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Current Trends in MENA

Will the Gaza conflict escalate across the region?

27 February 2024

Current Trends in MENA

The Future for Advanced Research and Studies (FARAS) recently organized a workshop titled "Charting the Trajectory of the Middle East: Is the Cycle of Conflict Expanding?" The workshop convened experts in strategic and security matters from various Arab and international backgrounds. Among the speakers was Major General Mohamed Abdel Wahed, an expert in national and strategic security affairs from Cairo, whose presentation delved into the geopolitical challenges arising in the aftermath of the Gaza War, spanning from the eastern Mediterranean to the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa. Heba Al-Qudsi, the director of the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper office in Washington, provided insights into the interim US policy in the region. Former Brigadier General Khalil El Helou, a security expert based in Beirut, examined the leadership and management of Iranian agents in the region. Dr. Ihsan Al-Shammari, head of the Iraqi Political Thinking Center, analyzed Iraq's capacity to navigate between its adversarial allies, Washington and Tehran, and speculated on the future of their security and military presence. Professor Hussam Radman, a researcher fellow with the Sana'a Center for Strategic Studies, discussed the maritime security threat posed by the Houthis and the evolving landscape of internal and external power dynamics.

The workshop was moderated by Hossam Ibrahim, Executive Director of FARAS, and attended by fellows from the center, including Ahmed Aliba, Head of the Security Studies Unit, who presented on military deployment in the region, and Mohammad Mahmoud Al-Sayyid, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of "Event Trends" magazine and an Israeli affairs researcher, who examined potential Israeli scenarios following the Gaza War and outlined the priorities of its internal plans and regional policies. Additionally, several other experts and researchers contributed to the insightful discussions.

Escalation Trends

The escalating trend is evident across multiple regional arenas, including Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Red Sea, and the Arabian Sea. This surge is fueled by military confrontations between the United States and Iranian-affiliated armed groups, alongside the ongoing conflict in the Gaza Strip following the Hamas attack on October 7, 2023.

Regional dynamics fluctuate in two primary directions: the proliferation of hotspots of regional escalation and heightened conflict intensity and the looming specter of a comprehensive regional war. However, prevailing estimates lean towards the former trend, as key regional players opt to avoid entanglement in proxy conflicts orchestrated by Washington and Tehran. Instead, they favor joining diplomatic and collaborative efforts to stabilize the region, focusing on addressing the underlying core issue: the Palestinian conflict.

Experts and participants engaged in discussions addressing various facets of the regional security landscape. These discussions encompassed the stances adopted by major international and regional powers involved in Middle Eastern crises, the status of Iran's agents across multiple theaters, and their level of autonomy according to Iranian assertions. Additionally, deliberations covered the actions taken by the United States and Israel against Iranian-affiliated armed groups in Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq. Attendees sought to unravel questions regarding the extent of coordination or role-sharing within established multilateral rules of engagement, as well as determining who holds the authority to balance regional deterrence. Moreover, there was an exploration into the potential establishment of new rules to recalibrate regional dynamics based on pragmatic experiences and the vested interests of involved parties.

The discussions also delved into the prospective trajectories of political settlements in the Middle East, focusing on four key settlement files: the Palestinian-Israeli, Israeli-Lebanese, American-Iranian, and Yemeni crisis resolutions, alongside the peace agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Geopolitical considerations took center stage, given their pivotal role in shaping conflict dynamics, competition, displacement, and the quest to fill regional power vacuums. Participants pondered the extent to which the region is undergoing a restructuring cycle and contemplated the implications of the eventual outcome on regional security.

The Region's Status

The most notable topics mentioned throughout the conversation, which depict the current situation in the Middle East region, are as follows:

1. Escalation vs de-escalation: 

Analysis of ongoing interactions reveals a dualistic pattern within the region. On one hand, there is a discernible uptick in the intensity of military conflicts and overall escalation. Conversely, efforts to mitigate tensions are also evident. Despite the passage of several months since the onset of the Gaza Strip conflict and subsequent escalations, ongoing initiatives and diplomatic endeavors seek to quell the situation. Given the adverse impact of heightened tensions on such endeavors, this juxtaposition poses significant challenges for regional countries, particularly in terms of advancing economic agendas, attracting investments, and fostering overall economic development.

2. The American "non-strategy" in the region: 

Amidst the prevailing tensions, numerous inquiries arise regarding the contours, objectives, and efficacy of US strategy in the Middle East, prompting some to dub it a "non-strategy." Against the backdrop of regional instability, particularly under the Joe Biden administration, there is a conspicuous absence of a cohesive strategy fortified by a robust military presence capable of steering regional dynamics. The current milieu in the Middle East marks a pivotal juncture in US regional policy, especially amidst escalating regional tensions and mounting apprehensions of a widescale conflict.

