The Israel-Hamas war has pushed the region to the edge of a much broader conflict
Published Date – 10 February 2024, 11:59 PM
The Israel-Hamas war is reverberating across the entire Middle East. The US and Israel on one side and Iran and its militant allies on the other each see themselves as responding to and deterring aggression from the other. Israel views Iran as its greatest threat, while Iran considers its alliance of militant groups a way to pressure Israel and deter an attack by Israel or the United States.
Neither side is believed to be seeking a broader war, but a miscalculation could send the region spiralling toward one. The danger may be the biggest across the Israel-Lebanon border, where Israeli forces and the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah have engaged in low-intensity fighting since the war in Gaza started.
The US and Britain have struck Iran-backed armed groups in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, while Israel presses ahead with its offensive against Hamas in Gaza. There are also fears the war could spread to other countries in the region, particularly Iran, and lead to disruption of shipping through the Strait of Hormuz at the end of the Persian Gulf. That’s a key route not just for LNG but for oil, too.
Tankers carrying liquefied natural gas — which is supercooled to travel by ship instead of pipeline — routinely pass through the Red Sea, and several shipments to Italy already have been cancelled.
“The escalation of regional conflict, which began with the war between Israel and Hamas in October 2023, could significantly affect LNG flows in the Middle East”, the International Energy Agency has warned. “Qatar, which alone accounted for 20% of global LNG supplies in 2023, and the United Arab Emirates primarily transport their LNG production through the Strait of Hormuz. Consequently, any disruption to this route could have major implications for global LNG markets”, the watchdog said.
Gaza at the Heart
All these events are linked to the war in Gaza, which began with Hamas’ raid into southern Israel. Palestinian militants killed some 1,200 Israelis and kidnapped around 250 that day. Israel responded with an air and ground campaign that has so far killed over 27,000 Palestinians. The US, Qatar and Egypt are trying to negotiate a cease-fire to free the remaining hostages and provide relief to the Palestinian people.
“There are talks now emerging of a 40-day sort of truce. And that’s the foundation, getting that 40 days and then building up on that. So that’s the most important piece of the jigsaw,” Comfort Ero, president of the Crisis Group NGO, told AFP. As for the possibility of a larger war, “I think the big three — Iran, Israel and the US — do not want to see escalation. But we are also seeing that every day we’re one step closer to a major miscalculation. Averting that kind of catastrophe again becomes really important,” he added.
US in the region
US troops maintain a presence in the area to fight the Islamic State group. They returned to Iraq in 2014 after the extremists overran much of the country’s north and started a genocidal campaign against the Yazidis, a religious minority. US forces are also present in Syria, where they work with Kurdish-led fighters to keep pressure on IS, as well as in Jordan, a long-standing Western ally. The US rushed additional warships to the region after Oct 7 to deter Iran and its clients from further escalation.
Separately, American and British forces have repeatedly struck Houthi rebels in Yemen in response to the group’s persistent missile and drone attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea. The Houthis say their attacks are to put pressure on Israel to cease its campaign in the Gaza Strip. The US and Britain say their goal is to protect free navigation and trade in the Red Sea, which has already seen a big drop in cargo traffic as a result of the attacks.
US bombers struck dozens of sites across Iraq and Syria on Feb 2, to avenge a drone attack that killed three American service members just days earlier. The retaliatory strikes were the first following a deadly assault on a US base in Jordan on Jan 28 that US officials blamed on Iranian-backed militias. Sites associated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps were among those hit by American bombs. Iran officially denied any involvement in the drone strike.
Axis of Resistance
Regardless of how involved Tehran is directly in the planning and carrying out of such incidents, the accusations get at a broader truth: In Middle Eastern geopolitics, Iran’s strategy of aligning with violent nonstate actors — notably Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen — influences the regional balance of power.
Managed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s paramilitary security service that answers only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, these regional groups form what Tehran has labelled the Axis of Resistance. Though Iran provides resources and coordination, each group maintains its own agenda and local support base, functioning more as partners than proxies.
- Hezbollah: Iran’s pivotal partner
Established in the early 1980s, Hezbollah — a Shiite militant organisation — emerged with direct assistance from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, primarily as a response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Aiming to establish an Iranian-influenced base on Israel’s border, Tehran provided training, financial support and weaponry, bolstering Hezbollah’s growth and capabilities. This collaboration has led to Hezbollah developing a sophisticated arsenal, including advanced drone technology, chemical weapons and expanded rocket capabilities. By deploying troops to support the Syrian government in line with Iran’s support for the regime, Hezbollah has transitioned from guerrilla tactics to more conventional warfare.
- Hamas: United against Israel
Emerging in the first intifada, or Palestinian uprising, of 1987, Hamas forged ties with Iran in the early 1990s. Despite the ideological differences — Hamas is predominantly Sunni Islamist, while Iran is a hard-line Shiite regime — they found common ground in their opposition to Israel and a shared vision for Palestinian liberation. Iran’s backing of Hamas includes financial aid, military training and, crucially, the supply of rocket technology. The alignment between Iran and Hamas, however, has fluctuated. In 2012, differences over the Syrian civil war introduced a rift in their relationship. Hamas’ tacit support for Sunni rebels in Syria was at odds with Iran’s allegiance to the Assad regime, leading to a temporary withdrawal of Iranian support.
