US diplomacy in a changing region

Hussein Haridy
Tuesday 6 Feb 2024

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is on his fifth tour of the region since last October, this time probably to push for a humanitarian pause in the Israeli war on Gaza.


US Secretary of State Antony Blinken started a tour of the Middle East on 4 February that will last until this Thursday.

He is scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, Israel, and the West Bank. It will be his second visit to the region in less than a month. His last visit took place last month, and in addition to the countries he will visit on this second Middle Eastern tour, he also visited Turkey, Greece, the UAE, and Bahrain.

Since 7 October last year, Blinken has toured the region five times in search of ways to halt the war in Gaza between Israel and the Palestinian Resistance Movement Hamas. During his previous four visits he never talked about a humanitarian ceasefire, and it is highly unlikely that he will say this magic word this time around either.

 In a statement on 2 February, the State Department used the expression “humanitarian pause” to describe one of the objectives that Blinken will discuss during his talks with regional leaders. Such a pause in the fighting will see the sustained and increased delivery of humanitarian assistance to “civilians” in Gaza, the statement said.

Another important objective will be resuming previous discussions with Middle Eastern leaders and their US partners “on how to establish a more integrated, peaceful region that includes lasting security for Israelis and Palestinians alike,” the State Department said.

During remarks to the press in Bahrain on 10 January, Blinken said that “what’s so powerful in all our conversations… throughout this trip [his fourth visit last month] is that countries do see a way forward through greater integration that actually provides real security for Israel and guarantees to that security and a pathway to a Palestinian state.”

He added that in order to reach such a point, “leaders have to make hard decisions, hard choices.” He stressed that the US “cannot do that for them”. Moreover, he admitted that a lot of hard work remains… But there is a clear and better vision for what the future could bring. There are countries that are committed to try to help deliver on such a vision,” Blinken said, insisting that the US is one of them.

I believe that Blinken in his talks during the present visit to the region will push for the conclusion of a “humanitarian pause” in the fighting in Gaza in the light of the draft agreement that was agreed upon last month in Paris among the directors of the intelligence services of the US (the CIA), Egypt, the Israeli Mossad, and the Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Qatar.

There have been indications that Israel and Hamas could ultimately accept the proposed draft. This time the pause in the fighting would be for a longer period, unlike the first one last November. It would be for 35 days, more or less, during which time Hamas would release the Israeli hostages in three or four stages, and Israel would free a number of Palestinian detainees and prisoners, with the final number to be agreed upon.

The Egyptian and Qatari governments hope that a second pause in the fighting could pave the way for a permanent ceasefire.

The second important objective that Blinken will likely bring up on his present tour is the linkage between what is hoped to be an extended pause in the military operations in Gaza and regional integration. A third and no less important objective of US diplomacy is to discuss future governance in Gaza, which has become a very complicated question in the light of Israeli plans, unofficial until the present, to exercise security and civilian control over Gaza despite firm US opposition.

However, the present fifth visit by Blinken to the region since last October is also taking place at a time when the US has been directly and increasingly drawn into a cycle of military escalation that it has tried to avoid for the last four months. This is because the persistent refusal of the Biden administration to call explicitly for a ceasefire in Gaza after 120 days of fighting has turned Washington into a party in the Israeli war on Gaza.

On 2 February, US forces hit 85 targets at seven separate facilities in Syria (three sites) and in Iraq (four sites) belonging to militias that make up what is called the “Islamic Resistance” in Iraq that operates along the Syrian-Iraqi border. The US strikes were in retaliation for an attack by one of these militias against a US military base in Jordan that cost the lives of three US servicemen and wounded an additional 40 soldiers.

US President Joe Biden said of the strikes that the US “response began today. It will continue at times and places of our choosing.” The following day, the US, this time joined by the UK, attacked 36 Houthi military targets in Yemen across 13 locations. In a statement, the two governments, joined by the Australian, Bahraini, Danish, Canadian, New Zealand, and Dutch governments, said that their aim “remains to de-escalate tensions and restore stability in the Red Sea.”

“But let us reiterate our warning to the Houthi leadership,” they said. “We will not hesitate to continue to defend lives and the free flow of commerce in one of the world’s most critical waterways in the face of continued threats.”

The geopolitical scene in the Middle East has changed in the span of the three weeks that separate the fourth from the fifth visit of Blinken to the region. If the Biden administration maintains its opposition to an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, no one can be certain that further escalation and a deepening US military involvement in the proxy wars taking place in the region between the US, Iran, and Israel should be ruled out.

I would like to quote the well-known New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who wrote in the newspaper on 3 February that “President Biden should search his soul: He excoriates Russia for bombing civilians and undermining the rules-based international order even as we supply bombs that can wipe out neighbourhoods in Gaza and even as we give diplomatic cover to… Benjamin Netanyahu while Gaza faces looming starvation.”


The writer is former assistant to foreign minister.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 8 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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