Nevertheless, the Biden administration finds itself constrained in its options. Previous strategies centered on containment and the imposition of economic sanctions have proven ineffectual. Present efforts to mitigate the current crisis primarily focus on curbing Iranian proxies. However, this approach risks exacerbating the situation, particularly as certain actors endeavor to embroil the United States in a regional conflict. Any misstep or exploitation of tensions could precipitate Washington's entanglement in a larger-scale confrontation, entailing significant political and military repercussions.

3. Heavy military deployment: 

The prevailing status of military deployment by both international and regional actors amidst evolving regional dynamics underscores a region in the throes of heightened military mobilization. This deployment pattern reflects a reactive security posture rather than a deliberate deterrence strategy pursued by any involved party.

Consequently, it seems apt to characterize the region as being in a state of conflict rather than a full-fledged regional war. However, it is imperative to recognize that the region's multifaceted challenges cannot be resolved solely through military means, nor have they been effectively addressed through diplomatic settlements thus far. Consequently, the current status quo will likely persist for the foreseeable future.

Moreover, the current regional landscape prompts significant queries regarding China's stance and the evolving dynamics between Washington and Beijing. There is a growing anticipation that the United States will not remain singularly responsible for regional security arrangements moving forward, hinting at potential shifts in the geopolitical balance of power in the region.

4. Israeli preoccupation on multiple fronts: 

Israel's primary focus currently appears to be on restoring internal stability rather than anticipating a large-scale regional military escalation. However, Israeli military maneuvers on several fronts (including Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen), along with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's political maneuvers aimed at bolstering his domestic standing, could inadvertently lead to escalation. The severity of any escalation would be contingent upon the responses of other involved parties.

In Lebanon, Israel's perspective is primarily twofold. Firstly, there is apprehension regarding the potential for Hezbollah to launch an attack akin to Hamas' actions on October 7, particularly considering Hezbollah's advanced military capabilities compared to Hamas. Secondly, there is the challenge posed by the return of Israelis evacuated since the onset of conflicts on the Lebanon and Gaza fronts, totaling approximately 231 thousand individuals or around 2.4% of Israel's population. This influx of returnees presents Israel with a complex dilemma, among other pressing concerns.

Regarding Yemen, Israel perceives the Houthi movement as a lesser threat compared to Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas, or even Iranian operatives in Syria.

5. Tehran relying on its proxies in the conflict: 

Iran remains a significant security concern for the United States, primarily due to Tehran's expressed objective of expelling American forces from key regions such as Iraq and Syria. Despite this, there exists a potential for negotiation between Tehran and Washington, particularly given the ongoing communication between the two sides.

Iran's influence extends through various countries, with specific objectives tailored to each context. In Iraq, Iran's aim is to ensure that the country does not pose a threat, given its strategic significance to Iran. Conversely, in Lebanon, Hezbollah maintains a robust military presence, prompting speculation among many Lebanese about the group's aspiration to establish its legitimacy within the Lebanese state structure, mirroring the model seen in Iran and Iraq.

6. Iraq's struggle to balance between Washington and Tehran: 

The Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 disrupted Iraq's efforts to maintain a delicate balance between the United States and Iran. Despite attempts to broker agreements, Iraq's role as a mediator faltered following the extensive involvement of Tehran-aligned groups, contradicting Baghdad's stated position. This development embarrassed the Iraqi government vis-à-vis Washington and the Arab world, leading to perceptions of Iraq's involvement in the conflict and vulnerability to confrontations.

In response, Iraq sought to mitigate the fallout and insulate itself from the conflict, aiming to restore equilibrium while minimizing its exposure to regional tensions. The attack on the American base, Tower 22, near the Jordanian border, which resulted in the deaths of three Americans, prompted a reassessment of engagement rules. Iran may scale back its activities in Iraq to safeguard its strategic interests, while the incident is likely to perpetuate the American presence in Iraq, albeit with potential alterations in nature or form.

7. Yemen and the shifting landscape of interests: 

Yemen swiftly became entangled in the regional conflict, particularly on October 7, revealing Iran's determined utilization of the Yemeni front to achieve multiple objectives. Firstly, it sought to exert pressure on Israel amid the Gaza conflict. Secondly, it aimed to manage direct disputes with the United States. Thirdly, it pertained to Yemen's internal dynamics.

Initially, there was speculation that Iran might seek a resolution in Yemen following its reconciliation with Saudi Arabia. However, reluctance persisted in reaching a comprehensive agreement, driven by the belief that the costs outweighed potential benefits and that a broader regional settlement was necessary. Recent developments have reinvigorated attention on the Yemeni front, even within Iranian decision-making circles, irrespective of whether escalation in the Red Sea region directly benefits the Houthis or poses risks of losses.

Internally, the Houthis exhibit diminishing receptiveness to partial solutions with other political factions, while support for the legitimacy camp is growing. Nonetheless, the settlement process has been deferred indefinitely, with hopes that ongoing developments will facilitate reevaluating this issue.