The Middle East is approaching the abyss: this is the balance of forces in the face of the risk of war escalation | International
The war spiral unleashed by Hamas' barbaric attack against Israel on October 7 is currently limited to a conflict between the Israeli State and the Gaza Strip. But the nature of the struggle and a response from the Netanyahu government that provokes a wave of indignation due to features incompatible with the principles of international humanitarian law - for example, the cutting off, for several days, of the supply of water, food, medicine and electricity — fuel a fire with serious risk of spreading. “The region is about to sink into the abyss,” King Abdullah of Jordan warned on Tuesday, before the explosion that hit a hospital in Gaza, causing a large number of victims and further inflaming tempers.
The possible paths of expansion of the fire are clear. The main one is the entry into the conflict of Hezbollah, a Lebanese militia party with much more military strength than Hamas and with close ties to Iran. The crescent that links southern Lebanon and Tehran includes other risk points such as the militias present in Syria and Iraq, which include members of Hezbollah itself, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard or combatant groups with troops from Afghanistan or Pakistan.
Other consequences are, of course, the outbreak of violent protests in the West Bank, with the possible destabilization of the Palestinian Authority, as well as a renewed push for terrorist actions. As for the States of the Arab world, which have long been moving towards normalization of relations with Israel, the risk is not military, but rather the boiling of citizen anger that may be part of the calculation of other actors.
Below, a brief x-ray of the military capabilities of four key actors in this framework: the two protagonists of the conflict - Hamas and Israel -, the one that represents the most probable path of expansion - Hezbollah - and its underlying supporter - Iran, emboldened by an increasingly explicit axis of confrontation with the West, with Russia at the head and China at the rear.
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It is the main military power, with a clear advantage over its adversaries in terms of capabilities. Its annual defense spending is almost four times that of Iran, and is incomparable to the limited resources available to Hamas or Hezbollah.
Since its founding, Israel has had the firm support of the United States, which supports it with military aid of about 3.8 billion dollars annually (about 3.6 billion euros). Washington's support has military derivatives of great importance: aviation with high-quality combat aircraft such as the F-35 or a world-leading anti-missile defense system called Iron Dome.
A history marked by conflicts is also reflected not only in an Armed Forces with enormous combat experience, but also in a society with a considerable degree of training to resort to arms and an enormous willingness to close ranks.
Of course, the ultimate foundation of Israeli superiority is nuclear weapons. The Israeli authorities do not confirm or deny that it is in their arsenals, but experts agree that it is. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates that Israel has about 90 nuclear warheads.
All this does not mean that Israel does not show limitations and does not face very serious risks. The Hamas attack, as occurred with the Yom Kippur attack 50 years ago, took the country completely by surprise, demonstrating failures in the capacity to collect information. The prospect of having to manage two fronts at the same time—that of Hamas in Gaza and that of Hezbollah in Lebanon—represents a great challenge, even more so if it is accompanied by an outbreak of violence in the West Bank and possible skirmishes from Syria.
He is an actor with limited capabilities. But, combined with the willingness to act in violation of basic norms of the law of war, they are sufficient to inflict serious damage on Israel in offensive actions and certainly also in a defensive operation in the event of an invasion.
In the foreground, the October 7 attack has demonstrated its ability to evade Israel's surveillance and meticulously prepare a terrible offensive without being detected or quickly repelled. In the second, experts point out the considerable defensive capacity it will have if Israel decides to invade the Strip. The Israeli forces have good quality main battle tanks - about 400 Merkava IV, of national production - but urban combat always offers advantages to defense, and even more so in a territory with a density like that of Gaza, in which In addition, Hamas has been constantly preparing over time for prospects of this style, with networks of tunnels and other logistical precautions. Having anti-tank weapons and adequate positioning at strategic points, its potential should not be underestimated.
Naturally, everything that concerns their media is surrounded by mystery and there is no precise data. According to estimates by the International Institute for Strategic Studies published in 2022, Hamas had around 15,000 to 20,000 troops within the Al Qassam Brigades. Before the explosion it had a large arsenal of low-quality rockets. Now it is difficult to guess how many there may be left after a dozen days of hostilities.
Other groups also operate in the Strip, such as the Islamic Jihad, accused by Israel of being the one who fired the rocket that hit the hospital on Tuesday, while the Gazan authorities accuse the Jewish State. In any case, even with the addition of collateral groups, Hamas's military strength is small.
The Lebanese Shiite militia is sometimes defined as the older brother of Hamas, it has more troops, a better arsenal, and great strategic depth thanks to the corridor of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran.
Its main asset lies in the missile arsenal. As in the case of Hamas, there is no transparency or verified data. According to Alma, an Israeli research center, the group has a few hundred high-precision missiles, about 5,000 missiles with a range of more than 200 kilometers (with the Fateh-110 capable of reaching about 300 kilometers), about 65,000 between rockets with a range of up to 45 kilometers and missiles of less than 200 kilometers, and about 2,000 drones. An x-ray from the Center for International Strategic Studies also underlines the relevance of the Fateh-110. There are other estimates and some put the arsenal count at 150,000.
Although they do not reach that much, the range of amounts that experts handle is, in any case, large enough to represent a serious threat. During the 2006 war, which lasted 34 days, Hezbollah fired about 4,000 rockets at Israel, with a pre-hostilities arsenal of about 15,000, according to Israeli estimates. He is better prepared now than he was then.
In terms of troops, the range ranges from 25,000 combatants estimated by the specialized magazine Jane's in 2017 to the 100,000 declared by the head of Hezbollah himself, Hasan Nasrallah in 2021, a figure considered exaggerated by experts. Without a doubt, his intense participation in the Syrian war on Assad's side has caused huge casualties in recent years, but he has also developed combat experience that is always a valuable element for any armed force. The persistent presence in Syria of cells of the group and others related to it is a potential asset.
He is Israel's great adversary in the shadows. After the peace agreements with Egypt in 1979 and with Jordan in 1994 and the process of normalization of relations with the Arab countries, Tehran is the state reference for the challenge to the Israeli State. Although a direct confrontation is much less likely than the involvement of Hezbollah or militias present in Syria, it must be taken into account as a supporter of these groups and as a strategic reference.
Iran has an Armed Forces with significant assets. Its missile program has developed considerably, and it has powerful devices capable of hitting Israel. It is a serious threat. In addition, it has developed an effective drone industry, capable of producing enough to divert part of the production to other actors, such as Russia, and effective enough to successfully hit Saudi oil facilities a few years ago.
Its aviation is clearly inferior to that of Israel, with a fleet of combat aircraft that is largely obsolete, with Russian MiG or Sukhoi models of limited quality.
Although it has not been involved in a full conflict since the 1980s – the Iran-Iraq war – its Revolutionary Guard has experience through regional projection, contacts and action in other conflicts. This experience, its productive capacity, its experience in the clandestine supply of materials and in strategic advice or training is the key element as long as a direct confrontation does not occur.
The underlying element is, of course, the nuclear perspective. The collapse of the nuclear pact from which the Trump Administration withdrew has led to an acceleration of uranium enrichment activities and a softening of the control regime. It is well known that Iran has the capacity to reach the level of enrichment necessary to assemble a bomb and produce the necessary quantity in short periods of time. However, its operational capacity when manufacturing a projectile of this type is unknown, with disagreements among experts.
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