The age of calibrated wars

Israel in Gaza though has been ruthless and disproportionate to the point of committing heinous war-crimes

Shahzad Chaudhry April 19, 2024
The writer is a political, security and defence analyst. He tweets @shazchy09 and can be contacted at


What is keeping Russia from overrunning Ukraine? It has the numbers and the wherewithal, and it has now been in a conventional, old-style war with Ukraine for over two years; yet, it fights on a bit held back, a bit restrained. It is largely political and corresponds to what level of engagement and troop deployment Russia wishes to expend in Ukraine — it has other frontiers and battles to fight too. She thus calibrates her war to her political and strategic needs which are both geopolitical and domestic in nature.

There are already voices among Ukraine’s allies for it to now begin negotiating for peace with Russia. NATO and the US consider Israel and Taiwan bigger and more important strategic interests and do not wish to spread thin in their financial and strategic commitment. Zelensky of Ukraine, on the other hand, needs the war to keep his relevance both internationally and domestically and keep the dollars flowing, though all good things must too end. By way of gains, many in Ukraine are now richer, thanks to a war-economy, even if the country and its economy are in ruins. This, while Russia occupies and holds 18 per cent of Ukrainian land. It enhances Russia’s perimeter of security in the conventional sense and gives it the controlling stakes in any future negotiations for peace relegating Ukraine’s ambitious objective to serve as NATO’s lackey. That serves Russia’s long-term security interest keeping a lien on a land which has historically belonged to Russia while denying NATO the proximity to Russia’s borders.

Israel in Gaza though has been ruthless and disproportionate to the point of committing heinous war-crimes and open-ended genocide. Of it there is no doubt and whether it will pay for the inhuman excesses it continues to commit is open to question but it too has a huge geopolitical and domestic-political aim the war in Gaza serves. The two-state solution stands almost dissolved in the short-term as the bigger concern for all is to stop the massacre. The leveling of Gaza is already triggering entrepreneurial thoughts among many to build another Dubai-like metropolis open to international investment and opportunity. Just the West Bank, without a port and fully landlocked, will be unsustainable dependent on its contiguous states for goodwill and survival — think Bhutan and Afghanistan. It will thus be easily to assimilate over time in the larger Israeli state, a process that is already underway. The gains thus can be bigger than Israel’s notional aspirations.

Domestically, Bibi Netanyahu is in worst political shape. He is waiting to be arraigned before the courts for allegations of massive corruption which he wants quashed by taking control of the judiciary, still quite independent and effective in Israel. The people are out on the streets asking for his resignation considering him unfit to hold high office as he reels under pressure of his extreme Right-Wing coalition partners who would have him obliterate all enemies of the Zionist state. His only saviour is the war that keeps him in power for the duration of it. No surprise then that he keeps it going looking to expand it to somehow rope in both the US and Iran which to him will turn the war kosher and distract attention from the increasing isolation and condemnation of the state of Israel by the international community over Gaza. Stratagem yes, but without takers. Unless all go nuts and raw amateurism rules the roost. Unlikely.

President Biden has other issues at hand least of which is to give meaning to what dear Bibi is spoiling for. He is on the verge of losing an election on the back of his bankrupt policy to blindly stand behind Netanyahu as he rampages across Gaza and annihilates Palestinians. He also wants to distance himself from Bibi perceptually to bolster his chances in the upcoming election and avoid being distracted into an undesired expeditionary adventure. Politics, yes, but his and his party’s political future beckons far more strongly than geostrategic gains that Netanyahu dangles before him. There is time for everything and war with Iran is yet not one of those. Hence the advice, “Israel has done well to intercept 99 per cent of incoming Iranian missiles and drones. There has been no damage on the ground. Civilians and non-combatants weren’t targeted in a deliberate Iranian strategy to keep the attack proportionate and calibrated. That’s a win. Take it.” Some others suggested, “Bibi has all of Gaza to do as he pleases; why would he want a war which is ill-timed, expensive and expeditionary”?

So, when Israel attacked the Consulate in Damascus Bibi wasn’t really feeling the heat from a couple of IRG generals positioned there to coordinate supplies to the groups engaged in and around Israel, it was more to provoke Iran into a response and open the war fronts further. It took two weeks for Iran to respond. Hectic diplomatic activity preceded Iranian response as indeed it will now after the Iranian attack. Modern wars can be far more destructive especially when two nuclear-capable nations are involved. When they entangle as in this case frantic diplomacy by numerous players with influence in each capital become the arbiters to temper the scale and intensity of a reaction.

Iran used a synergetic mix of low -yield weapons through varying trajectories and modes of application. That most of those will be intercepted because of the time and space available to defensive forces along the way was already known. It thus chose the low-return route deliberately to avoid giving Netanyahu his dream opportunity but the message of its reach and inherent deterrence was well established. The missiles can carry a far bigger and far deadlier warhead. Bigger swarms of drones can saturate defences to the point of inactivation. Cyber-jamming can render electronic defences useless. An offensive always gets through even if 99 per cent is intercepted. What return and effect the aggressor wants from its one percent that remains is determined by multiple political and strategic factors that define the intent. Israel too will be guided by the same impulse and logic when it chooses to return the favour. An all-out war is unlikely, and the Israeli response will restrict itself to the non-conventional domain.

War is an extension of politics by other means — Clausewitz told us so many moons ago. To consider war divorced from politics is a fallacy. In an interdependent world with interleaving economic interests no war can forsake political considerations. In this case too, politics and economics will shape strategy and define war. Iran would do only as much as could be digested by Israel without provoking a bigger conflagration. Israel too has limits and political restraints. We live in different times.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 19th, 2024.

Like Opinion & Editorial on Facebook, follow @ETOpEd on Twitter to receive all updates on all our daily pieces.



Replying to X

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

For more information, please see our Comments FAQ