Can the US prevent a wider war in the Middle East? Right now, it's barely trying

Ebrahim Raisi; Antony Blinken; Benjamin Netanyahu Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images
Ebrahim Raisi; Antony Blinken; Benjamin Netanyahu Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images
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While Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has been frantically shuttling around the Middle East trying to stop the Israeli conflict in Gaza from exploding into a regional war, the United States has also sent two aircraft carrier strike groups, a Marine Expeditionary Unit and 1,200 extra troops to the Middle East as a “deterrent.” In plain language, the U.S. is threatening to attack any forces that come to the defense of the Palestinians from other countries in the region, reassuring Israel that it can keep killing with impunity in Gaza.

But if Israel persists in this war, U.S. threats may be impotent to prevent others from intervening. From Lebanon to Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Iran, possibilities of the conflict spreading appear enormous. Even Algeria says it is ready to fight on behalf of the Palestinians, based on a unanimous vote in its parliament on Nov. 1.

Middle Eastern governments and their people already see the U.S. as a party to Israel’s bloodshed in Gaza. So any direct U.S. military action will be seen as an escalation on the side of Israel and is more likely to provoke further escalation than to deter it.

The U.S. already faces this predicament in Iraq. Despite years of Iraqi demands for the removal of American forces, at least 2,500 U.S. troops remain at Al-Asad Airbase in western Anbar province, at Al-Harir Airbase, which is north of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, and at another small base at the airport in Erbil. There are also “several hundred” NATO troops, including Americans, advising Iraqi forces in NATO Mission Iraq, based near Baghdad.

For many years, U.S. forces in Iraq have been mired in a low-grade war against the so-called Popular Mobilization Forces that Iraq formed to fight ISIS, mainly composed of Shia militias. Despite their links to Iran, the armed groups Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and other PMFs have often ignored Iranian calls to de-escalate attacks on U.S. forces. These Iraqi groups do not respect Iran Quds Force leader Gen. Esmail Qaani as highly as they did the late Gen. Qasem Soleimani, whom he replaced, so the U.S. assassination of Soleimani in 2020 further reduced Iran’s ability to restrain the militias in Iraq.

After a year-long truce between U.S. and Iraqi forces, the Israeli war on Gaza has triggered a new escalation of this conflict in both Iraq and Syria. Some militias have rebranded themselves as the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, and began attacking U.S. bases on Oct. 17, in the aftermath of the Hamas attack on Israel and the beginning of Israel's retaliation in Gaza. After 32 attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq, 34 more in Syria and three U.S. airstrikes in Syria, U.S. forces conducted airstrikes against two Kata’ib Hezbollah bases in Iraq, one in Anbar province and one in Jurf Al-Nasr, south of Baghdad, on Nov. 21, killing at least nine militiamen.

Those U.S. airstrikes prompted a furious response from Iraqi government spokesman Bassam al-Awadi. “We vehemently condemn the attack on Jurf Al-Nasr, executed without the knowledge of government agencies,” al-Awadi said. “This action is a blatant violation of sovereignty and an attempt to destabilize the security situation. … The recent incident represents a clear violation of the coalition’s mission to combat Daesh [aka ISIS] on Iraqi soil. We call on all parties to avoid unilateral actions and to respect Iraq’s sovereignty.”

Just as the Iraqi government feared, the Islamic Resistance in Iraq responded to U.S. airstrikes with two attacks on Al-Harir airbase on Nov. 22 and several more on Nov. 23. They attacked Al-Asad airbase with several drones and launched another drone attack on the U.S. base at Erbil airport, while their allies in Syria attacked two U.S. bases across the border in northeastern Syria.

Short of a ceasefire in Gaza or a full U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and Syria, there is no decisive action the U.S. can take that would put a stop to these attacks. So the level of violence in Iraq and Syria is likely to keep rising as long as the war on Gaza continues.

Another military force opposing Israel and the U.S. in the region is the Houthi army in Yemen. On Nov. 14, Abdul-Malek al-Houthi, leader of the Houthi government in Yemen, asked neighboring countries to open a corridor through their territory for his army to go and fight Israel in Gaza.

Houthi Deputy Information Secretary Nasreddin Amer told Newsweek that if their forces had a way to enter Gaza, they would not hesitate to join the fight against Israel, ”We have fighters numbering hundreds of thousands who are brave, tough, trained and experienced in fighting," Amer said. "They have a very strong belief, and their dream in life is to fight the Zionists and the Americans.”

