The October 7 Hamas attack on southern Israel led to the death of 1400 Israelis and other nationals, and the kidnapping of 229 people. This resulted in a sustained bombing campaign of the Gaza Strip by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), further leading to a mounting number of Palestinian deaths. Israel has gathered more than 300,000 IDF reservists, armour, and artillery on the perimeter of the Gaza Strip in preparation for a ground invasion with the purported aim of wiping out Hamas. This has heightened tensions in the region with Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon threatening that an Israeli ground incursion into the Strip would result in a massive retaliation. The likelihood of a war between Iran and Israel is huge if IDF moves ahead with its plans of wiping out Hamas completely. It is clear that Iran’s lack of reaction would compromise its credibility in the ‘Axis of Resistance’ (that it built in the region including Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and Ansar Allah or the Houthi rebel movement in Yemen). If Iran and Hezbollah fail to protect Hamas now, the Axis of Resistance that they built will be severely weakened, and affect their own deterrence capabilities vis-à-vis Israel.
West Asia is surrounded by some of the most important shipping lanes in the world including the Suez Canal, the Bab al-Mandab Strait, and the Hormuz Strait. While a war in which Iran intervenes will have widespread consequences for the wider West Asian region, its impact will be felt as far as the Indo-Pacific region. The three important maritime theatres that can be affected by a war between Israel and Iran are the Eastern Mediterranean, the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf. Each of these theatres can be affected by the conflict in their own unique ways because of their peculiar geopolitical challenges. For example, Iran is not part of the Eastern Mediterranean but has influence through its ally Syria and proxy Hezbollah. On the other hand, Israel has the capability to conduct its naval operations in this theatre and to a certain extent in the Red Sea, while it does not have that much access to the Persian Gulf area. At the same time, the U.S. because of its predominant naval capabilities will be able to play a domineering role in all these maritime theatres.
There is no account of Israel having conducted any naval operations in the Eastern Mediterranean during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Israel also did not attack any of the ports of Syria during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, though it is a matter of conjecture if these ports were not attacked because of Soviet presence in them. The end of conventional warfare between states in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict (after 1973) changed the dynamics of naval warfare between the two sides. Israel launched Operation Litani in 1978 in response to a terrorist attack by PLO to destroy guerrilla bases in southern Lebanon and establish a security zone in that region adjoining Israel to prevent further attacks. During this operation, the Israeli Air Force struck at the port of Tyre, where the Palestinians were said to have received large deliveries of arms. When Palestinian guerrillas continued their operations against Israel even after Operation Litani, Israel conducted an invasion of Lebanon in 1982 going as far north as Beirut with the aim of expelling the PLO from Lebanon. Israel changed its tactics towards guerrillas operating in Lebanon during this war. The Israel Navy conducted a blockade of West Beirut, beginning in June 1982 to put pressure on the Lebanese to force the PLO to leave Lebanon. The blockade was maintained by a ring of patrol boats, gunboats, and missile boats supported by submarines. The siege lasted until August 1982 when a deal was reached for the withdrawal of the PLO leadership and fighters from Lebanon. The PLO was replaced by the Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah in conducting attacks against Israel and its proxy in southern Lebanon, the South Lebanon Army (SLA) headed by Maronite Christians from southern Lebanon allied with Israel. The attacks by Hezbollah continued in the years after Israel first withdrew from most of Lebanon except an area of southern Lebanon adjoining Israel in 1985 and then its complete withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. Israel conducted two military operations against Hezbollah in the 1990s when it still retained control of a part of southern Lebanon. During the seventeen-day Operation Grapes of Wrath conducted by Israel against Hezbollah in 1996, the Israel Navy blockaded the ports of Beirut, Sidon and Tyre in a repetition of the tactic that it used in 1982. In the more devastating war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, Israel not only blockaded all Lebanese ports but even bombed the Beirut port and its lighthouse
In the civil war that broke out in Syria in 2011 as part of the anti-government protests, Iran through the Quds force of its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Hezbollah, and pro-Iranian Shia militias from other parts of the region provided support to the Syrian government which allowed the latter to survive. Iran has been using a supply corridor extending from Iraq to eastern Syria to transfer weapons to Hezbollah and other pro-Iran Shia militias in Syria and Lebanon. Israel, for years, has targeted airports and sea ports in the government-held parts of Syria in an apparent attempt to prevent arms shipments from Iran. However, the recent increase in Israeli attacks against Syrian seaports could be to counter Iranian attempts to transfer weapons by sea as the usual supply corridor extending from Iraq to eastern Syria was targeted by intensified Israeli strikes.
In the event of the present Gaza War spreading to Lebanon through strong retaliations by Hezbollah, Israel is likely to repeat its tactic of blockading Lebanese ports or even bombing them. The war in Gaza has already begun impacting offshore production and exploration of natural gas in the Levantine basin off the shores of Syria, Lebanon, and Israel in the Eastern Mediterranean. Israel stopped gas production at the offshore Tamar gas field located 25 kilometres off the shore of Ashkelon though it is unclear if Hamas has the capability to target the field. However, Lebanon has not halted its gas exploration in offshore Block 9, south of the Lebanese Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)
It is not clear if Israel would target the drilling rig and other facilities in Lebanon’s Block 9 in the event of the conflict spreading. If it is seen that Syria-based Shia militias are actively intervening in the conflict, Israel might blockade ports in Syria as well. Israel has targeted ships bound for Syria carrying Iranian oil and military supplies. But in continuation of what it has been doing for some years, the Israeli priority would be to target pro-Iranian camps and installations in south-western Syria close to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Through an understanding with Russia, Israel has agreed not to target the Syrian regime in Damascus, which is adjacent to the area currently targeted by Israel. However, this policy could change if the conflict intensifies.
This article was originally published on Indo-Pacific Circle.
Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of the Centre for Public Policy Research.