Three months after the Hamas terror attack on Israel, reverberations from the ensuing conflict in Gaza threaten to engulf the region in a wider war.

Smoke rises from northern Gaza after an Israeli airstrike, seen from Sderot, Israel, on Oct. 29, 2023. (Tamir Kalifa/The New York Times)
Smoke rises from northern Gaza after an Israeli airstrike, seen from Sderot, Israel, on Oct. 29, 2023. (Tamir Kalifa/The New York Times)

Recent events, including the killing of senior Hamas official Saleh al-Arouri in Beirut, stepped up attacks by Houthis on ships in the Red Sea, Islamic State bombings in Iran and the killing of an Iran-backed militia leader in Iraq highlight mounting tensions across the Middle East. Taken together, these developments paint a stark picture of a region on the verge of a wider war.

USIP’s Mona Yacoubian discusses the fallout of the war in Gaza, the likelihood of an even larger conflagration and what the United States is doing to keep the war from spreading.

How have neighboring countries been affected by the war in Gaza?

Yacoubian: Of Israel’s neighbors, Lebanon has been the most adversely affected by the growing conflict. The al-Arouri assassination — in the heart of Beirut’s Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs — drew the Lebanese capital into the conflict for the first time since the October outbreak of hostilities, raising fears of a potential widening escalation. Lebanese government officials accused Israel of sparking a dangerous new phase in the conflict. Yet, despite these fears, Hezbollah has continued to signal its interest in avoiding full-scale war with Israel. In a January 3 speech just after the al-Arouri killing, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah vowed to respond to the assassination but thus far Hezbollah’s response has been more symbolic than significant, limited to a rocket attack on a small military base in northern Israel. Israel retaliated by hitting targets in southern Lebanon, killing seven Hezbollah fighters including a senior commander.

Indeed, to date, hostilities between Lebanon and Israel have remained a low-intensity conflict, largely confined to border areas. However, the fighting has not been without consequences. An estimated 175 Lebanese have been killed, including 20 civilians, with Hezbollah claiming nearly 130 of its fighters have died. In Israel, 15 Israelis have been killed in the north, including nine members of the Israeli Defense Forces. The fighting has also provoked significant civilian displacement on both sides of the border. In Israel, an estimated 80,000 civilians have been forced to leave areas in the north (in addition to more than 100,000 displaced from areas bordering Gaza), while an estimated 75,000 Lebanese have been displaced from southern Lebanon.

Nonetheless, concerns remain that a larger conflict could yet embroil Lebanon. Israeli officials have expressed mounting frustrations at the situation in northern Israel, emphasizing that it is increasingly untenable. Israel is reportedly demanding that Hezbollah move its forces six miles north of the border as a condition that would allow Israeli civilians to return to their homes. Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant warned, “We prefer the path of an agreed-upon diplomatic settlement, but we are getting close to the point where the hourglass will turn over.”  In the early days following the October 7 Hamas terror attack, Israel reportedly considered undertaking a preemptive blow against Hezbollah but was dissuaded by President Biden and senior U.S. administration officials.

What is the likelihood of a larger war in the Middle East?

Yacoubian: The Middle East is in the throes of unprecedented levels of tension, unparalleled in recent memory. Across the region, no fewer than four major flashpoints could provoke a wider war in the Middle East. In addition to the conflict dynamics between Israel and Lebanon, the Red Sea, Iraq and Syria have all become arenas of spillover confrontation from Gaza. A violent spike in any of these hot spots could quickly escalate to a wider confrontation.

Red Sea.  Since late October, the Houthis, a Yemeni rebel group backed by Iran, have launched numerous missile and drone strikes at commercial ships in the Red Sea as well as ballistic missiles toward Israel. Since late November, the militant group has attacked Red Sea ships 25 times, including on January 3 its first use of an unmanned sea drone in its current campaign. To date, the Houthis appear impervious to international pressure, seeming to relish the widespread global attention while also reaping domestic benefits through enhanced popular support.