It is highly unlikely that thousands of Yemeni soldiers would under any circumstances be allowed to cross Saudi Arabia in order to join the fight against Israel, but it's conceivable that Iran or another ally could help to transport a smaller number by air or sea. The Houthis have waged an asymmetric war against Saudi-led invaders for many years, and have developed weapons and tactics that they could bring to bear against Israel. Soon after al-Houthi’s statement, Yemeni forces in the Red Sea boarded a ship that is reportedly owned, through various shell companies, by Israeli billionaire Abraham Ungar. The vessel, which was on its way from Istanbul to India, was detained in a Yemeni port.

The Houthis have also launched a series of drones and missiles towards Israel. While many members of Congress try to portray the Houthis as simply puppets of Iran, in fact they are an independent, unpredictable force that other actors in the region cannot control.

Even NATO ally Türkiye (formerly Turkey) is finding it difficult to remain a bystander, given widespread public support for the Palestinian cause. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was among the first international leaders to speak out strongly against the Israeli assault on Gaza, explicitly calling it a massacre and saying that it amounted to genocide.

Turkish civil society groups are spearheading a campaign to send humanitarian aid to Gaza on cargo ships, braving a possible confrontation like the one that occurred in 2010 when Israeli commandos killed 10 people aboard the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish passenger ship carrying humanitarian aid and volunteers.

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On the Lebanese border, Israel and Hezbollah have conducted daily exchanges of fire since the Hamas attack of Oct. 7, killing 97 combatants and 15 civilians in Lebanon along with nine soldiers and three civilians in Israel. Some 46,000 Lebanese civilians and 65,000 Israelis have been displaced from the border area. Israeli defense minister Yoav Gallant warned on Nov. 11, “What we’re doing in Gaza, we can also do in Beirut.”

It remains unclear how Hezbollah will react now that Israel has resumed its ground assault in Gaza following the brief truce and hostage exchange, or what will happen if Israel's military campaign expands to the West Bank, where Israeli settlers and soldiers have already killed at least 237 Palestinians since Oct. 7.

In a speech on Nov. 3, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah stopped short of declaring a new war on Israel, but warned that “all options are on the table” if Israel does not end its war on Gaza.

As Israel prepared to pause its bombing on Nov. 23, Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian held meetings in Qatar, first with Nasrallah and Lebanese officials, and then with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh.

In a public statement, Amirabdollahian said, “The continuation of the ceasefire can prevent further expansion of the scope of the war. In the meeting with the leaders of the resistance, I found out that if Israel’s war crimes and genocide continue, a tougher and more complicated scenario of the resistance will be implemented.”

Amirabdollahian had already warned on Oct. 16 that "leaders of the resistance," meaning Palestinian militia groups and their allies elsewhere, would not allow Israel "to do whatever it wants in Gaza and then go to other fronts of the resistance.”

In other words, if Iran and its allies believe that Israel intends to continue its war on Gaza until it has removed Hamas from power, and then intends to turn its war machine loose on Lebanon or its other neighbors, they may well conclude it is preferable to fight a wider war now, forcing Israel to fight the Palestinians, Hezbollah and various their allies all at the same time, rather than waiting for Israel to attack them one by one.

It does not appear that the White House is listening. In public remarks the day after Thanksgiving, President Biden continued to back Israel’s vow to resume the war in Gaza after the conclusion of a “humanitarian pause,” describing the campaign to eliminate Hamas as “a legitimate objective.”

America’s unconditional support for Israel, along with an apparently endless supply of U.S. weapons, have succeeded only in turning Israel into an uncontrollable destabilizing force at the heart of a fragile region that is already shattered and traumatized by decades of U.S. warmaking. The result is a country that refuses to recognize its own borders or those of its neighbors, and that rejects any and all limits on its territorial ambitions and any shared understanding of war crimes.

If Israel’s actions lead to a wider war, the U.S. will find itself with few allies ready to jump into the fray. In fact, even if a regional conflict can avoided, U.S. support for Israel has already created tremendous damage to America's reputation in the region and beyond. Direct U.S. involvement in the war could leave the nation even more isolated and impotent on the world than its epic misadventures in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.

The U.S. can still avoid this fate by insisting on an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza and the withdrawal of Israeli forces. If Israel will not agree to that, as is likely, the U.S. must back up this position with an immediate suspension of arms deliveries, military aid, Israeli access to U.S. weapons stockpiles in Israel and diplomatic support for Israel’s war.

If U.S. officials are truly concerned with the nation's self-interest, or with the lives of innocent Palestinian civilians, they should work to stop Israel’s massacre in Gaza, cool hostilities enough to avoid a regional war and then, in effect, get out of the way so that the U.N. and other nations can help negotiate a real solution to the occupation of Palestine.