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‘Urban warfare is absolute hell’: The Takeaway: Three key insights from Robert D. Kaplan’s Hub Dialogue

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TORONTO — An Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip is looming after Hamas terrorists killed 1,400 Israeli civilians and took 200 hostages and, if Israel targets Gaza City with ground troops, they will be fighting in one of the most densely populated cities in the world.

The Hub spoke to journalist and author Robert D. Kaplan about the ongoing crisis, the “absolute hell” of urban warfare, the long-term chances of a confrontation between Israel and Iran, and why Russia and China may be the big winners from the ongoing strife in the Middle East.

You can also listen below or on your favourite podcast app to this episode of Hub Dialogues.

1. Urban warfare is “absolute hell”

“Keep in mind that that Fallujah at the time was far less densely populated than Gaza is now. It had no underground tunnels or anything like that. You didn’t get the feeling you were in a really intense urban environment. It was more like a suburban environment with ratty buildings and a lot of dust. But it was nothing like apartment houses right next to each other which you have in Gaza City… Even though on paper Fallujah was far less daunting than what the Israelis face now, I can tell you as a journalist, it was absolute hell…

The Marines were very, super disciplined, holding their fire waiting for a good shot. Yet fire was coming at them from three directions, sometimes from four. And it was unclear who is firing, because the the adversary knew the town much better than the Marines did. So there was no getting away from occasionally hitting a civilian even though they were targeting only young men with guns…

I was there for four days which seemed like a year. You eat when you can, you sleep when you can on a hard concrete floor, and you go without changing your clothes. You eat cold rations. You’re always thirsty. You’re always terrified. There’s no letup. It doesn’t stop. It goes 24 hours, so to speak.

So to extrapolate from that experience, and consider what the Israelis will be facing, if, in fact, they go through with what they have stated—that they intend to attack the northern half of the Gaza Strip, including Gaza City, I don’t see how it could be done. Even with the vast exodus of civilians, I don’t see how it can be done without killing non-combatants.”

2. Israel’s perspective on Iran has changed

“Even if the Iranians were not specifically involved in this, I think the calculus might change for the long run. That maybe if the Iranians did have a nuclear bomb, they would actually use it against us and therefore all assumptions are off…

But that’s not for today. That’s not for an expansion of the war today. That’s for some months down the road. Because the fact is, the Israelis have all they can handle with Gaza now. In fact, they’re going to use two U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups in the eastern Mediterranean, one on station and one arriving in few days, as deterrence for Hezbollah. The Israelis already struck Syrian airfields the other day. I think all that is a statement to Syria and Hezbollah essentially saying ‘Don’t you know, we’re on your game, Don’t get smart or anything. We can take you down.’

I think the Israelis will seek to limit this to Gaza for the time being. But they may also have changed their long-run assumptions for both southern Lebanon and Iran proper—even if those assumptions aren’t acted upon soon.”

3. Russia and China may be the big winners

“The Hamas attack has taken Ukraine off the news. There are less eyeballs for Ukraine. When there are less eyeballs, when it’s suddenly a page two story rather than a page one story, there’s less sympathy. There’s less pressure to supply them with weapons, general supplies, and diplomatic aid, which all flow from media attention. This is good news for Putin. Just that alone is a big boost. China has relations with Israel. I believe (you could check) it even administers one or two of the ports in Israel: Haifa and Ashkelon…So China has no particular animus towards Israel at all. But nevertheless, this attack, the presumed war in Gaza, is still good for China, because it takes the US attention away from East Asia and Taiwan.”

If you enjoy Hub Dialogues, be sure to check out more insightful commentary on The Hub’s YouTube page:

Iran is on the minds of world leaders as Israel prepares for Gaza invasion

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OTTAWA — The prospect of a regional war in the Middle East is looming large in the minds of global leaders as Israel readies tens of thousands of soldiers to invade the Gaza Strip and dismantle the leadership of Hamas in the wake of deadly terrorist attacks carried out by the group last weekend.

Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser, said he “can’t rule out” the prospect of Iran getting directly engaged in some way, while Iran’s foreign minister warned the country “cannot remain a spectator” in the conflict.

“To any country, any organization, anyone thinking of taking advantage of the situation, I have one word: don’t. Don’t,” said U.S. President Joe Biden, in a speech after the Hamas attacks. The warning was widely seen as directed at Iran and Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed terrorist organization that has assembled forces on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon.

The Hamas attacks on Israel could “change the Israeli calculus regarding Iran,” said Robert D. Kaplan, an American journalist and author who was been writing about foreign affairs for decades, in an exclusive interview with The Hub.

“Even if the Iranians were not involved in that attack, for years and decades they have been providing Hamas with logistics, training, and money, trying to bring Hamas… up to the level of Hezbollah,” said Kaplan, speaking to The Hub‘s executive director Rudyard Griffiths on the Hub Dialogues podcast.

In the short-term, the Israelis will be trying to avoid an escalation while they focus on the ground invasion of Gaza, which will eat up the military’s attention and resources, he said.

Any change in posture towards Iran will happen “some months down the road, because the fact is, the Israelis have all they can handle with Gaza now,” said Kaplan.

Kaplan also said that Iran will, in the short-term, be trying to avoid any direct confrontation with Israel, because it could quickly draw the United States into the conflict.

“I don’t see the Iranians trying to instigate a major conflict now because they don’t want the Israelis to get from the Americans bunker-busting bombs and air-to-air refueling, which would be necessary for an easier Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities,” said Kaplan.

Kaveh Shahrooz, a lawyer, human rights activist and senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, said it’s highly likely Iran was, at least, aware of the Hamas attack on Israel before it was carried out.

“I cannot for the life of me imagine that a group like Hamas would launch an attack this brazen without sign-off from Iran, a country that pays it nearly $100 million a year and provides them with weapons,” said Shahrooz.

“I don’t think the solution is going to be war with Iran, though the Israeli government may be tempted to go in that direction,” he said.

Shahrooz pointed to revolutionary sentiment already brewing in Iran and argued that an external attack from Israel, assisted by the United States, could actually hand the Iranian government enough legitimacy to put down the revolution and extinguish a domestic threat.

Eventually, though, Israel will have to deal with an increasingly menacing Iran, he said.

“I don’t think it can be limited to Gaza. If Israel is serious about taking care of the Hamas problem it has to take care of the Iran problem,” said Shahrooz. “So my hope is that they would actually… help the revolutionaries themselves take out this regime.”

With the U.S. supporting Ukraine fight an ongoing Russian invasion and now moving resources to the Middle East to tamp down fears of a larger regional crisis, some experts warn that China could be preparing to take advantage of a distracted America.

China has been working quietly with countries who share its interest in unseating the United States as a global hegemon, said Elbridge Colby, the former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development, in an interview with The Hub.

“They’re gaining leverage. They’re driving wedges. They’re trying to distract and tie down the United States. That, to me, is consistent with the behaviour that they would do if they were preparing for a big move in the western Pacific,” said Colby.

Despite the turbulence around the world, Colby said that the Asia Pacific region is still the “decisive theatre” for the United States.

Many experts believe the attacks by Hamas are a deliberate effort to sabotage the Abraham Accords, which saw the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco recognize Israel’s sovereignty in exchange for diplomatic concessions. Saudi Arabia was expected to follow those countries and world leaders had marvelled at the movement towards peace in the Middle East.

Both Kaplan and Shahrooz said they were cautiously optimistic about the future of the accords, although they have been disrupted in the short-term.

“My sense is that the Saudi-Israeli movement towards relations and the Abraham Accords will go into cold storage for the moment but are not by any means dead,” said Kaplan.

Shahrooz said the Israeli response, and how the region reacts, will dictate the future of the accords.

“Some of it will come to be determined the next few weeks in terms of what Israel does and how strongly it reacts and how many civilians end up getting killed. But at the moment, I think that peace will probably still hold and I think most of the countries that have observed this, understand that you have to deal with the Hamas problem,” he said.