The unfolding tensions in the Middle East are a gift to Putin

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Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

The US air strikes in Iraq and Syria following the fatal attack on a US base in Jordan last week represent a difficult balancing act by the Biden administration. On the one hand, the United States had no choice but to retaliate forcefully after three of its soldiers were killed. There have been 160 individual attacks on US bases since the Hamas operation against Israel last 7 October. Most of these have been ineffective but the limited one-time-only military responses by the US, including a strike against an Iranian-sponsored group in Baghdad itself, have clearly not succeeded in deterring the pro-Iranian militias in Iraq and Syria. The same goes for the Houthis in Yemen who have continued to fire anti-ship missiles and drones both against US warships and commercial vessels in the Red Sea. So, Washington, with the military support of London, has clearly decided that escalation on its side is needed to restore deterrence. This means a series of air strikes against multiple targets – with over 80 being struck in the first wave last Friday night – designed to seriously deplete the capabilities of the militias as well as signal US resolve to exact a high price for attacks on its forces.

Yet on the other hand, US President Joe Biden has been careful not to strike Iran itself even though the US wanted to send a message to Tehran by attacking facilities of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Iraq and Syria – while giving Iran ample warning to pull out its personnel from these locations beforehand. The US has signalled that it is not seeking a direct confrontation with Iran provided that Tehran reins in the actions of its proxies throughout the region. This is a wise step as war between Iran and the US would ignite the entire Middle East escalating a conflict that, despite its terrible level of destruction, has been contained largely to Gaza thus far. Yet Biden’s restraint will inevitably make him vulnerable to criticism from Republicans in an election year that he is striking the branches not the core trunk of the Iranian enemy and this will be interpreted in Tehran as weakness rather than resolve.

All now hinges on a number of key questions that can only be answered in the next few weeks. First, will the US strikes, even if more intensive, deplete significantly the capabilities of the Iranian-supported militias so that they no longer pose a significant threat? We know from past experience that the answer is probably no. These groups use relatively inexpensive drones and missiles that, as in the case of the Houthis, they make themselves or can be easily resupplied from nearby Iran. If Tehran wants them to continue to provoke the Western powers, they will not refuse. The next question is whether Iran will now seek to de-escalate given that it also has no interest in a war with the US which Israel would probably participate in to destroy the Iranian nuclear programme. There are hawks in Israel calling for this outcome. Recently, Iran has scaled back its nuclear enrichment programmes perhaps as an olive branch to the West and, so far, Hezbollah in Lebanon has not launched anything near its full military capabilities against Israel despite an Israeli strike on its stronghold in southern Beirut. No doubt Tehran has restrained its hand here. So, there are still hopes that with calm heads prevailing a full-scale regional war in the Middle East can still be avoided. Yet Washington and London also have a difficult question to answer. What is their strategy if the current wave of repeated strikes in Iraq, Syria and Yemen fails? Will they back down or try to escalate further and if so, how? With ground troops in Yemen to destroy the Houthis arsenals? Biden will not want the US embroiled in the kind of Middle East conflict that he opposed so much as vice president and with Trump breathing down his neck. Already, the Iraqi government is calling on the US forces to leave the country in the wake of the recent strike in Baghdad. At a minimum, a long-duration international maritime presence in the Red Sea to protect this vital line of communication for global trade seems inevitable. Here, the EU is offering to help out by launching its own maritime force, a good way to help Washington and London reduce their military visibility in the region at a sensitive time.

The situation is a gift to Putin and Russia benefits indirectly in several ways: less attention on its aggression in Ukraine; many countries arguing the West is applying a double standard between its treatment of the two conflicts and international law; US weapons supplies such as Patriot air defence missiles diverted from Ukraine to Israel; extra calls on US Congressional funding; and, of course, the fact that Russia’s ally, Iran, which supplies it with vital drones and possibly also some missiles, is distracting Western militaries with pinprick attacks by its proxies in the Red Sea, Iraq, Syria and Jordan.

The tensions surrounding the US role in the Middle East long predate Israel’s war in Gaza and go back to George W. Bush’s ‘Global War on Terror’ and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Many of the regional conflicts, such as Ankara’s campaign against Kurdish separatists, are not connected to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. The International Coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in 2015 also left Israel on the sidelines. Yet there can be no doubt that all these individual conflicts are heated up once more and pushed into greater violence by Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. They would not go away but they would be tampered down and made more manageable by a long ceasefire in Gaza, the resumption of unlimited humanitarian assistance, the withdrawal of the Israeli forces and a plan involving Arabs and international donors to start Gaza’s reconstruction. Putting a lid back on the Middle East conflicts is hence an urgent priority for the US and Europeans.

So, as US Secretary of State Blinken embarked on his fifth crisis visit to the Middle East over the weekend, the key to everything – peace or war – is that he is able to build on the current talks with Qatar, Egypt, Hamas and Israel to achieve this ceasefire to include the release of the remaining Israeli hostages. Israel’s total destruction of Hamas, even if it could be achieved, will not bring peace to the Middle East or give Israelis the security they crave. The military have had their opportunity to find solutions. It’s now time for the diplomats.

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