The Gaza War has taken a terrible human toll within Israel and Palestine while also threatening to escalate into a larger regional war. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has had violent repercussions in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen and the Red Sea.
The recent strikes by the United States and its allies on Yemen are the latest escalation in this broader Middle East conflict, and further escalations seem likely. The risks of a wider war provide another reason, if any were needed, to end the Gaza War.
Violence in Lebanon
Lebanon is a major base of operations for Hezbollah, a militant group affiliated with Iran. Hezbollah and the Israelis have a long history of violent conflict along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. Since the Gaza War began, Hezbollah and Israeli forces have regularly exchanged fire across the border.
This low-level violence spiked on January 2 when an air strike in a Beirut suburb killed seven Hamas members, including Saleh al-Arouri, a leader in Hamas’ armed wing and a liaison with Hezbollah. Lebanese state media attributed the strike to an Israeli drone. Israel did not openly take responsibility, but an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) spokesman commented, "The IDF is in a very high state of readiness in all arenas, in defense and offense" and is “focused on fighting Hamas."
Hezbollah declared the strike “a serious assault on Lebanon, its people, its security, sovereignty, and resistance” and “that this crime will never pass without response and punishment.” Hezbollah subsequently increased its cross-border attacks on Israel, leading Israel to retaliate with air strikes that killed several Hezbollah members in Lebanon. Israeli officials have also warned that pushing Hezbollah back from the border might eventually require a military offensive.
Violence in Iraq and Syria
Roughly 2,500 US troops are currently stationed in Iraq to help the Iraqi government prevent a resurgence of ISIS. These troops have been targets of over 50 attacks by Iranian-affiliated groups since the Gaza War began, although no Americans have been killed. US forces have responded with retaliatory attacks, including a January 4 drone strike in Baghdad that killed two leaders of Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, a militant Iraqi group with ties both to Iran and the Iraqi government.
The drone strike has strained the US relationship with Iraq’s government. Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani condemned it as "blatant aggression and violation of Iraqi's sovereignty and security." Al Sudani also announced US troops should leave Iraq, although he apparently walked that statement back later.
The 900 US troops stationed in Syria to combat ISIS have been attacked more than 70 times by militants since October and have also retaliated. These retaliatory strikes presumably create tensions with Syrian authorities, as US forces are in Syria against the government’s express wishes.
Violence in Yemen and the Red Sea
Yemen is currently dominated by the Houthis, another militant group allied with Iran. Yemen’s location next to the Red Sea, a vital transit point for international shipping, have given the Houthis the ability to threaten global trade.
As retaliation for Israel’s war in Gaza, the Houthis have repeatedly attacked commercial ships in the Red Sea. This has disrupted the activities of some major shipping groups such as Maersk and could increase global inflation.
In response, the United States and allied nations began Operation Prosperity Guardian in late December, sending military ships to the Red Sea to protect commercial vessels. When Houthi attacks continued, the allied coalition issued a warning that “The Houthis will bear the responsibility of the consequences should they continue to threaten lives, the global economy, and free flow of commerce in the region’s critical waterways.” A Houthi spokesman commented that they “will continue to prevent Israeli ships or those headed to the ports of occupied Palestine from sailing in the Arabian and Red Seas until the aggression stops and the siege on our steadfast brothers in Gaza is lifted.”
After further Houthi attacks, US and allied forces carried out a series of air and naval strikes on Houthi targets in Yemen on January 12. More strikes followed on January 13. A Houthi spokesman commented that the strikes would “not go unanswered and unpunished.”
Stopping a Downward Spiral
The US-Houthi conflict is the most immediately volatile situation, but any of the conflicts described above could flare up into wider, bloodier confrontations. Such confrontations would not only kill still more people but would also almost certainly be futile from a political standpoint.
Just as devastating Gaza is unlikely to defeat Hamas or bring security to Israel, bombing militants in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, or elsewhere is unlikely to end the violent opposition to Israel and the United States across the Middle East.
Given the limited resources required to conduct sporadic hit-and-run attacks or disrupt commercial shipping, groups such as the Houthis can probably continue to wreak havoc even while being bombed by the United States. The Houthis survived years of a Saudi Arabia-led bombing campaign against Yemen and likely can do the same in the face of US bombing.
The Houthis even seem eager for a fight, with their leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, declaring “We, the Yemeni people, are not among those who are afraid of America… We are comfortable with a direct confrontation with the Americans.” Meanwhile, the human costs of US or Israeli military actions will further fuel hatred and opposition to both nations across the Middle East.
The best response to the conflicts simmering across the Middle East is not more violence but an end to the Gaza War. The United States needs to use its influence on Israel to achieve a cease-fire and allow unimpeded humanitarian aid to reach Gaza’s people. US citizens should contact the Biden administration by phone, at 202-456-1111, or email and contact their representatives in the House and Senate to urge them to support this policy.
Violence will not solve the Middle East’s current turmoil but only beget more violence. A different approach is necessary.