A rash of drone and missile attacks on U.S. positions in the Middle East is heightening fears that Iran-backed militants are trying to provoke American military forces to strike back and ignite a wider conflict beyond the bloody Hamas-Israel war in the Gaza Strip.
The attacks on U.S. military and diplomatic sites over the past week are suspected to have been orchestrated by Iran and designed to further sabotage prospects for a U.S.-brokered peace accord between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian on Sunday demanded that Israel stop its “genocide” in Gaza, warning at a Tehran press conference that “anything is possible at any moment and the region will go out of control.” He said the United States was also to blame for militarily supporting Israel.
Only a few weeks ago normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia seemed within reach. At the U.N. General Assembly in New York last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proclaimed the two age-old adversaries “on the cusp of a dramatic breakthrough” to create a more peaceful and collaborative Middle East.
“Such a peace will go a long way in ending Arab-Israeli conflict and will encourage other Arab states to normalize their relations with Israel,” Netanyahu told the global gathering, adding that it would also enhance prospects for peace with the Palestinians.
The atrocities committed by Hamas militants against Israeli soldiers and civilians on Oct. 7 shattered that illusion of an imminent peace deal. Last week’s provocations by Iranian-backed militants in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq underscored the opposition of Iran and its proxies to an alliance of Israel and Saudi Arabia with close ties to the United States. That sea change in relations would weaken and isolate Tehran in the battles for supremacy between the Saudi kingdom’s Sunni Muslims and Iranian Shiites.
“One of the reasons Hamas moved on Israel … they knew that I was about to sit down with the Saudis,” President Joe Biden said at a Washington, D.C., fundraiser on Friday, referring to his announced intent before the Hamas attacks to travel to Riyadh and Tel Aviv in the near future in hopes of sealing the deal.
Since the Hamas attacks launched from Gaza, discussion of any realignment of Mideast factions has screeched to a halt. With Israel poised to wage retaliatory attacks on Gaza, Arabs across the Middle East and Palestinian statehood advocates around the world have been protesting Israel’s ongoing bombardment of Gaza and blocking of most desperately needed humanitarian aid to the enclave. The angry protests have also targeted the United States for deploying naval and air defense resources to the region in a show of support for Israel.
Biden has won mostly high marks from politicians, security analysts and Western political leaders for his response to the latest Israeli-Palestinian crisis. He has promised unwavering U.S. support for Israel but also cautioned Netanyahu and the hard-right allies in his government that they should not be guided by anger in retaliation for ongoing Hamas terror, that Israel’s looming invasion and air strikes should adhere to international law protecting civilians in wartime.
The Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated regions in the world. Its 2.3 million predominantly Palestinian residents live on territory about twice the size of Washington, D.C. Gaza residents are now stuck in the enclave from which neither of its littoral neighbors, Israel and Egypt, will allow them to cross into safety ahead of Netanyahu’s announced intent to wage a fierce ground invasion to root out Hamas militants.
Israeli Defense Forces and armored vehicles are massed around Gaza’s borders in preparation for the operation to eliminate Hamas, which has controlled the Palestinian territory for 16 years. Combat aircraft are poised to back the IDF invasion and warships are blockading Gaza from the Mediterranean Sea. Both air and naval operations are augmented by U.S. deployment of two aircraft carrier groups with 15,000 sailors on board and positioning of more combat aircraft at U.S. bases throughout the Middle East.
“By posturing these U.S. naval assets and advanced fighter aircraft in the region, we aim to send a strong message intended to deter a wider conflict, to bolster regional stability and of course to make it clear that we will protect and defend our national security interests,” Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters Thursday.
But the American military buildup has incited provocative reactions by Arab militants throughout the Middle East. The USS Carney, a destroyer in the USS Gerald R. Ford carrier group on patrol in the Red Sea, on Thursday shot down four cruise missiles and 15 attack drones after intelligence assessed them to be flying toward targets in Israel. Thursday’s nine-hour aerial battle with Iran-armed Houthi rebels in Yemen was the first U.S. military action in the region since the Hamas atrocities ignited the current war.
Within hours of the Carney engagement, attack drones hit U.S. military positions in Iraq and a garrison in Syria housing U.S. and allied forces, inflicting minor injuries in both venues. On Friday, two rockets targeted the U.S diplomatic compound in Baghdad — one shot down and the other reported to have hit an empty storage building.
Neither the State Department nor the Pentagon has identified the suspected attackers but Iran backs allied militias in all the states in which attacks on American targets have been launched.
In further worrying signs of potentially widening conflict, Israel waged air strikes on targets in Syria on Sunday and ramped up bombardment in Gaza. The Hamas government press office said 55 Gaza residents were killed overnight, raising their reported fatality toll to 4,600.
“Bombardments continue almost unabated as hostilities enter the 15th day in Gaza,” the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in its situation report on Sunday. A day after 20 trucks carrying food, water and fuel was permitted to deliver to the enclave, additional aid convoys were blocked on Sunday.
In Riyadh, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met with a U.S. Senate delegation on Saturday and urged all-out efforts to de-escalate the latest Mideast crisis and prevent the conflict from spreading. He told the Americans, led by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, that serious efforts had to be made to return to the two-state solution for lasting peace in the region.
Bin Salman, known in diplomatic circles as MBS, is known to have taken a call from Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi shortly after Hamas militants broke out of Gaza and unleashed savagery that killed an estimated 1,400 Israeli soldiers and civilians. Little has been reported on the phone call other than the two leaders’ agreement on ”the need to end war crimes against Palestine,” Iranian media reported.
While short-term prospects for resuming negotiations on the Saudi-Israel peace agreement are nil, foreign policy analysts argue that eventually reviving the diplomatic process remains the best way to counter the destructive influence of Hamas and other Iranian proxies.
Fareed Zakaria, host of CNN’s Sunday Fareed Zakaria GPS program, wrote in his weekly column for the Washington Post last week that the delicate balance between Iran Shiites and Arab Sunnis was upset by the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq after 9/11.
“When the United States toppled Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated government in Baghdad, Iran gained unprecedented influence in Iraq (which is majority Shiite.) Then began the U.S. retreat from the Middle East, which left a vacuum into which many players entered — Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Israel — each trying to promote its own interests.”
While Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine was perceived in much of the world as disruption of relative peace and security in the Western world, it was not the case in the Middle East where Israeli-Palestinian wars had been fought five times in less than two decades.
“We are seeing a global contest between the forces of order and disorder,” Zakaria writes. “Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas are trying to erode the international system. If Hamas succeeds, it will encourage others — Hezbollah, the Houthis — to flex their muscles as well.”
Netanyahu’s 16 years in Israeli leadership have dealt serious setbacks to the pursuit of a two-state solution for division of territory between Israelis and Palestinians. His hardline governments have encouraged Jewish settlers to build in West Bank territory designated for the Palestinian state and repression of Palestinians in Gaza. Those destructive actions undermining the dormant peace process have fomented anti-Israel sentiments and driven the Hamas government in Gaza to resort to increasingly terroristic retaliation.
The cross-border attacks by Israel in Syria and suspected Iran-armed militias’ provocative strikes on U.S. interests in region appear unlikely to lead to robust action by the U.S. military forces positioned around Israel. The chaotic U.S. withdrawal after 20 years fighting Islamic militants in Afghanistan is too fresh a memory of failure for the Biden administration to join another such fight — unless and until the new Israel-Hamas crisis spreads to powerful Arab countries willing and able to deliver a punishing strike against Americans and their security interests.