Once the appalling scale of the Israeli response to the brutal 7 October 2023 attacks on Israel by Hamas became apparent, it was unlikely that whatever was happening in Gaza would stay in Gaza.
Since then, the conflict has indeed spread. Israel and Hezbollah have been trading daily fire in Lebanon and northern Israel. A campaign of harassment of Red Sea shipping by Houthi rebels based in Yemen has led to an ensuing campaign of airstrikes against them by the US and UK. Dozens of attacks on US bases in Jordan, Iraq and Syria have been carried out by various militia groupings. Last week, a drone strike on a US military facility in Jordan killed three service personnel and wounded dozens more.
Many, particularly in the US, believe that if any thread links the various eclectic mix of elements fighting against Israeli and US forces in the Middle East it is a chain of command that ends in Tehran. Hezbollah, the Houthis, and many Iraqi and Syrian militia groups are all seen as Iranian proxies to some degree.
It was with this in mind that the US unleashed its biggest wave of airstrikes in the region for years last Friday, hitting 85 targets at seven facilities. The US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, warned on Sunday the barrage of strikes against the targets in Iraq and Syria on Friday was “the beginning, not the end” of Washington’s response.
Iran’s foreign ministry duly responded, saying the wave of US strikes over the weekend “contributes to chaos, insecurity and instability” across the Middle East.
In Baghdad, Basim Al-Awadi, a spokesperson for Iraq’s government, said on Saturday that “this aggressive strike will put security in Iraq and the region on the brink of an abyss”.
Can a full-scale conflict be avoided?
From the outset, fears have lingered that the war in Gaza could trigger a full-scale regional conflagration. As the situation deteriorates, this is looking increasingly likely. Can it be avoided and, if so, how?
Three factors further complicate the picture.
First, the relationships between Iran and its so-called proxy actors are more complex than they seem. While Iran tries to pull the strings, they are operating more or less independently. Iran is a key protagonist and undoubtedly has armed and built up these groups, but they are not controlled by Tehran. The term ‘Iran-backed’ is perhaps used too loosely. According to Vali Nasr, professor of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University, such groups have their own vested interests. In their relations with Iran, there is a worryingly unpredictable dynamic of “the tail wagging the dog”.
Second, neither side wants a broader conflict. In an election year, a full-scale war would be disastrous for the US and, more specifically, President Joe Biden’s re-election campaign. The US needs to hit back at aggression to maintain its supposed dominance across the region and to defend economic interests, but without risking any direct strikes on Iran.
To retain credibility, Iran and its proxies need to look as if they are acting tough on Israel and the US, particularly as the ongoing atrocities in Gaza incite anger and rage across the region. However, with its economy battered by sanctions, a full-scale conflict with Israel and the US would be ruinous.
This delicate balance is precarious at best. Historical precedents, such as the Lebanon civil war, offer a stark reminder of the Middle East’s propensity for proxy conflicts. As the saying in those days went, “Whenever anyone in the Middle East wants to pick a fight with someone else they go to Lebanon to do it.”
Thankfully, that conflict remained relatively localised. It is, however, harder to see such a dynamic playing out today, given the sheer number of actors across the region in Iran’s “Axis of Resistance”, stretching from Tehran through Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.
Finally, the implications for the rest of the world are profound. Already the assault on shipping in the Red Sea has increased freight costs, worsening inflation. The oil price meanwhile, which has in past conflicts appreciated sharply, has remained indifferent to the tensions, and is 8% lower than it was before 7 October.
However, something has to give. The US is at risk of being stuck in an ever-escalating series of violence and tit-for-tat with the various Iran-allied actors across the region. The only way it can end this cycle of violence is to put more pressure on Israel to immediately end its aggression in Gaza and start considering a long-term, two-state solution to the conflict.
While occasionally sounding critical of Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu, Biden has refused to reconsider his unconditional support for Israel. Such are the US political dynamics in the run-up to an election. But ironically, this inability to act tough with its proxy actor is another instance of the tail wagging the dog. If the US does not force Israel into line, a broader conflict looks unavoidable. While the proxy rebel groups are proving to be unpredictable for Tehran, so is Israel to the US. Both countries are perhaps ruing a case of “the sorcerer’s apprentice”.
While it is true that foreign issues do not win elections, they can lose them. A full-scale conflict in the Middle East would, in all likelihood, signal the end of Biden’s tenure as president. To have any chance of being re-elected, he counter-intuitively should act tougher on Israel, sooner rather than later. DM