The Platform

Israel Defense Forces

Stability in the Middle East is contingent upon resolving the Israel-Gaza conflict and advancing toward a two-state solution that would culminate in an independent Palestine.

On February 6, a coordinated operation by the United Kingdom and the United States launched a new wave of airstrikes against Houthi forces in Yemen. This operation followed an incident where a drone strike at the al-Omar base in Syria resulted in the death of six Kurdish fighters. The Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition with U.S. support and Kurdish leadership, have pointed fingers at mercenaries backed by the Syrian government for this aggression. Notably, U.S. forces stationed in the area did not suffer any casualties.

Concurrently, Antony Blinken, the U.S. Secretary of State, was engaged in diplomatic talks in Cairo with Egyptian officials. This marked Blinken’s fifth diplomatic mission to the region since the conflict in Gaza escalated. His agenda focused on advancing discussions toward a ceasefire, laying the groundwork for post-conflict reconstruction, and facilitating the normalization of diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. However, the path to these objectives is fraught with complexities. The chasm between Hamas and Israel over the terms of a ceasefire remains wide, with Israel rebuffing U.S. appeals for a roadmap toward establishing a Palestinian state. Furthermore, Iran’s regional allies appear undeterred by American military interventions.

In response to an attack in Jordan that claimed the lives of three American soldiers, the U.S. has pledged further strikes against Iran-aligned militant groups across the Middle East. This vow materialized over the weekend as the U.S. military executed retaliatory strikes in Iraq and Syria, alongside separate actions against the Houthis in Yemen, as a part of its broader strategy to counter threats in the Red Sea region and avenge the American casualties.

Amidst these military operations, Blinken is expected to extend his diplomatic tour to include visits to Israel and Qatar. His mission is increasingly complicated by the intensified offensive activities of Iran-supported militias and the robust military responses by the United States in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and the Red Sea region. The escalation of violence coincides with Blinken’s efforts to address growing concerns in Egypt regarding Israel’s intentions to expand its military actions in Gaza to the Egyptian border, where displaced Palestinians are concentrated.

Yoav Gallant, Israel’s Defense Minister, has announced plans to extend Israel’s military campaign to Rafah, a town on the Egyptian border, currently a refuge for a significant portion of Gaza’s population. These developments have exacerbated living conditions for the displaced. On February 6, United Nations humanitarian officials reported that Israeli evacuation orders now encompass two-thirds of Gaza’s territory, pushing thousands more towards the already overcrowded border regions daily. Egypt has expressed alarm over the potential for Israeli military actions along the border to breach the peace treaty established between the two nations over forty years ago. The prospect of combat extending to Rafah raises the specter of Palestinian civilians, driven by fear, seeking sanctuary across the border—a situation Egypt is adamant to avoid.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken
Secretary of State Antony Blinken. (Chuck Kennedy)

On February 6, during a pivotal meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Antony Blinken underscored the imperative that Palestinians must not be forcibly expelled from Gaza. This stance forms a critical backdrop to the ongoing diplomatic endeavors aimed at mitigating the conflict in the region.

Egypt and Qatar are spearheading mediation efforts to broker a deal between Israel and Hamas. The proposed agreement envisages the release of additional hostages in exchange for a temporary halt to Israeli military activities. This initiative, shaped by the intelligence communities of the U.S., Egypt, Qatar, and Israel, was presented to Hamas towards the end of the previous month. Hamas’s formal response to the proposal is still pending.

Blinken’s schedule includes strategic stops in Cairo and Doha to gather insights on Hamas’s position regarding the proposed ceasefire. After his engagements in Doha on February 6, Blinken is slated to update Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel on February 7, relaying the perspectives of Arab leaders on the matter.

On February 5, Blinken met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh. Their discussions occurred amidst ongoing operations by Iranian-backed proxies and retaliatory strikes by U.S. forces, including recent actions against Houthi drone boats laden with explosives.

Netanyahu has committed to continuing the conflict until Hamas’s military and governance capabilities are dismantled, and all hostages held by the group are secured. Hamas’s initial attack resulted in approximately 1,200 civilian deaths and led to the abduction of around 250 individuals. A temporary ceasefire in November facilitated the exchange of over 100 hostages, primarily women and children, for 240 Palestinians detained by Israel. Netanyahu claims significant progress against Hamas, stating the defeat of 18 out of their 24 battalions, though detailed evidence has not been provided.

