HomeWorld NewsAnalysis | The Middle East’s arc of conflict is spiraling

Analysis | The Middle East’s arc of conflict is spiraling

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As much as the White House may be seeking restraint, events on the ground in the Middle East are accelerating in a worrying direction. Israel continues its onslaught in Gaza — a punishing military campaign, launched in the wake of Hamas’s Oct. 7 terrorist strike on southern Israel, that has killed more than 25,000 Palestinians and provoked a ruinous humanitarian crisis. Meanwhile, flash points are erupting elsewhere in the shadow of the ongoing war.

Yemen’s Houthi rebels have paralyzed global shipping moving through the Red Sea and provoked a U.S.-led bombing campaign. Israel has engaged in limited strikes against Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran-linked targets in Syria, including an attack Monday south of Damascus that killed several people, according to reports.

Then, there’s the most immediate challenge for Washington: An Iraq-based, pro-Iran militia claimed responsibility for a drone attack at the end of the weekend that killed three U.S. troops and wounded at least 34 others at a base along the Jordanian border with Syria. It’s likely the deadliest attack on U.S. troops since October, as militia groups affiliated with Iran in both Iraq and Syria have carried out at least 160 attacks on U.S. military targets. The U.S. has carried out dozens of its own retaliatory strikes. Some 2,500 U.S. military personnel are stationed in Iraq, and about 900 more in Syria.

President Biden signaled the need for an American response. “While we are still gathering the facts of this attack, we know it was carried out by radical Iran-backed militant groups operating in Syria and Iraq,” Biden said in a statement. “And have no doubt — we will hold all those responsible to account at a time and in a manner our choosing.”

Biden faces treacherous political choices in answering deadly attack

Leaders in the region warn of a widening arc of violence. “We are seeing that the situation is boiling up here and there, and everyone, unfortunately, is dancing at the edge,” Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said at a think tank event on Monday during a visit to Washington. He added that continued spillover from Israel’s Gaza war is bound to undermine regional security and even jeopardize the difficult project of indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas, which holds dozens of Israeli hostages in captivity, that Qatar is trying to help mediate.

But, no matter fears of a spiraling conflagration, hawkish Republicans have called for an escalation against Iran. Some lawmakers want U.S. attacks within Iranian territory. “The only answer to these attacks must be devastating military retaliation against Iran’s terrorist forces, both in Iran and across the Middle East,” said Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). “Anything less will confirm Joe Biden as a coward unworthy of being commander in chief.”

Cooler heads may prevail in the White House, though the Biden administration has to walk a tricky tightrope, with the storms of domestic politics on one side and bubbling cauldron of the Middle East on the other. “We don’t want a wider war with Iran,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Monday. “We don’t want a wider war in the region, but we’ve got to do what we have to do.”

Analysts suggest the United States may continue with its “surgical” strikes on Iranian-linked targets outside of Iran — in other words, actions that stave off a direct confrontation. The regime in Tehran maintains that it is not directing orders to many of its putative proxies and is often not aware of their intentions and planned actions. The attack on the U.S. logistics base in Jordan may be part of a broader Iranian campaign — but it also could have been a lone, opportunistic attempt by an Iraqi faction that proved unexpectedly impactful.

U.S. mixed up enemy, friendly drones in attack that killed 3 troops

That plausible deniability is a deliberate strategy. “Iran certainly is trying to take advantage of the war in Gaza to showcase its transnational axis,” Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at London’s Chatham House think tank, told my colleagues, adding that “at the same time Iran itself doesn’t want to bear the cost of sponsoring the axis.”

Some hawks in Washington want to call Iran’s bluff. But others contend that now is hardly a moment to ratchet up hostilities.

“As the U.S. counseled Israel after Oct. 7, based on the lessons America learned from its reactive response to Sept. 11, one should not allow an adversary to seize control of one’s own strategy and tactics,” noted Paul Salem, head of the Middle East Institute think tank. “The U.S. will definitely respond to this latest Iranian-backed attack — as it should. But Washington should choose the extent and timing of that response according to its own strategic priorities, not out of the news-cycle urgency of a social media-driven political need for a knee-jerk reaction.”

The stakes are undeniably immense. An open conflict between U.S. and Iranian forces would likely stymie hopes for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. “It would almost certainly trigger an all-out Hezbollah attack on Israel. It could turn local firefights into raging infernos in Iraq and Syria, and destabilize friendly regimes in Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf,” observed the Guardian’s Simon Tisdall.

But that’s not all. “An open-ended US-Iran confrontation would divide, perhaps permanently, the western democracies between those, such as the UK, that would back Washington, and those, such as France, Germany and Italy, that might sensibly prioritize renewed diplomatic outreach to Tehran,” he added. “It would assist China in furthering its anti-democratic geopolitical ambitions and Russia in justifying its aggression in Ukraine.”

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