February 24, 2024
Why are conflicts spreading in West Asia? | Explained

Why are conflicts spreading in West Asia? | Explained

Read Time:5 Minute, 51 Second


The story so far: West Asia is in flux. What started as a direct military confrontation between Israel and Hamas has snowballed into a regional security crisis. Hezbollah, Kataib Hezbollah, Hashad al-Shabi, Houthis, Iran, Pakistan and the United States are all now part of an expanding conflict theatre. As Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed more than 24,000 people in 100 days, is continuing with no foreseeable end, the related security crisis in the region is widening.

How has the Israel-Hamas war spilled over?

When Israel launched its war on Gaza, after Hamas’s October 7 cross-border attack in which at least 1,200 Israelis were killed, there were fears that the conflict could spill over beyond Palestine. Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia group that’s backed by Iran, fired rockets at Israeli forces in the Shebaa Farms, an Israeli-controlled territory which Lebanon claims as its own, in solidarity with the Palestinians. Ever since, Hezbollah and Israel have exchanged fire many times, though both were careful not to let tensions escalate into a full-blown war. While Arab countries, upset with Israel’s indiscriminate bombing, stuck to the path of diplomacy to turn up pressure on the Jewish state, Iran-backed militias elsewhere opened new fronts. Houthis, the Shia militias of Yemen, started attacking commercial vessels in the Red Sea from mid-November, again in “solidarity with the Palestinians”. Houthis, who control much of Yemen, including its Red Sea coast, has used sea denial tactics to target dozens of ships ever since, forcing several shipping giants to suspend operations in the Red Sea, which connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Arabian Sea (and the Indian Ocean) through the Suez Canal and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.

When Houthi attacks imperilled the Red Sea traffic, the U.S., which continues to support Israel’s war on Gaza, started carrying out airstrikes in Yemen, targeting Houthi positions. Hashad al-Shabi, the Shia Mobilisation Forces of Iraq and Syria, who are also backed by Iran, launched more than 100 attacks against U.S. troops deployed in the two countries. In retaliation, the U.S. carried out attacks in Syria, and killed a commander of Hashad al-Shabi in a hit in Baghdad, which led to protests by Iraq. Israel has carried out multiple strikes inside Syria and Lebanon, killing Hamas, Hezbollah and Iranian commanders. As instability spread, the Islamic State terror group attacked a memorial event for Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian general assassinated by the U.S. in January 2020, in Kerman, southeastern Iran. As it was coming under growing regional and domestic pressure, Iran carried out strikes on January 16, in Iraq’s Kurdistan, Syria and Pakistan, claiming to have hit a Mossad operational centre and Sunni Islamist militants. In retaliation, Pakistan carried out air strikes in Iran on January 18.

Who are the main players in the crisis?

While multiple players are present in the crisis, there are three major operational centres — Israel, Iran and the U.S. Israel says it has the right to attack Gaza until it meets its objectives — dismantling Hamas and releasing hostages; Iran is the main backer of all anti-Israel non-state actors in West Asia, be it Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, Houthis or the Shia militias of Iraq and Syria. The U.S., which has a widespread military presence in the region, has three objectives — to ensure the security of Israel, the security of America’s troops and assets deployed in the region and the perseverance of the U.S.-led order in the region. So, the bottomline is that Israel is fighting a vengeful war on the Palestinians with full U.S. support; Iran-backed proxies are attacking Israel and American interests in the region in retaliation, while Iran seeks to strengthen its deterrence; and the U.S. is attacking these proxies to meet its objectives.

What does this mean for regional security?

This is an unstable situation. West Asia has seen conflicts in the past, between nation states (Iran and Iraq; and Israel and Arab nations) and states and non-state actors (Israel’s wars with Hezbollah and Hamas). But currently, the region is witnessing a widespread security crisis, involving both powerful states and non-state actors.


Editorial | Regional turmoil: On the West Asia situation

Last time West Asia faced a major transnational war was in 1967 when Israel launched attacks on surrounding Arab countries. But the 1967 war concluded within six days, with Israel’s decisive victory against the Arabs. Today, even after 100 days, the conflict is only escalating and widening.

In the past, the U.S. had retained a domineering presence in West Asia, shaping its geopolitical outcomes, and America’s rivals were wary of breaching certain red lines. This was the backbone of the U.S.-led order in West Asia. Though Iran stayed out of it since 1979, it never risked a direct war with the U.S. or Israel. The current crisis suggests that the old order is in tatters. Iran-backed proxies are directly attacking both Israeli and American positions, while Iran is flexing its military muscle through cross-border attacks. The Houthis have challenged the U.S.’s ability to provide security to one of the world’s busiest shipping routes. Arab countries remain America’s allies, but are increasingly frustrated with Washington’s unconditional support for Israel’s war on Gaza. The U.S., despite its support for Israel, seems unable or unwilling to push Israel to end its disastrous war and bring back some stability.

Being unable to end the war and having picked a fight with Shia militias, the world’s most powerful country is acting like one of the several disruptors in West Asia, and not as a guarantor of peace, stability and deterrence.

What’s next?

There is no clear way-out from this polycentric crisis. After more than 100 days of war, Israel has achieved little in Gaza, given the targets it set for itself. It is unlikely to wind down the offensive in the near term.

As long as Israel continues the war, Hezbollah and Houthis will continue their attacks. It’s to be seen whether the U.S. air strikes on Houthis, who survived Saudi bombing for seven years, would have any real deterring effect other than symbolic values. The U.S. strikes on the Shia units in Iraq and Syria have not stopped them from launching new attacks. If instability spreads further, the Islamic State and other jihadists would seek to exploit the situation. Iraq and Syria remain vulnerable to internal and external challenges. Iran has sought to project force, but Pakistan’s response has underscored Iran’s limitations. The U.S., once a shaper of outcomes in West Asia, watches the region plunge into chaos.

The only silver lining amid this spiral of crisis, as of now, is that the Saudi-Iran detente, and the associated Saudi-Houthi peace, is holding.



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