In a separate development on February 4, U.S. forces executed strikes against Houthi militants in Yemen for the third consecutive day, as part of a broader response to the killing of three U.S. soldiers in Jordan on January 28. Iran has criticized the series of U.S. strikes in Yemen and Syria, accusing both nations of exacerbating regional instability.

The collaborative military efforts of the U.S. and Britain, supported by allies including Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, and New Zealand, targeted 36 Houthi positions in Yemen on February 3. These strikes aimed at neutralizing missile systems, air defenses, and weapons storage facilities, responding to the Houthis’ attacks on maritime targets in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. These attacks by the Houthis have been portrayed as protests against Israeli military actions in Gaza and the U.S.’s support thereof. Since January 12, U.S. forces have engaged in numerous operations against Houthi forces, focusing on the destruction of missile capabilities prepared for launch.

On February 2, preceding these concerted strikes, the U.S. military successfully intercepted seven drones originating from Houthi-held territories in Yemen, directed towards the Red Sea. Additional defensive actions included the neutralization of a drone over the Gulf of Aden and the elimination of four drones poised for launch, coupled with the destruction of six anti-ship cruise missiles. These measures underscore the U.S.’s determination to respond robustly following the attack on a Jordanian base, emphasizing that their retaliatory actions would extend beyond a singular target, night, or group. Although the Houthis have not been identified as the sole perpetrators, they have emerged as a principal adversary to the U.S. in the wake of Hamas’s offensive against Israel on October 7.

The Biden administration has clarified that these operations are part of a series, not concluding with the recent strikes. The Jordan base attack has been attributed to the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, a collective of Iranian-backed militias. Iran has sought to dissociate itself from these actions, asserting that these militias operate autonomously.

The Pentagon detailed that the targeted strikes were directed at Houthi-related facilities housing deeply embedded weapon storage, missile systems and launchers, air defenses, radars, and helicopters. The British military disclosed its specific targeting of a ground control station west of Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, which was instrumental in managing drones deployed against naval vessels in the Red Sea.

These actions convey a broader message to Iran, highlighting Washington’s stance that Tehran bears responsibility for equipping, financing, and training a spectrum of militias across the Middle East—including Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen—responsible for attacks against U.S. and international interests.

This development marks a continuation of the escalating conflict in the Middle East since the outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Hamas on October 7. The Biden administration has accused Iran-backed militias of launching attacks on U.S. forces stationed in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan, and the Iran-affiliated Houthis have consistently targeted commercial and military ships in the Red Sea.

Israeli soldiers in Gaza
Israeli soldiers in Gaza. (Israel Defense Forces)

In the early days of February, the United States carried out a series of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, targeting over eighty-five sites associated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its allied militias, resulting in 40 casualties. These operations are part of a broader strategic pattern, with additional U.S. military action anticipated in the near future.

These strikes have sharpened tensions in a region already destabilized by the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. The Iranian Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson, Nasser Kanaani, criticized the strikes on February 4, labeling them a “strategic mistake” and warning of their potential to exacerbate “tension and instability.”

Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi, on February 2, reaffirmed Iran’s stance of non-aggression, while simultaneously asserting a robust response to any acts of aggression. Hamas criticized the U.S. position, accusing it of exacerbating the conflict. President Biden has held groups supported by Iran responsible for the attacks and has pledged retaliation, thereby straining the already tense relations between the U.S. and Iran.

The precise targeting of the airstrikes in Iraq and Syria seems to be a tactical move to prevent further regional escalations, focusing on Iran’s proxies while avoiding significant damage to Iranian assets. U.S. forces in the region have faced over 160 attacks since October 7, through rockets and drones, leading to several U.S. retaliatory strikes even before the latest operations. Iranian advisors are known to support armed groups in both Iraq, where the U.S. maintains around 2,500 troops, and Syria, with approximately 900 U.S. troops present.

The international community is now closely monitoring Iran’s potential response or its choice to de-escalate tensions. President Biden’s actions come at a time when he faces political pressure in an election campaign against former President Donald Trump, who has critiqued Biden for perceived weakness.

Experts suggest that while Iran extends its military influence via numerous armed groups throughout the Middle East, it does not exert absolute control over their actions. These groups, though variably aligned with Iran, uniformly share the objectives of ending U.S. military presence in the region and diminishing Israel’s influence. The rhetoric from Iran and its allied factions often escalates to calls for the dissolution of the Israeli state.