- Houthis: Strategic ally against Saudi Arabia
Emerging in the 1990s in Yemen as a Zaidi Shia Islamist group, the Houthi movement initially focused on religious and cultural revivalism before progressively becoming engaged in Yemen’s political and military arenas. Fueled by grievances against the central government and foreign interference in Yemen, the group shifted to an armed rebellion. The Houthis’ alignment with Iran was spurred by shared religious beliefs as well as opposition to both Saudi Arabia and the US. The collaboration with Iran gained momentum following the Houthis’ capture of Yemen’s capital Sanaa in 2014.
Spinning out of Control
Some hardline members of the Israeli government have called for Palestinians to be expelled from the Gaza Strip into the Sinai Peninsula. That could destabilise Egypt and the longstanding peace between it and Israel.
Syria is still in the midst of a civil war. Neighbouring Jordan, a crucial power in Jerusalem, is suspected of launching airstrikes in Syria to disrupt drug smugglers. Still technically at war with Israel since its founding in 1948, Syria has been a launching pad for attacks aimed at the Israel-occupied Golan Heights since the start of the war.
Goaded by Hamas to get into the fight, Hezbollah militants in Lebanon have also launched strikes into Israel since the start of the war in Gaza. Israel has retaliated, but so far the two sides have stopped short of full-scale war along their border. Even in Afghanistan — where the Taliban hold sway since the fall of Kabul in 2021 — an affiliate of the Islamic State group may yet to take advantage of the Gaza war to launch new attacks amid the extremists’ new campaign tied to the conflict.
So far, Iran and the US have indicated they want to avoid a wider war. But the invasion of Ukraine has shown that in the unsettled state of the world, unexpected things can happen.
Friends and Foes
Iran, the Shiite Muslim nation has long supported Hamas — the Palestinian militant group that runs Gaza. Another proxy for Iran is Hezbollah, the militant group in Lebanon. Iran has another ally in Yemen, the Houthis who have launched long-range missiles at Israel and attacks on ships in the Red Sea
Allies: Axis of Resistance, Hamas, Militant groups in Syria and Iraq
Adversaries: Israel, the US, Saudi Arabia (relations have recently improved)
The Americans maintain a military presence in the region to fight the Islamic State group. Its pro-Western partners include Egypt, which shares a border with Gaza and Israel. Egypt has played a large role in mediating between Israel and Hamas. Jordan is another US partner. It has security ties to Israel but is also home to a large Palestinian refugee population. Saudi Arabia remains an important US ally in the region, though relations have taken a hit over issues including US criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Saudi Arabia’s refusal to cut ties with Russia over Ukraine war is also a sore point.
Allies: Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia
Adversaries: Iran, the Axis of Resistance
Qatar a mediator
Qatar hosts some of Hamas’ leadership, provides funding to Hamas and is friendly with Iran. But the Gulf state also is a key mediator between Israel and Hamas, and it houses the US’ largest military base in the region.
Middle East Matters
By Hanna Sunny, Dr Karamala Areesh Kumar
The Middle East holds a pivotal position as the heartland of the Earth, serving as the gateway to great powers, an energy source, and a hub for trade. Its inherent volatility, marked by conflicts and terrorism, ensures a constant focus on geopolitics. The ongoing Israel-Gaza conflict has widened its impact globally, transcending State boundaries. Notably, the United States finds itself significantly affected by this geopolitical quagmire.
The attack on ships by Yemen’s Houthis in the Red Sea has flared up tensions. Importantly, these actions extend beyond regional dynamics, with the Houthis seemingly harbouring intentions to retaliate not only against Israel but also against the United States. The complexity of the situation underscores the interconnected nature of geopolitical conflicts, necessitating a comprehensive understanding of historical contexts and strategic motivations.
The Red Sea, a key conduit between Europe and Asia, owes its significance to the Suez Canal, the pivotal link between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. Notably, the strategic Bab al-Mandab strait, connecting the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, lies predominantly under Houthi control. With Israel’s GDP standing at $700 billion and an estimated loss of $50 billion attributable to the Gaza conflict, the cumulative impact of Houthi attacks poses a significant economic threat.
Given the Middle East’s critical role as a worldwide commercial hub, maintaining the constant flow of commerce is imperative. The US has consistently supported Israel and their close partnership has only gotten stronger over time. However, the recent attacks on Israeli ships in the Red Sea have placed the US in a challenging position. In response to the assaults, the US initially launched Operation Prosperity Guardians, deploying the US Navy to protect vulnerable areas in collaboration with other states. However, unlike past instances where a US call to protect a nation rallied widespread international cooperation, this time, only a limited number of countries have joined forces, with notable hesitancy from nations like France and Spain. The reluctance to commit warships underscores a shift in global dynamics— nations align with the US based on individual considerations rather than a uniform commitment.
While the US has a robust naval presence, particularly in the Pacific Ocean, logistical constraints hinder redeployment to the Red Sea. Shifting forces from the Indo-Pacific region risks enabling China to exploit strategic opportunities in the vacated areas. Given the strategic importance of the Pacific in countering China, the US is reluctant to compromise its positioning. Besides, utilising surveillance systems to thwart Houthi attacks is impeded as these systems are currently engaged in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.