will not come to that. Since the war broke out, there have been skirmishes between Hezbollah and Israel, but they have stayed contained in the Lebanese-Israeli border area.
Salem, the president of the Middle East Institute, said Hezbollah is trying to draw some of Israel’s military focus from Gaza to the Lebanese border without igniting a full-on conflict.
“They’re playing that game of making it hot enough to get Israel’s attention and to force them to pay attention to the northern front in order to weaken the forces in the south, but not so much that it immediately triggers a war in Lebanon, on Lebanon,” he said.
Still, Salem added that the calculus of Hezbollah and its Iranian backers may change depending on the trajectory of the war in Gaza.
“If there’s a huge Israeli retaliation, yes, it’s going to kill a lot of people. But if it doesn’t defeat Hamas and if it [the conflict] ends in a few weeks, then Hezbollah wouldn’t need to open a second front,” he told Al Jazeera.
“But if Israel does ‘really well’ and is careening through Gaza and is about to completely knock out Hamas, I think there will be a lot of pressure strategically from Iran and others. They don’t want to lose Hamas as an asset, so they might have to act.”
For his part, Imad Harb, director of research at the nonprofit Arab Center Washington DC, said Lebanon’s internal financial and political crises also cap the chances of a war with Israel.
The country’s economy has been in free fall since late 2019, with its currency losing more than 90 percent of its value. A political deadlock has also prevented the election of a new president since Michel Aoun’s term expired nearly one year ago.
“Lebanon cannot take another war. Hezbollah’s constituency cannot take a war, and neither are the Arab states ready to assist Lebanon if Lebanon gets in a war with Israel and in the process gets destroyed,” Harb told Al Jazeera.
Hezbollah has dismissed the arrival of the US military to waters not far from Lebanon’s shore.
“Sending aircraft carriers to the region to boost the morale of the enemy [Israel] and its frustrated soldiers shows the weakness of the Zionist military machine despite the massacres and crimes it is committing and therefore its need for constant outside support,” the Lebanese group said in a statement.
“Thus, we stress that this move will not scare the people of our nation and the resistance groups that are ready for confrontation until total victory.”
Harb said Hezbollah’s response is unsurprising, and it doesn’t mean the group is rushing to war. “This is all rhetoric. I mean, these guys — the Israelis, Hezbollah, the Iranians, the Americans — all of them are rhetoricians,” he said.
Harb added that the US is not eager to go to war either. While Biden wants to be seen as standing with Israel, Harb explained that Americans have grown weary of war, and a battle with Hezbollah and Iran could quickly spiral out of control.
“This is why a message like this is only a message,” Harb said of the US military move. “Maybe Biden is just simply trying to take a stand, but I really don’t see the United States getting really involved in a war of this nature.”
Source: Al Jazeera