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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Realization of Qassem Soleimani’s “Ring of Fire” Strategy

Filed under: Hamas, Hizbullah, Iran, Iranian Terrorism, Operation Swords of Iron

The Realization of Qassem Soleimani’s “Ring of Fire” Strategy
Hamas would not exist without Iran’s military, financial, and political support. Hamas Political Bureau Chairman Ismail Haniyeh eulogized Soleimani in Tehran on January 6, 2020. (Iran Press)

The Gaza war is now in its eighth month, and it seems there is no end in the foreseeable future. The proposal Israel put forward as a basis for negotiating a deal relating to freeing the hostages held by Hamas was met with a cold shoulder by Hamas, which means that at present, the chances of reaching an agreement between Israel and Hamas are almost nonexistent. Moreover, according to Minister Benny Gantz, a current member of the Israeli War Cabinet, worse is still to come in the northern front facing Hizbullah. 

For the first time since its creation in 1948, Israel is facing seven active combat fronts choreographed by their Iranian patron and meant to annihilate Israel as a Jewish Zionist state: Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), Gaza, and the Houthis in Yemen. This unity of fronts meant to suffocate Israel was the “Circle of Fire” vision of Qassem Suleimani, the slain commander of the Quds Force in the IRGC. Not considered to be serious at the time, today it has emerged as a united coalition whose aim is to support Hamas in its war effort against Israel by waging a war of attrition and dragging Israel into an endless war that it could not sustain in the long run, militarily, politically, and economically.

Cartoon: Iran’s Toolbox
Iran’s Toolbox. (Yasser Ahmed, Twitter)

Facing this combined front, Israel has set its priorities since day one: eradicating Hamas and freeing the hostages, containing the Judea and Samaria front, and adopting a defensive deployment with offensive capabilities to face Hizbullah. The Iranian, Iraqi, and Houthi fronts have been put aside by Israel and trusted to the U.S. naval coalition’s interception capabilities.

Eight months later, none of Israel’s objectives has been attained:

Hamas has not been annihilated, even though it suffered a severe blow. Its mid-level leadership has been decapitated, but Hamas’s top leadership still breathes; twenty of its twenty-four battalions have been dismantled, and most of its military infrastructure has been destroyed. According to U.S. President Joe Biden, Hamas has suffered deep losses that prevent it from repeating attacks against Israel like the one carried out on October 7, 2023. On the other hand, the IDF has not destroyed all of Hamas’s massive tunnel network, and day after day, Israeli troops in Gaza keep uncovering new tunnels, some of them connecting Gaza and the Egyptian-controlled Sinai peninsula.

Hamas has proved its resilience. Its asymmetrical, guerilla-like warfare has enabled it to recover and impose itself on almost every territory that Israel has captured and withdrawn from in the Gaza Strip. Hamas is encouraged by the pro-Palestinian trend in world opinion, the protests in the United States and Europe, the International Courts’ positions accusing Israel of conducting a genocidal campaign, and the recognition by many European countries of Palestinian statehood. 

Paying the Price for Avoiding Confrontation

Israel is paying the price of long-term strategic errors. Over the last 18 years, all Israeli governments and chiefs of the army have chosen to buy peace by “feeding the beast”: Israel thought it could contain Hamas and Hizbullah’s wrath and manipulate them. Both Hamas and Hizbullah, who were believed by Israel to be “deterred,” spent this precious time preparing themselves for the military confrontation with Israel. Israel chose to refrain from seriously fighting Hamas. Every military encounter with Hamas ended with a cease-fire in which Israel claimed to have administered a severe blow to Hamas that would take years to recover. The same applies to Lebanon: Israel chose not to attack Hizbullah in Lebanon since 2006 (the end of the second Lebanon war) but concentrated on a sophisticated appellation, “the war between the wars.” That strategy was meant to prevent the military build-up of Hizbullah and focus on attacking convoys, warehouses, and bases in Syria and elsewhere.

Of course, in all its conflicts, Israel has been under pressure, particularly from the United States, to end the fighting before a conclusive end.

The result: In 2006, Hizbullah had around 10,000 missiles of all categories, whereas in 2023, the arsenal was estimated to be 200,000 missiles, some of them precision-guided missiles. Moreover, Hizbullah, together with its Iranian advisors, concentrated on the weapons that could neutralize Israel’s superiority on the battlefield: Against the Israeli air force, Hizbullah developed its mighty drone arsenal of attack drones and reconnaissance drones; against the Israeli tanks, Hizbullah chose the” Kornet” anti-tank missiles, and against the “Iron Dome” system, Hizbullah uses short-range missiles with hundreds of kilograms of explosives, such as the “Burkan” missiles with a 500-kilo warhead! Hizbullah trained its elite troops in urban warfare and paraded its forces four months before the October war. The parade was met with Israeli arrogance, mistrust, and contempt!

Hizbullah’s war games exercises in southern Lebanon on May 21, 2023
The general media was invited to observe Hizbullah’s war games exercises in southern Lebanon on May 21, 2023. (Hanna Davis, Twitter)

Finally, Israel made a severe mistake in assessing the Iranian position. Israel assumed that the elimination of Iranian advisors and commanders in Syria would not be met by an Iranian response. The April 14, 2024, attack by 360 ballistic missiles, drones, and cruise missiles by Iran on Israel came as an Iranian riposte following the bombing of the Iranian consulate in Damascus on April 1, 2023, and the killing of Mohammad Reza Zahedi, the highest Iranian military commander to be killed since Qassem Suleimani death by an American drone attack on January 3, 2020. The attack in Damascus transformed Iran from a passive/active participant into a potential active party to be taken into consideration by Israel.

What Now?

Strategically, Israel has to turn to its northern front from where the existential threat originates. Iran directs its proxies, led by Hizbullah, to the northern front in Lebanon and Syria facing Israel.

Iraqi militia leader Qais al-Khazali
Iraqi militia leader Qais al-Khazali on a visit to the Israel border. He is the leader of the pro-Iran Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia in Iraq.
Akram al-Kaabi
Another visitor to the Israel-Lebanese border was Akram al-Kaabi, the head of the Harakat al-Nujaba militia in Iraq.

Hamas can wait. It is within Israel’s backyard. Israel can, at any time, if Hamas infringes on the terms of a ceasefire, launch an offensive against Hamas, bearing in mind that the proposed ceasefire does not necessarily mean Israel withdrawing all troops from the Gaza Strip. Israel can still conduct a low-intensity campaign in Gaza, putting the Hamas leadership in a constant defensive position, chased and afraid to fall into Israeli hands, an exact copy of the scenario carried out by Israel in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank).

With the beginning of a ceasefire – if one can be negotiated – Israel can direct its elite troops to its northern front. This should be enough to trigger world powers to exert pressure on the Lebanese government to reach an agreement with Hizbullah that would allow the displaced Israelis in northern Israel to return to their homes and rebuild their communities. The same would apply to the Lebanese side. The presence of the civilian population on both sides of the border is a means to calm the passions of the fighting parties.

If such a settlement cannot be reached, Israel will have no choice but to engage in a costly war campaign that presumably would eventually end with a diplomatic agreement brokered by the United States and France.