The majority of Iran’s allied groups adhere to the Shiite sect of Islam, with Hamas as a notable Sunni exception. Iran’s support to these groups includes the provision of weapons, training, financial aid, and more, as evidenced by weapon seizures, forensic analyses, tracking of financial assets, and intelligence reports. Some of the training is reportedly delegated to Hezbollah in Lebanon, according to U.S. and global authorities.

Recently, there has been a notable shift in how Iran supports affiliated militias across the Middle East. Officials from the region and the United States have observed that Iran has facilitated these groups in acquiring components to develop and modify weapons independently. These militias, including groups like Hamas, have diversified their revenue streams through both legitimate businesses, such as construction, and illicit operations including kidnapping and drug trafficking.

Despite its backing, Iran’s control over the timing and location of militia attacks on Western and Israeli interests is not absolute. Experts believe Iran wields significant influence over these groups and can, in some instances, orchestrate a cessation of their military actions. This was exemplified when Kata’ib Hezbollah, an IRGC-affiliated militia, ceased operations in response to directives from both Iran and the Iraqi government after the January 28 attack on a U.S. base in Jordan.

Each militia, influenced by its national context, pursues its objectives. The Houthi movement in Yemen, for instance, has demonstrated its strength domestically by engaging with major global powers, disrupting maritime traffic to the Suez Canal, and provoking retaliatory measures from the United States and its allies. This stance has allowed the Houthis to position themselves as defenders of Palestinian interests, aligning with Iran’s broader regional objectives of challenging Israel and its principal ally, the United States.

Hezbollah, with deep-rooted connections to Iran and a role within the Lebanese government, operates with strategic caution. It balances its aggressive postures against Israel with the potential repercussions for Lebanese civilians. The U.S. Department of State reported in 2020 that Iran’s financial support to Hezbollah was estimated at $700 million annually, which includes supplying a variety of weaponry.

However, Iran’s financial support for its proxies has reportedly been constrained due to economic sanctions imposed by the United States and the international community, leading to a reduction in direct cash subsidies to these groups.

While the Houthis and other Iran-backed groups maintain some operational independence, Iran tends to present the “Axis of Resistance” as a unified front under its leadership, especially when communicating within the region. In contrast, to Western audiences, Iran often downplays this leadership role, emphasizing ideological congruence rather than direct command and control.

The recent U.S. airstrikes against Iranian-backed militias in Syria and Iraq were strategic responses intended to curb assaults on American forces without triggering a direct confrontation with Iran. Nevertheless, these military responses are not a substitute for a ceasefire in Gaza; without such a ceasefire, the cycle of violence in the Middle East is likely to persist.

The military spokesperson for Mohammed Shia’ Al Sudani, the Iraqi Prime Minister, has raised concerns about the potentially severe consequences of the recent U.S. strikes for American interests. The warning comes at a critical juncture when tensions are already high.

Iran has responded to the strikes by suggesting that such actions may accelerate the departure of U.S. forces from the region, maintaining that no members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) were in the areas targeted by the U.S. military. Nasser Kanaani, the spokesperson for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, criticized the strikes as reckless and a strategic blunder that could escalate tensions and lead to further instability in the Middle East. Kanaani also implied that these incidents could result in deeper American military involvement in the region rather than a reduction.

The decision by the U.S. to carry out strikes in Iraq communicated in advance to the Iraqi government, came with substantial risks. There had been growing political pressure within the Iraqi parliament for some time, culminating in negotiations that led to an agreement for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. This recent development is likely to amplify political pressure on the U.S., particularly as the casualty numbers from the strikes may increase from the initial count of sixteen fatalities in Iraq. The relatively low death toll given the scale of the attacks might reflect prior warnings received by the militias of an impending strike.

While there has been no direct dialogue between the U.S. and Iran, intermediary messages have indicated that a U.S. strike on Iranian territory would be perceived differently than strikes in Iraq and Syria. Inside Iraq, Iranian-backed groups have formed a coalition known as the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, comprising at least six different militias.

On another front, the international community continues to observe the situation in Gaza with great concern. Despite the ongoing conflict, international mediators are striving to secure a ceasefire, building on negotiations that took place in Paris. However, Hamas official Osama Hamdan, based in Lebanon, noted on February 3 that the proposed truce lacks critical details.

