After the rocky period in August 2021, when Joe Biden insisted on getting the US out of Afghanistan in order to facilitate its focus on the Indo-Pacific and counter China’s rise, it appeared as an end to an era of war. Little was it realised that two conflagrations triggered within months would pull the world back to the European theatre and the Middle East.
It was messy enough when the Ukraine war commenced on February 24, 2022; the Black Sea region had far too many players with multiple stakes, but there was no direct US involvement. NATO and the US fought the war through Ukraine, creating supply chains of war material from numerous nations. It has since faded into a classic stalemate, although perceptions on capability are debatable. The Israel-Hamas war, which is essentially an asymmetric war designed by Hamas to prevent attention waning from the Palestinian issue, is now spreading through the Middle Eastern region, creating what appears to be an irretrievable mess.
While the main war between Israel and Hamas has reached a stalemate in spite of heavy loss of life and material by the Israelis, it is the side-shows that are causing more concern. The main war is isolated from its ability to drastically influence other events, although it was responsible for initiating all these events. The first is the Hezbollah in Lebanon, which has pressured Israel on its northern border and retains the ability to launch multiple missile strikes within Israel to cause an escalation, if it chooses. Its relevance lies in its threatening presence in the north and existence as a proxy threat from Iran and nothing more decisive.
Then there are the Houthis. They have long been sponsored as proxies in Yemen by Iran not just to spread its influence, but to retain a geostrategic upper hand due to Yemen’s proximity to major sea routes that facilitate international goods and oil trade through the Red Sea. It’s a critical capability to possess in international standoffs where the economic well-being of so many nations would be at stake. It’s a quid pro quo capability too, where the potential closure of the Persian Gulf by Iran’s adversaries can be countered by the Red Sea card.
Iran’s intent of retaining power in the Levant and preventing Western influence in the Middle East leads to a strategy of brinkmanship. It has happened too many times before, when Iran has chosen to message its capability through limited strikes by proxies allegedly supported by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The assassination of IRGC’s well-known commander Qasem Soleimani in January 2020 by a targeted drone strike near Baghdad International Airport was not the first of such standoffs.
Iran has, however, desisted from proactively crossing a threshold; but it does invariably strike in retribution when its leaders are targeted. The Quds Force is the IRGC’s foreign espionage and paramilitary arm that heavily influences its allied militia across the Middle East, from Lebanon to Iraq and Yemen to Syria. These militias are the proxies who strike at anti-Iran forces and are part of the effort towards shaping the Middle East in Iran’s favour.
What is clear is that Iran, under its current dispensation, will not give the US leeway towards uncontested domination of the Middle East, a status the US seeks through its partners Saudi Arabia, Israel and the UAE. The strategy Iran has chosen is of demonstrated military strikes, remaining below the threshold of what could invite massive conventional retaliation or all-out war. The US invariably retaliates with a build-up of tension before a de-escalation is brought about. It keeps the temperature high, but the potential of escalation low.
The recent targeting of 85 locations in Syria and Iraq with missiles, in retaliation for the loss of three US servicemen in Jordan, and the killing 40 persons, mostly civilians, create more alienation against the US. This is especially in the light of the excessive Israeli bombings in Gaza that have killed over 25,000 people, again the majority being civilians, women and children. There cannot be any guarantee that in a more complex emerging environment, events involving different pressure points would not uncontrollably cross the threshold. There is the Houthi involvement, which considers support to Palestinian brethren as a sacred duty. They believe that pressure on the international community would bring about greater resolve to force Israel to pull back from Gaza.
The US is also attempting to rope in Pakistan, because a peaceful border between Iran and Pakistan allows Iran to strategically focus on the Middle East. Pakistan, straddling the China-US line, is probably willing to go part of the way, but not beyond a point. The recent exchange of missiles on alleged terrorist bases in either country may have caused some excitement, but the scope remains limited to just that.
What appears in the offing, according to US sources, is the emergence of some kind of a Biden Doctrine, which will more holistically address the current concerns in the Middle East. A resolute stand against Iran, which could see the US’s willingness for the escalation to go up a few notches, and a challenge to Iran to take it beyond. Second, there could be a renewed push to address the core problem of the Palestinian state, one sought by the entire world.
It would have to involve Israel’s climbdown both politically and militarily; meaning the end of Netanyahu and some kind of a pullback from Gaza with more guarantees against a return to violence. And some level of greater Arab involvement in partnership with Israel to prevent a Hamas rerun; perhaps involving key nations such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE. It would have to involve a promise for massive humanitarian and reconstruction efforts to rebuild Gaza and the West Bank.
Too many factors play against the success of such a doctrine. First, the presence of Netanyahu and his replacement by someone more acceptable. Second, the ability to convince Iran that the effort towards creating a Palestinian state is serious. Lastly, and most importantly, US politicians would need to support this for any effect. In the current run of things, nothing like this seems possible. The mess that is the Middle East will probably continue much longer.
LT Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)
Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir