While the ongoing fighting between Israel and Hamas is part of a longstanding conflict between the Israeli and Palestinian people, foreign policy analyst Thomas F. Lynch III believes this latest episode in the conflict comes at a unique time for Iranian, Russian, and Chinese interests in the region and could sharply impact their broader Middle East ambitions.
A 28-year U.S. Army veteran, Mr. Lynch served in a variety of command and staff positions as an armor and cavalry officer and as a uniformed politico-military analyst for the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. He now works as a distinguished research fellow for the Center for Strategic Research at the National Defense University (NDU) in Washington.
Speaking with NTD News’ “Capitol Report” on Thursday, Mr. Lynch assessed that one key item that separates Israel’s ongoing battle with past conflicts is recent work to normalize Israeli relations with other nations in the region, through the Abraham Accords. He said these efforts to normalize Israeli relations with other Middle Eastern nations is in direct conflict with Iran’s major objective to undermine Israel’s legitimacy and to assert its own influence as a regional power.
“The big prize in the Abraham accords is and has been to bring the Saudis into a more normalized relationship with the Israelis. And this we know because of how Iran writes about it,” Mr. Lynch said. “This is a very dark proposition for Iran, because if the Saudis and the Israelis could find an accommodation security-wise, then they would stand together, as opposed to somewhat fragmented against Iran and Iranian influence.”
Mr. Lynch emphasized that his analysis doesn’t necessarily represent the views of the U.S. government, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the NDU.
Mr. Lynch assessed that Iran has sought to destabilize its competitors in the Middle East by fomenting conflict through various proxies, such as Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthi rebels in Yemen (also known as Ansarallah), and various Sunni Muslim factions in Iraq and Syria. The United States has designated Hamas and Hezbollah as foreign terrorist organizations. President Donald Trump’s administration had also designated the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization during his final days in office, but President Joe Biden reversed the designation.
While the U.S. and Israeli governments have yet to identify specific evidence that Iran ordered or otherwise supported the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks that set off this new round of fighting, Mr. Lynch assessed that Iran has likely sought to use its proxies to damage Israel’s reputation in the eyes of its potential Abraham Accords partners.
“Iran has likely seen the writing on the wall and tried to make sure that they have one of their disruptive terrorist organizations, Hamas, you know, generate something big and spectacular to kind of like, throw sand in the gears of the Abraham accords and stop Israel from settling with some of its enemies, making those former Israeli enemies more allied against Iran,” he explained.
Russia Wants to ‘Influence All Sides’
Looking beyond the ongoing Israel–Hamas conflict as a proxy conflict with Iran, Mr. Lynch said Russia and China could also see their Middle Eastern policy objectives impacted by the fighting.
Mr. Lynch said Russia’s interests in the region are “somewhat of a mismatched mess,” with it seeking to maintain positive relationships with both Iran and Israel.
Russia and Iran have been active in Syria in recent years, and have supported Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in the ongoing Syrian Civil War. The U.S. military suspects Iran has also supplied drones and military personnel in support of Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
“The Russians also want to have diplomatic relationships with these terrorist organizations, feeling that they can mediate, moderate, and also to keep an eye on what [they] really want in the region, which is reduced U.S. influence. So they are aligned with the Iranians and indirectly aligned with the Chinese, who also would like to see reduced U.S. influence all over the world.”
Mr. Lynch said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in particular has tried to position Russia as a mediator in the Israel–Hamas conflict, “but nobody’s taken that seriously because, you know, Russia has got its own Ukraine problems.” Mr. Lynch argued that while Russia is presenting itself as a mediating force, it likely would prefer the crisis to continue so as to distract the United States and other Western nations from supporting Ukraine.
“Russia, by the way, also is somewhat hoping to benefit from this crisis,” he said. “So even though it’s offering to mediate to save lives, it also—we see in its actions behind the scenes—is somewhat hopeful that America and the West will divert weaponry and munitions to help out or assist in the area of Israel, and then that will decay or cause a decline in the support for Ukraine.”
In comments this week, President Joe Biden has insisted the United States can sustain support for both Ukraine and Israel. Many Republicans in Congress have expressed opposition to the U.S. aid going to Ukraine and the issue could prove divisive as the House Republican majority seeks to appoint a new House speaker and pass a budget to fund the U.S. government through 2024. The United States is currently about $33.6 trillion in debt.
China’s Economic Goals in the Middle East
China has played a somewhat smaller role in the Middle East, according to Mr. Lynch’s analysis. He said China had sought to grow its economic interest in the region, but those efforts had largely stalled even before the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks.
“The Haifa port, as a matter of fact, is a critical linchpin in what China has been trying to establish, over the last decade and change, as a key trade and transit route for Chinese goods and influence through the Middle East and then up into Eastern Europe,” Mr. Lynch said, referring to Israel’s largest international seaport. “That relationship, which had been going great guns between the Israelis and the Chinese on the economic front, has kind of stalled and sputtered out a little bit in the last couple of years, largely because the Chinese have been seen globally, as you know, oppressive in some of what they do. They have been seen globally as heavy-handed. And quite frankly, they kind of abandoned the market when they went into the zero-COVID policy. And they haven’t been playing as much.”
“And the Israelis have been alerted to the fact that a lot of what China does, particularly in information technology and other things, could be a threat to the security relations between the United States and Israel, which are rock-solid.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) expressed disappointment in China’s communist regime for not condemning the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in strong enough terms. The Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Oct. 8 expressing “deep concern” over the escalating tensions and violence but stopped short of directly condemning Hamas.
US Can Prevent Wider Conflict, Isolate Iran with Abraham Accords: Lynch
Mr. Lynch said the near-term goal of the United States should be to prevent the Israel–Hamas war from expanding into a wider regional conflict.
Already, the Biden administration has ordered two aircraft carrier strike groups and several Air Force fighter squadrons to deploy to the region. The administration has also ordered the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit to deploy to the region and has called for up to 2,000 additional troops to prepare to deploy.
“I think our policymakers have done the right thing, in that they have formally announced and are moving both an American carrier into the sea just off of Lebanon, and have announced they’re moving Marines in, just in case,” Mr. Lynch said. “And part of this is not to say that Israel can’t manage a two-front fight. But for us to say, ‘Iran, you need to tamp down and not have Hezbollah try to exploit this or not have your proxies in Syria exploit this, because if you do, we are poised to take a toll in support of Israel out of your proxies.'”
Beyond discouraging other regional actors to wade into the ongoing conflict, Mr. Lynch said the medium- to long-term goal for the United States should be to advance the Abraham Accords. He said positive relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia pose a chance of improving relations between Israel and other nations in the region.
“That then has the process of framing a new Middle East, where it’s not the Iranians against the Israelis on one day, the Iranians against the Saudis on the other day, and the Iranians against Egypt a third day,” he said. “Instead it’s all these countries aligned and saying ‘Iran, your malign influence is not welcome with any of us.'”