The language used to describe the situation in Gaza requires careful consideration. The term “genocide” has specific legal implications and should only be used when the situation has been defined as such by appropriate international bodies or in accordance with international law. It is essential to accurately report on conflicts, ensuring that descriptions are based on verified information and adhere to the principles of responsible journalism.

Efforts to establish peace are ongoing, and the specifics of these complex negotiations are often nuanced and sensitive. The international community’s response to these developments remains of paramount importance as it seeks to navigate the challenges of conflict resolution in the Middle East.

The conflict in the Middle East has dramatically intensified regional tensions, catalyzing a series of attacks by groups in solidarity with Gaza, which in turn has provoked counterstrikes by the United States, a staunch ally of Israel. The Israeli Defense Forces have reported targeting over 3,400 positions associated with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon since the conflict’s inception, along with over 50 sites connected to allies of Hamas in Syria, as of February 3.

Iraq expressed an inclination towards reducing tensions in the region on February 3, following the U.S.’s retaliatory actions. The United States maintains its stance against the escalation of conflict in the Middle East, yet the prospect of a comprehensive settlement between Israel and its adversaries remains remote amidst the ongoing hostilities in Gaza. The conflict has resulted in increasing international isolation for Israel and, by extension, the United States, its principal backer.

The humanitarian impact of the four-month-long war in Gaza has been profound, with Palestinian casualties reported to be 27,585, predominantly among women and children. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has described Rafah as “a pressure cooker of despair.” The destruction in Gaza is extensive, with substantial regions of the territory now in ruins, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis. Reports from February 6 indicate that Israel’s evacuation orders now encompass two-thirds of the Gaza Strip, affecting an area where 1.78 million Palestinians resided, accounting for 77% of Gaza’s population.

The Palestinian cause continues to garner significant support from Muslim communities worldwide and from countries in the Global South. This solidarity is also gaining traction in Western nations. For Iran, supporting Palestine is deeply embedded in the state ideology, which has been a core principle since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The rhetoric from Iran directed at both Israel and the U.S. has been a consistent element of the Islamic Republic’s policy since its establishment.

The recent loss of Brigadier General Razi Mousavi in Syria, alongside the destructive bombings at a memorial for General Qassem Soleimani, which resulted in significant casualties, has seemingly compelled Iran to pursue a path of retaliation. These actions are not merely reactions to specific events but are emblematic of Iran’s demonstration of military might. They are intended to signal Iran’s determination to its foes, including Israel, the United States, and their allies, as well as to its regional proxies.

The tension-laden atmosphere of the Middle East, coupled with the recent escalations in conflict, inherently raises the risk of miscalculations, inadvertent incidents, and unintended consequences—a recurring motif in the annals of warfare. Iran, if further incited, will likely engage in defensive maneuvers. The anticipated form of retaliation would likely involve Iran’s regional proxies, with potential strikes targeting the considerable presence of U.S. military personnel in the area—estimated at around 40,000 troops throughout the Middle East, primarily stationed in allied nations.

Iran is unlikely to engage in direct warfare with the United States, preferring indirect action through its regional allies. Similarly, the U.S. is expected to continue its tactical strikes against Iranian proxies rather than initiating a full-scale war with Iran. However, this tit-for-tat strategy may not lead to regional stability.

To de-escalate tensions, the Biden administration might consider advocating for a ceasefire, as per discussions circulating in the media. The United States is perceived as one of the few powers capable of influencing Israeli military decisions. Further U.S. strikes against Iranian-backed militias risk exacerbating tensions, potentially leading to inadvertent clashes and an escalation of the conflict. Diplomatic engagement, rather than military action, is deemed crucial for restoring stability to the region.

The pattern of military strikes—including recent actions in Jordan that resulted in American casualties, as well as subsequent U.S. operations in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen—suggests an escalation of conflict that could extend beyond the immediate repercussions of the Israel-Gaza war. While regional and international efforts are in place to prevent a broader war, the intricate web of alliances and hostilities in the Middle East may inevitably lead to further confrontations.

Stability in the region is contingent upon resolving the Israel-Gaza conflict and advancing toward a two-state solution that would culminate in an independent Palestine. However, given the current stance of both Israel and the United States, the realization of a two-state solution appears remote. Consequently, the protracted Palestinian-Israeli conflict is likely to persist, contributing to the broader pattern of enduring conflict, turmoil, and instability in the Middle East—a situation that has profound implications for global peace.

Sohail Mahmood is an independent political analyst focused on global politics, U.S. foreign policy, governance, and the politics of South and West Asia.