April 14, 2020

Countering Iran in the Gray Zone

What the United States Should Learn from Israel’s Operations in Syria

Executive Summary

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.

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.

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  • Ilan Goldenberg

    Former Senior Fellow and Director, Middle East Security Program

    Ilan Goldenberg is the former Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. He is a foreign policy and defense expe...

  • Nicholas Heras

    Former Fellow, Middle East Security Program

    Nicholas A. Heras is a former Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), working in the Middle East Security Program. His work focused on the analysis of complex...

  • Kaleigh Thomas

    Former Associate Fellow, Middle East Security Program

    Kaleigh Thomas is a former Associate Fellow for the Middle East Security Program and 2020 recipient of the 1LT Andrew J. Bacevich Jr., USA Award at CNAS. She also serves as th...

  • Jennie Matuschak

    Former Research Assistant, Defense Program

    Jennie Matuschak is a former research assistant for the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Previously, Ms. Matuschak served as a Joseph S. Nye, ...

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