Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and especially since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran has become highly proficient in using its surrogates and proxies across the Middle East as a tool to achieve its interests while avoiding direct conflict with the United States. Successive U.S. presidents have sought options for pushing back against this Iranian strategy but have struggled to find approaches that could deter Iran’s actions or degrade its capabilities. In most cases U.S. administrations have been hesitant to respond at all, for fear of starting a larger conflict. The recent killing of Qassim Soleimani represents the opposite problem, in which the United States and Iran came unnecessarily close to a much larger war.
In contrast, Israel’s “campaign between the wars” (the Hebrew acronym is mabam) against Iran and Iranian-backed groups in Syria has been one of the most successful military efforts to push back against Iran in the “gray zone.” Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, and especially since early 2017, Israel has conducted more than 200 airstrikes inside Syria against more than 1,000 targets linked to Iran and it’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGCQF), and against IRGC-QF backed groups such as the Lebanese Hezbollah. This campaign has slowed Iran’s military buildup in Syria while avoiding a broader regional conflagration that would have been damaging to Israel’s interests.1
This study examines Israel’s mabam campaign and asks what lessons the United States can draw and how they may be applied to future U.S. actions in gray zone conflicts, both against Iran and more broadly. The lessons include:
- Instead of broad-based strategic objectives, focus on clearly defined and limited operational objectives that can be achieved through limited military force.
- Only pursue this type of campaign in theaters where it is possible to maintain intelligence superiority that enables in-depth analysis of the reactions of various actors, and to maintain the military superiority that will reduce the likelihood of effective retaliation.
- Be willing to take calculated risks, including recognizing the large space between taking no kinetic action and ending up in a full-scale war.
- Develop a subtle messaging campaign that can be deniable but still sends a clear deterrent signal to the target.
- Purposefully and carefully limit adversary and civilian casualties.
- Take a gradualist forward planning approach that permits iteration step-by-step, instead of the more traditional military planning that starts with identifying end-states and working backwards from there.
- Pursue complementary diplomacy with other actors in the theater to create space for military action.
- Be realistic about what a limited tactical campaign can achieve—and curtail it when it is no longer generating outcomes.
Mabam represents one of the few examples of a successful campaign to counter Iranian surrogates and proxies. U.S. policymakers and military planners should examine it carefully.
It is highly questionable whether the United States can replicate the Israeli approach, given U.S. institutional constraints. It is not clear whether there are many military theaters in which it would be in America’s interest, as a superpower, to devote the kind of intelligence resources and detailed analysis necessary to conduct such operations. Equally unclear are the following considerations: is the U.S. government too big and not nimble enough to support such operations; do the diverse views held on Iran strategy within the U.S. government make such a strategy more challenging to implement; can the U.S. government, without the use of a military censor (which Israel deploys), do enough to control the public messaging associated with such a campaign. Even so, mabam represents one of the few examples of a successful campaign to counter Iranian surrogates and proxies. Therefore, U.S. policymakers and military planners should examine it carefully.
Download the full report.
More from CNAS
VideoUS, Iran open indirect discussions to revive nuclear deal
Ilan Goldenberg joins France 24 to discuss possible revival of talks between U.S. and Iran and whether they can find common ground on the nuclear deal. Watch the full video f...
By Ilan Goldenberg
While President Biden has publicly committed to reengaging Iran, his administration faces immediate challenges....
By Kaleigh Thomas, Chris Estep & Cole Stevens
CommentaryCould Europe’s INSTEX Help Save the Iran Nuclear Deal?
Supporting INSTEX would illustrate not only that “America is back,” but that the Biden administration is taking humanitarian concerns seriously without sacrificing security in...
By Francis Shin
2020 featured an ever-evolving series of national security challenges....
By Sam Dorshimer, Nathalie Grogan, Emily Jin, Chris Estep & Cole Stevens