Warnings about a region-wide escalation engulfing the entire Middle East have been circulating since the first fraught days after the 7 October Hamas terrorist atrocities. The most dangerous flashpoint is generally believed to be Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, where lethal clashes between the powerful Shia militia Hezbollah and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have greatly intensified in recent days.
Sporadic Israeli airstrikes inside Syria, repeated limited attacks by Islamist militants on US bases in Iraq and US reprisal raids – such as that ordered by the president, Joe Biden, on Tuesday – fuel the narrative of an approaching, broader conflagration. Drone and missile attacks on Red Sea shipping by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, explicitly launched in support of Hamas and the Palestinians, are adding to the angst.
Yet, so far at least, the much prophesied regional explosion has not occurred. There are two principal reasons for this. One is that Israel’s war cabinet, led by the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, having reportedly initially contemplated simultaneous assaults on Hamas and Hezbollah after 7 October, was dissuaded by US pressure. Since then, Israel’s official position has been that the destruction of Hamas in Gaza is its foremost priority.
The second reason stems from a calculation by Iran’s hardline conservative leadership that its interests are best served by keeping the war at arm’s length. Hamas, Hezbollah and the Syrian, Iraqi and Yemeni groups are all Iran’s proxies, armed, equipped, trained and, despite denials, often directed by Tehran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). They, not Iranians, do the fighting. In this way, Iran wages war on Israel – but indirectly and, up to a point, deniably.
The immediate problem is that the strength of these two key factors, jointly encouraging mutual restraint, is degrading. Put more crudely, as the war approaches its fourth month, the gloves are coming off on both sides. This perception may explain the latest, frantic intervention by Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, who – echoing the UN general assembly – demanded a “lasting ceasefire” in Gaza in talks with Netanyahu this week.
It also helps explain growing US, British and German emphasis on de-escalating, pausing and containing the Gaza mayhem. This is ostensibly prompted by concerns about more than 21,000 Palestinian deaths, as counted by Hamas, and what the UN decries as a humanitarian disaster. Yet western leaders, supposedly powerless to stop it, know the IDF’s relentless, criminally indiscriminate, self-defeating Gaza killing spree has become an unbearable daily provocation to Israel’s foes. The consequent looming spectre of a far-ranging regional explosion, not photos of dead and maimed Palestinian children, is what truly moves them. [Continue reading…]