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A widened Middle East war would be a disaster, but it can still be avoided

A picture taken from a position in southern Israel along the border with the Gaza Strip shows smoke billowing during Israeli bombardment on January 4, 2024, amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images 

Anxiety mounts every day that a full-scale Middle East war could erupt from the flames of the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza.

“We feel and we’re afraid of it,” Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour this week. “We don’t want any escalation in the war. … We don’t like a regional war because it’s dangerous to everybody. Dangerous to Lebanon, dangerous to Israel and to the countries surrounding Israel,” he said, adding, “A regional war is bad for everybody.”

But the one thing that could avert such a disaster is that a more expansive conflict may not be in the vital national interests of any of the region’s major powers.

And while key states and extremist groups appear to be walking right up to the brink, there’s still hope that the economic, political and military consequences of an escalation will be so grave, that they will stop just short of escalation.

Almost every day brings another violent incident. On Thursday, for instance, the US carried out a strike in Baghdad that killed a leader from an Iran-backed militia that Washington blames for attacks against US personnel in the region. US troops in Iraq and Syria tasked with keeping a lid on ISIS have repeatedly come under rocket and drone attacks from Tehran’s proxies.

Fighting is intensifying between Israel and another pro-Iranian group, Hezbollah, across the Lebanon border. In another alarming sign, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Thursday told US envoy Amos Hochstein that time was running out to create a “new reality” on Israel’s northern border to allow residents there to return to their homes. Israel is, meanwhile, suspected of carrying out an attack on high-ranking Hamas leader, Saleh Al-Arouri, in Beirut, sparking fury among Hezbollah leaders who control the area where he was killed.

In another alarming incident, US forces this week sank three boats belonging to Houthi rebels in the Red Sea, following a series of attacks on commercial shipping. Central Command said American helicopters were fired on first and acted in self-defense. The US and around a dozen allies have launched a maritime task force to protect commercial vessels in critical sea lanes in the area after some shipping firms sent their vessels on a longer, less economical route around Africa.

A double bomb attack this week near the grave of former Iranian intelligence chief Qasem Soleimani, since claimed by ISIS, meanwhile rocked an already tense region and may increase internal pressure on Iran’s government as it plots its wider moves in the Middle East.

Why a wider war could be avoided

Many of the region’s power brokers – including Israel, Iran and Hezbollah – may have the most interest in a high-level of tension stopping just short of war. The worry for the US, however, is that all of this playing with fire could spark another Middle Eastern conflict that could drag in Americans. That’s a scenario the Biden administration is desperate to avoid — especially in an election year.

“There are no strategic drivers, (for) the main regional or external actors to ignite a regional war, if only because the goals of such conflict would be unclear, and this would immediately disrupt their significant political and economic stability,” Norman Roule, former US national intelligence manager for Iran, told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Wednesday. “At the same time, Iran and its proxies have multiple incentives to maintain and even increase the intensity and frequency of the current actions against Israel.

“The concern should be that any of these activities produces an event that requires retaliation or involvement by other actors that then build on each other, leading to the very conventional conflict we all wish to avoid.”

The situation is so treacherous because rapid deterioration could happen at any moment on any number of fronts. Hezbollah has thousands of missiles that could target Israeli civilians, meaning that intensified clashes could quickly get very dangerous. A mass casualty attack by Iranian proxies against US forces would create political and military imperatives for President Joe Biden to take far more robust military action than he has so far. If a US or allied ship in the Red Sea sustains serious damage, Biden would face similar choices. And the entry into the Red Sea this week of an Iranian destroyer raised the possibility of miscalculations with rival navies operating in close quarters in fraught waters.

The scale and barbarity of the Hamas operation and Israel’s response, which has pulverized vast areas of civilian neighborhoods in Gaza, set off a cascade of events embedded in the fault lines of the Middle East. The subsequent shockwaves ended a period of relative calm in the region, during which the Trump and Biden administrations, and its allies, had tried to forge closer links between Gulf States and Israel. The ensuing tensions appear to have ended hopes in the White House for any tacit and informal lowering of antagonism with Iran, although Biden’s political foes accuse him of being insufficiently tough on the Islamic Republic and its nuclear program.