This latest escalation comes despite intensive U.S.-led efforts to deter Houthi attacks and ensure safe shipping. Just prior to the January 3 attack, the United States and 12 allied nations threatened targeted military action against the Houthis if they continue attacks. Senior U.S. national security officials also met to consider strike options against the Houthis.  On December 18, the U.S. military announced the creation of Operation Prosperity Guardian, a multinational effort designed to protect commercial shipping in the Red Sea through which 30% of the world’s container ships pass. Despite these efforts, shipping giant Maersk decided to pause all Red Sea shipping until further notice following a December 31 attack on one of its ships. It has warned its customers to expect significant disruptions, and analysts expect increased shipping costs could add to global inflationary pressures.

Iraq.  In a rare drone strike on Baghdad, U.S. military forces on January 4 killed the leader of Harakat al-Nujaba, an Iranian-backed militia responsible for targeting U.S. forces in Iraq. A Pentagon spokesman termed the attack “necessary and proportionate,” noting the militant leader was involved in attacks against U.S. personnel. Various Iranian-backed militia groups struck U.S. targets in Iraq and Syria more than 120 times since October, including several attacks in December just before the U.S. strike. Most of the militia attacks have been on military targets, but in early December, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad was hit with seven mortar rounds, marking another dangerous escalation. Over the past several weeks, the United States has sought unsuccessfully to deter Iranian-backed militia strikes on U.S. targets. By targeting a militia leader directly, the U.S. military likely hopes to restore deterrence without triggering a larger escalation. The January 4 U.S. strike prompted an angry response by the Iraqi government which strongly condemned the attack. Pressure has increased on the Iraqi government to expel the 2,500 U.S. troops currently based in Iraq. The U.S. forces are essential to U.S. efforts to counter ISIS, both in Iraq and Syria.

Syria.  Since October 7, Israel has escalated attacks on Syrian regime and Iran-related targets in Syria. Israel has also come under increased attacks, particularly from the Syrian Golan. Israeli airstrikes have rendered the Damascus airport inoperable on at least two occasions since October 7, most recently in late November. More significantly, an Israeli airstrike in a Shiite neighborhood in Damascus killed a senior Iranian general on December 25. Israeli strikes killed two other Iranian generals earlier in December. In response to the December 25 attack, Iran vowed retaliation against Israel.  The Israeli strikes come against a backdrop of an intensifying shadow war between Israel and Iran, much of it played out in Syria.

ISIS and other terrorist groups. The ISIS-claimed attack in Kerman, Iran, is a potent reminder that non-state terror groups also threaten broader regional stability. ISIS and other terrorist groups will continue to exploit vulnerabilities in an environment that already is rife with tension, probing for weaknesses and targets of opportunity. Such attacks also add to the potential for miscalculation and unintended escalation. In the fog of uncertainty that initially surrounded the bombings, some Iranian officials accused Israel of the attack, heightening fears that the Gaza war was expanding into a regional conflagration.

What is the United States doing to prevent the spillover of the Gaza conflict and maintain regional stability?

Yacoubian: The United States has voiced mounting concerns over the intensifying violence across the Middle East. Following the recent uptick in violence, the U.S. strategy is focused on leveraging both high-level diplomacy and stepped-up U.S. military engagement to deter further escalation and restore stability to the region. U.S. policymakers are seeking to strike a delicate balance between kinetic measures aimed at deterring further attacks and intensive diplomatic efforts to prevent the Gaza conflict from spreading further. 

Ideally, effective diplomacy will create openings for de-escalation. Over the past week, senior U.S. diplomats have traveled to the region in this endeavor. Secretary of State Antony Blinken embarked on a several-day trip to the region, seeking to increase humanitarian aid to Gaza, minimize Palestinian civilian casualties and make headway on the hostage crisis. More quietly, U.S. Special Envoy Amos Hochstein traveled to Lebanon and Israel in an intensified effort to defuse cross-border tensions and even pave the way toward negotiations to resolve the countries’ border dispute. In the current environment, such land border demarcation negotiations are a distant prospect at best. Indeed, across the region’s multiple flashpoints, the challenge will be whether diplomacy can overcome the multiple dynamics pulling the region deeper into conflict.

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