Circuitous conflicts

Karam Said, Tuesday 13 Feb 2024

Iran-linked attacks on US interests in the region are ongoing, Karam Said reports

Circuitous conflicts
Civil defence members gather at the site of a burned vehicle targeted by a US drone strike in east Baghdad (photo: AP)


The spate of attacks by Iranian-linked militias on US bases in Syria, Iraq, and Jordan, the latest of which targeted Al-Burj base in northern Jordan on 28 January 2024, killing three US military personnel and wounding many others, is clearly related to the Israeli assault on Gaza. According to the US secretary of defence on 3 February, these militias have targeted US military bases and forces at least 160 times since 7 October, 2023.

Now the US has entered election year, the attacks are having more than the usual domestic repercussions there. Republican hawks have ratcheted up anti-Iranian invective demanding the Biden administration to take firm military actions against Iranian targets. Their purpose is to portray Biden as weak and irresolute, but their belligerent discourse only heightens the threat of a widening war, a threat that had already begun to loom due to the succession of US-UK bombardments of what are reported to be Houthi positions and infrastructures in Yemen in December and January. In addition, Israel has intensified strikes in Syria, the latest of which struck Mezzeh Airport near Damascus on 9 February. Israel and the US have frequently carried out attacks in Syria said to target arms and ammunition depots, military shipments and infrastructures belonging to Iran and Hizbullah, though many of these also belong to the Syrian government’s army. The US and its allies’ responses to the Iranian-linked militias are part of the growing militarisation in the region triggered by the Israeli assault on Gaza. The operations, themselves, aim to stop or contain the damage inflicted by the militias on Western interests, especially on commercial navigation in the Red Sea, although Washington has also indicated that attacks on US bases, such as Al-Burj, may impact the operations of the US-led coalition against IS.

Meanwhile, there is little doubt that the Yemeni Ansarullah (Houthi) movement and other Iranian-linked militias have won widespread admiration in the Arab region for their bold and defiant responses to the US’ political and military backing of Israel’s war on Gaza. Washington, for its part, is growing increasingly concerned that the militias are not only becoming stronger but are also acquiring new and more advanced weapons systems. Hizbullah’s success in downing several Israeli drones near the Lebanese border led some US military experts to believe that the Lebanese resistance organisation now possessed an anti-aircraft system that could alter the balances of power in the region or at least significantly offset some of the US’ and Israel’s capacities.

Whether or not, and whether directly or indirectly, Iran has ordered the attacks on US targets in the region or the attacks against ships in the Red Sea that the Houthis claim are linked to Israel, the actions have handed Tehran some significant propaganda points. Tehran has long cast itself as a champion of the Palestinian resistance with the will and ability to stand up against the US and its Zionist proxy. This too may have fed Washington’s inclination to escalate militarily in its response to the Houthis in Yemen or the Iran-linked militias in Iraq and Syria.

However, the US military responses have achieved little so far in terms of stopping the attacks in the Red Sea or against US targets in Syria and Iraq. In large measure, this may be due to a certain degree of restraint. The Biden administration has repeatedly stated that it does not want the war in Gaza to expand to other fronts, which could draw in other actors with unpredictable and potentially catastrophic consequences. Washington also fears that further escalation could have grave global economic impacts. Already the Houthi attacks on ships passing through the Red Sea have disrupted shipping and supply chains for many commodities, not least of which is oil. Energy prices have skyrocketed in the West as a result.

Washington is also concerned that further expansion of military operations against militias in Syria, Iraq and Yemen might jeopardise its relations with some Arab partners. In Iraq since 7 October there have been increasingly vociferous demands for the US to end its military presence in the country. Some Arab countries have objected to the US attacks in Yemen, arguing that it has only prolonged the shipping crisis and increased the economic burden that will be borne above all by countries overlooking the Red Sea. This may help explain why these countries refused to join the so-called “Guardian of Prosperity” coalition formed by Washington in December. Perhaps they had foreseen that the US-led coalition, which was originally tasked with protecting ships, would quickly shift to an offensive footing.

Despite its vast military capacities and influence in the region, the US is effectively hamstrung if, as it says, it wants to avert a widening war with even more dire geoeconomics and geopolitical repercussions. On the other hand, the solution seems obvious: to use its considerable influence and leverage to get Israel to stop the war on Gaza. Then, by adopting an approach that is less unquestioningly pro-Israel it could open horizons to political solutions that will ultimately promote and strengthen stability in the region to the benefit of all, including the US.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 15 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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