A geopolitical circuit breaker?

The key players’ interest in avoiding conflict could act as a circuit breaker. Given the likely cost of a regional war and the global economic, military and political repercussions it would spark, each power has good reasons to avoid the brink:

Israel is already embroiled in a hot war in Gaza that its government says will drag on for months. A full-scale war with Hezbollah could subject Israeli citizens to bombardments potentially far greater than those suffered by Israeli cities from Hamas rocket attacks last year. In that sense, the strike against Arouri – which Israel was behind, a US official confirmed to CNN on Wednesday – may have been a gamble that it would not spark a massive response from Hezbollah. At the same time, however, as the rest of the world frets about a widening conflict, Israeli leaders believe they are already embroiled in what is effectively a regional war given the multi-front threats they face.

The United States is intensifying a strategy it has been employing for weeks — to try to stop things spilling out of control. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is headed to the region again, facing increasing pressure to cool tensions between Israel and Hezbollah in a situation that has Lebanon, which Hezbollah dominates, fearing a catastrophe that could worsen its already fragile political, economic and humanitarian plight. American forces – in Syria, Iraq, and at sea – look painfully exposed. Regarding Iranian proxies, the Biden administration appears to be seeking to reestablish a level of deterrence without itself setting off the regional tinder box.

Washington and its allies also just issued a statement warning Houthi rebels in Yemen of consequences if attacks on shipping continue in the Red Sea, a sea lane that is vital to the global economy. CNN’s Natasha Bertrand and Kevin Liptak reported on Thursday that the White House’s patience is close to running out with the rebels. But direct strikes against their launch sites on land would not only drag allied forces deeper into the conflict, they could threaten a truce that paused Yemen’s murderous civil war. Biden is in a political bind. He’s constantly accused by Republicans of being too soft on Iran and its proxies. But any worsening of the regional situation also could play into GOP claims that the 81-year-old Democratic president lacks the capacity to lead. The danger for Biden is that the last 20 years are filled with repeated US failures to impose its will on the Middle East. Asserting US power is easier said than done.

Iran may have more to gain from using its sprawling network of proxy groups to exert lower-level costs on Israel and the United States than it would from plunging into a direct conflict. The latter could prove militarily and economically destabilizing and increase political pressure toward the clerical regime, which is already soaring after the bomb attacks. But there’s also a danger that such political heat could force the hand of leaders who may see a more aggressive posture abroad as likely to ease difficulties at home. Only 15 months ago, Iran’s clerics were facing a wave of anti-government protests sparked by the death of a woman in the custody of the country’s feared morality police.

Vali Nasr, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, told CNN’s Becky Anderson on Wednesday he was very worried about current tensions. But he added: “I don’t think the Iranians want an expanded conflict,” while making the point that some in Iran believed that Israel was trying to bait Iran into direct clashes. “I think the calculation, at least among Iranians, Hezbollah, maybe other governments in the region, not necessarily Israel, is that the United States does not want a bigger war. President Biden doesn’t want a bigger war,” Nasr said.

That said, these calculations could change if Washington is unable to deter Israel from expanding the conflict. The attack on the Hamas leader in Beirut, which the US said it didn’t know about beforehand, therefore looks like a risky move by Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. It risks worsening increasingly dicey relations with the US, after White House calls for an easing of intensity of the Gaza operation, that have been repeatedly rebuffed.

Hezbollah is the most powerful political player in Lebanon. It is effectively an extension of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. While it has a massive arsenal of rockets aimed at Israel, its power could be significantly diminished in the event of a full-scale war. A degraded Hezbollah would mean a significant ebbing of Iran’s regional influence. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned on Wednesday that the killing of Arouri, the Hamas leader, wouldn’t go unpunished and that if Israel wages war in Lebanon, the response would be “limitless.”

But Bou Habib, the Lebanese foreign minister, told CNN he believed the militia group would stop short of increasing the intensity of the war with Israel. “We have a lot of reasons to think that this would not happen, that they – (and) we – do not want, as Lebanese, all of us, we do not want any war,” he said. “It’s not like we can order them. We’re not claiming that, but we can convince them. And I think it is working in this direction.”

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