Iran liable to join fight if Israel takes on Hezbollah, US warns

Forecasting far-reaching fallout in case of full-blown conflict, top general says America likely can’t provide same air defense help as it did against Iranian barrage in April

A smoke plume billows during an Israeli strike on the village of Khiam in southern Lebanon on June 23, 2024. (Rabih DAHER / AFP)
A smoke plume billows during an Israeli strike on the village of Khiam in southern Lebanon on June 23, 2024. (Rabih DAHER / AFP)

ESPARGOS, Cape Verde — The top US military officer warned on Sunday that any Israeli military offensive into Lebanon would risk an Iranian response in defense of the powerful Hezbollah terror group there, and that US forces would be challenged to bolster Israel’s air defense umbrella.

Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown, chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Iran “would be more inclined to support Hezbollah” than it does the Hamas terror group in Gaza, “particularly if they felt that Hezbollah was being significantly threatened.”

Brown spoke to reporters as he traveled to Botswana for a meeting of African defense ministers.

Israeli officials have threatened a military offensive in Lebanon if there is no negotiated move to push Hezbollah away from the border, after more than eight months of increasingly intense attack on towns and military posts in northern Israel.

Just days ago, Israel’s military said it had “approved and validated” plans for an offensive in Lebanon, even as the US works to prevent the fighting from spiraling into a full-blown war.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday he hoped a diplomatic solution could be reached but he would solve the problem “in a different way” if needed.

US President Joe Biden, First Lady Jill Biden, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Charles Brown Jr., attend the dignified transfer of the remains of three US service members killed in the drone attack on the US military outpost in Jordan, at Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Delaware, on February 2, 2024. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT / AFP)

″We can fight on several fronts and we are prepared to do that,” he said.

The issue is expected to come up this week as Defense Minister Yoav Gallant visits Washington for meetings with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other senior US officials.

US President Joe Biden’s senior adviser Amos Hochstein met with officials in Lebanon and Israel last week in an effort to de-escalate tensions.

Hochstein told reporters in Beirut on Tuesday that it was a “very serious situation” and that a diplomatic solution to prevent a larger war was urgently needed.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, right, meets with US Special Envoy Amos Hochstein in Tel Aviv, June 17, 2024. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Brown said the US wouldn’t likely be able to help Israel defend itself against a broader Hezbollah war in as effective a manner as it helped Israel fight off an Iranian barrage of missiles and drones in April.

It is harder to fend off the shorter-range rockets that Hezbollah fires routinely across the border into Israel, he said.

Asked if the US has changed its force posture in the region to better assure troops are protected, he said the safety of the force has been a priority all along and noted that no US bases have been attacked since February.

The US continues to talk with Israeli leaders and warn against widening the conflict, according to Brown.

A key message being passed to them is “to think about the second order of effect of any type of operation into Lebanon, and how that might play out and how it impacts not just the region, but how it impacts our forces in regions as well,” he said.

Hezbollah fighters carry out a training exercise in Aaramta village in the Jezzine District, southern Lebanon, Sunday, May 21, 2023. (AP/Hassan Ammar)

Pentagon officials have said that Austin also raised concerns about a broader conflict when he spoke to Gallant in a recent phone call.

“Given the amount of rocket fire we’ve seen going from both sides of the border, we’ve certainly been concerned about that situation, and both publicly and privately have been urging all parties to restore calm along that border, and again, to seek a diplomatic solution,” said Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, last week.

Since October 8, Hezbollah-led forces have attacked Israeli communities and military posts along the border on a near-daily basis, and in recent weeks have staged attacks deeper inside northern Israel while threatening sensitive infrastructure in the major city of Haifa. The attacks have drawn a limited Israeli air campaign against the terror group and some of its top commanders in southern Lebanon.

The skirmishes on the border have resulted in 10 civilian deaths on the Israeli side, as well as the deaths of 15 IDF soldiers and reservists. There have also been several attacks from Syria, without any injuries.

Fires and black smoke rises from houses in the northern Israeli border community of Metula which were hit by Hezbollah anti-tank missiles, as seen from the Lebanese town of Marjayoun, June 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Hezbollah has named 349 members who have been killed by Israel during the ongoing fighting, mostly in Lebanon but some also in Syria. In Lebanon, another 64 operatives from other terror groups, a Lebanese soldier, and dozens of civilians have been killed.

A war between the two heavily armed foes could be devastating to both countries and incur mass civilian casualties. Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal is believed to be far more extensive than Hamas’s.

Hezbollah, Iran’s most important proxy in the region, says its attacks are aimed at supporting Hamas. Israel launched an offensive against the Palestinian terror group in Gaza after it attacked Israel in a shock onslaught on October 7, killing some 1,200 people and taking 251 hostage.

A woman walks past a banner showing missiles being launched, in northern Tehran, Iran, April 19, 2024. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

An escalation in the conflict could also trigger wider involvement by other Iran-backed terror groups in the region.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech Wednesday that leaders of terror groups and militias from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and other countries have previously offered to send tens of thousands of fighters to help Hezbollah, but he said the group already has more than 100,000 fighters.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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