A series of audacious attacks linked to long-simmering conflicts have raised the specter of a broader regional conflagration, with the US and its allies seeking to limit the fallout even as calls mount for a muscular response.
Houthi Attacks Target Shipping Lanes
Last week, Yemen’s Houthi rebels launched attacks targeting commercial ships transiting the southern Red Sea and Bab El-Mandeb Strait, a critical chokepoint for global trade. Multiple merchant vessels suffered damage from unmanned explosive drones launched apparently from Houthi-held areas along Yemen’s western coastline.
While no fatalities have been reported, the strikes foreground the vulnerability of one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes which sees $1 billion in trade pass daily. Over 10% of global trade traverses Bab El-Mandeb each year, including 4.8 million barrels per day of oil.
Experts warn a sustained Houthi maritime campaign could have catastrophic economic impacts, inflaming energy prices and supply chain disruptions. US officials claim to have “direct evidence” that Iran has supplied advanced weapons and assisted Houthi naval operations, seeking to bog down rivals Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen while flexing its regional muscle.
The attacks follow last November’s daring Houthi incursion into Emirati territorial waters, featuring unmanned ships laden with explosives damaging an Emirati logistics vessel and killing several sailors. While the Houthis have threatened merchant shipping in the past, never have they demonstrated such reach or sophistication.
Israel Confronts Hezbollah as Gaza Conflict Simmers
Meanwhile, Israel remains mired in operations against Palestinian militant groups in Gaza while watching its northern borders with Lebanon warily. Last Sunday Israeli jets bombed Damascus, targeting weapons shipments intended for Hezbollah. The rare strike triggered Syrian anti-aircraft fire, with several missiles landing in Israeli territory and commanders warning of retaliation.
Hezbollah figures have alluded to reprisal attacks, even as the powerful Shiite militia seeks to avoid a repeat of its bloody 2006 war with Israel. Tensions remain high as Hezbollah attempts to replenish its advanced missile stockpiles depleted during last year’s fierce 11-day Gaza conflict. Israel is suspected in a spate of killings targeting Iranian nuclear scientists and military officers in Iran, seen as payback for years of Hezbollah and Iranian proxy attacks on Israeli interests abroad.
With Iran reeling from months of widespread protests, Israel may see opportunity in undermining Tehran’s allies. Meanwhile militant groups in Gaza continue sporadic rocket attacks despite an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire, with unrest inflamed by Jewish settler violence in the West Bank.
US Forces Target Iranian Networks Across Region
Keen to disrupt Iranian arms flows, US special operations forces have undertaken several sensitive missions into Iraq, Syria and Yemen targeting Quds Force-linked smugglers active with Shia proxy groups.
A January 8th raid in eastern Syria saw US Navy SEAL commandos capture alleged Iranian operatives just over the border from Iraq. Two SEALs were killed in fierce clashes with militia elements before fighter jets and drones extinguished the enemy position. Among stacks of captured missile components ready for transit to Iraq were Chinese-made anti-ship missiles mirroring those used in Houthi attacks.
The opaque operation and mounting US-Iranian tensions have alarmed Baghdad. Iraq remains heavily dependent on Iranian gas imports for its struggling power grid, even as its airspace hosts US surveillance aircraft monitoring Iranian activity. With Washington and partners seizing over 70 shipments in recent months, experts assess the interdictions are unlikely to significantly impact Iranian capabilities. The operations do however underscore US commitment to foil Iran’s regional agenda.
Converging Flashpoints Raise Stakes for Avoiding Miscalculation
While wholly unrelated in origin, the multiplying crises spotlight a Middle East sitting on a powder keg. The Houthi attacks coupled with the Islamist insurgency in Gaza, tensions between Israel and Hezbollah, and the cat and mouse game over Iranian arms supplies risk blurring into a regional conflagration with terrible consequences.
In past flareups commanders have generally avoided escalatory responses, cognizant of the fragility. But with proxies enjoying greater autonomy and domestic unrest challenging Iranian and Israeli leaders, the margin for error may be slimmer.
Most worrying is absence of communication channels to manage tensions, unlike during the Cold War. The partners would benefit from exploring discreet ways to convey red lines and intentions, perhaps leveraging third parties like Oman and Iraq. With trajectories pointing alarmingly towards conflict, the urgency for creative diplomacy is acute.
Table: Key Regional Flashpoints and Worrying Trajectories
|Houthis, Saudi coalition
|Attacks on shipping
|Further strikes severely disrupting trade, oil prices
|Israel, Hezbollah and allies
|Israel striking Hezbollah supply lines
|Miscalculation triggering 2006-style war
|Israel & Egypt, Hamas & militants
|Intermittent rocket attacks despite ceasefire
|Renewed open conflict in Gaza
|US, Iran and proxies
|US special ops hitting Iranian networks
|Likelihood of direct clashes with escalation potential
Bracing for Protracted Instability
Grim scenarios like an Israeli-Hezbollah war, sustained Houthi disruption of the Bab El-Mandeb Strait, and clashes pitting US troops against Iran’s militia partners may yet be averted. But few see the stars aligning for a positive peace anytime soon.
Absent settlement of these simmering conflicts, all flow from the region’s overarching cold war pitting Iran and assorted Shiite forces against Israel and the Sunni Arab establishment. Their proxy battles have laid waste to Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon over recent years, with thaws proving ephemeral.
Iran is again wracked by internal dissent and sanctions after the collapse of its nuclear deal. Meanwhile Israel and Sunni powers have drawn closer, dreaming of a Middle East less beholden to Iranian revolutionary fervor. Yet compression of these adversaries through drone and missile attacks, foreign operations and online disinformation carries inherent risks. Neither side has been chastened into compromise.
All admit a Pandora’s box of sectarian hatreds, ideological extremism and vested interests has been opened with no easy path to reconciliation. US and European policymakers have largely abandoned hope of untangling the proxy battles or soothing their root causes. Many regional experts spy no realistic exit from chronic insecurity in the absence of some broader understanding between Iran and its adversaries.
Yet with positional battles hardening on multiple fronts, stakeholders resign themselves for turbulent times ahead. The danger persists that absent channels for de-escalation, miscalculation could have dramatic consequences for the wider world. Vigilance and intense preventative diplomacy is imperative lest the multiplying regional crises spiral into catastrophe.
What Comes Next?
With flashpoints from Yemen to Lebanon seemingly intensifying simultaneously, many ponder whether the region has reached an inflection point portending something more perilous. US engagement remains largely focused on counter-terrorism and maritime security, deliberately steering clear of sticky political mediation. Absent a bold diplomatic initiative aimed at regional de-escalation, hostilities may simply fester.
Unfortunately national leaders in their struggles for political survival often agitate tensions abroad to rally domestic support or silence dissent. With unrest challenging Iran’s regime and Netanyahu’s future uncertain, neither can readily compromise without appearing weak. Yet with proxies gaining strength and room for misstep narrow, chances for miscalculation have never been higher.
Unless pragmatic regional dialogue can soon take root, the long-suffering Middle East seems fated for further periods of strife and turmoil. The world must hope cooler heads can prevail lest the multiplying crises veer toward disaster. Yet with so many bitter disputes left to fester and partisan media fanning antagonism, optimism remains in short supply.
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