Emerging Flashpoints: Issues Shaping The Middle East Beyond Israel-Hamas War – OpEd


The Middle East, which has already been suffering from severe violence and instability for a long time, since the beginning of the year 2024, is facing a threat that the entire region could go to full-scale war. The Middle East, which is the hub of many conflicts, has always been a part of national and international media headlines, but since October 7, 2023, when Hamas suddenly attacked Israel, the entire Middle East have been in the spotlight.

The parties and their proxies have been in the national and international media headlines. Recent events, such as the killing of senior Hamas official Saleh Aruri in Beirut, the intensification of Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping and US-led attacks on the Houthis in Yemen, attacks of Islamic state in Iran, the cross-border strikes between Iran and Pakistan. The killing of an Iranian-backed militia leader in Iraq and the killing of IRGC commanders in Damascus by Israeli air strike, all add to the picture of a Middle East on the brink of all-out war. 

Tensions are at an unprecedented level across the Middle East. There are at least four flashpoints that could spark a full-scale war in the region. These flashpoints include conflict dynamics between Israel and the Republic of Lebanon, as well as the Red Sea region and neighboring countries such as Iraq and Syria, all of which have become hot spots for fallout from the Gaza conflict.  Escalation of one of these flashpoints can quickly escalate into an all-out war. 

Lebanon has been hit hardest by the escalating conflict. Al-Aruri’s killing, which took place in the heart of Beirut’s Hezbollah-controlled suburbs, brought the capital into the fray for the first time since hostilities began in October. This is raising alarm bells over possible new additions. Government officials accused Israel of opening a new phase of the conflict. Despite these concerns, Hezbollah has signaled its desire to avoid an all-out war with Israel. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah vowed to respond to the killing in a speech. Hezbollah fired several rockets at a small military base in northern Israel as an initial response to the killing of a senior Hamas commander in Lebanon. Hezbollah said in a statement that there were casualties in the attacks, but the Israeli army said no one was injured. The attack was initially seen by analysts as a symbolic response to the killings rather than a significant escalation. Israel retaliated by striking targets in southern Lebanon, killing seven Hezbollah fighters, including a senior commander. Fighting between Lebanon and Israel is mostly confined to the border areas. But the fight has yielded results. An estimated 175 people have been killed in Lebanon, including 20 civilians. According to Hezbollah, about 130 of their fighters have been killed. In Israel, 15 people were killed in the northern part of the country, including nine members of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). The fighting has also led to massive civilian displacement on both sides of the border. An estimated 80,000 people in Israel were forced to flee their homes in the north of the country. An estimated 75,000 people were displaced in southern Lebanon.Nonetheless, concerns remain that a larger conflict could yet embroil Lebanon. 

The Houthi rebels are another concern in region, who have controlled the capital of Yemen since 2014, have consolidated their political power in the country. A direct military confrontation with the US would strengthen the Houthis’ position in the country’s intricate political system and strengthen their position within the “Axis of Resistance,” which includes Iran and supported groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Yemen, the Arab world’s most impoverished nation, is locked in a stalemate as the Houthi rebels vie with groups aligned with the Saudi-led coalition to take control of the country. The escalating tensions with the United States allow the Houthis to avoid regional and global efforts to reach a permanent cease-fire and peace agreement in the country. Houthis have attacked ships in the southern red sea, but the damage they inflict on vessels has been relatively minor, according to data from Ambrey Analytics. The data shows that at least 16 ships have been attacked since mid-November, but all were able to continue their journeys independently. The attacks have caused some global shipping to avoid the waterway, but the limited damage to vessels reveals why some owners continue to send vessels through. According to a Reuters report, the Houthis have made it clear that they do not intend to expand their attacks on Red Sea shipping beyond Israel’s blockade and airstrikes on the United States and Britain. 

The United States on January 19 carried out its sixth strike on Houthi rebel sites in Yemen via fighter jets. These strikes have not yet prevented Houthi attacks on ships in the southern Red Sea or Gulf of Aden, which continue to occur almost daily.  Houthi-run satellite news channel Al-Masirah reported air raids in the western port city of Hodeida on January 19, specifically targeting the al-Jabaananeighborhood. However, the exact location of the US strikes remainsunconfirmed. The Biden administration has reclassified the Houthis as specially designated global terrorists. The US and the UK are exploring ways to enhance their efforts against Houthi militants in Yemen without sparking a wider war, as per a Bloomberg report. The focus is on disrupting Iranian resupplies and carrying out more assertive pre-emptive strikes.  In a strategic move, the US Navy is reorganizing its warship deployment in the Middle East to maintain control in the region. The focus is on the longer term, with growing concerns that Israel’s conflict with Hamas in Gaza could escalate into a wider regional confrontation.  

U.S. forces carried out a rare drone attack on Baghdad on January 4, killing the leader of the Iranian-backed militia that has been accused of targeting American forces in the country. A Pentagon spokesman said the attack was necessary and proportional, noting that the militia leader had been involved in attacks against American personnel. Most of the militia’s attacks in the country have targeted military targets, but earlier in December, the American embassy in Baghdad was hit by seven mortar rounds, further escalating the situation. The attack on Jan. 4 led to an angry response from the Iraqi government, which strongly denounced the attack. The government has been pushing for the removal of the 2,500 American troops currently deployed in the country. Recently, On January 15, 2024, Iran launched a series of air and drone strikes inside both Syria and Iraq, claiming to have hit the regional headquarters of Mossad and several bases of terrorist groups in retaliation for the Kerman attacks on January 3, 2024, for which the IS claimed responsibility. In Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Region, 11 of the 15 missiles were fired, while the remaining four missiles targeted Syria’s Idlib Governorate, where the Syrian opposition holds areas. The attack on Erbil killed four civilians and wounded 17 others. The Iraqi government and autonomous Kurdish government rejected Iran’s claims that the missiles targeted Mossad’s regional headquarters in Kurdistan and the terrorist groups in Syria. 

Since the start of the Israel Hamas war on October 7, the number of Israeli strikes against the Syrian regime and Iranian-linked targets in Syria has increased significantly. Attacks on Israel have also increased, especially from the Israeli-controlled Golan. Since October 7, at least two times since late November, Israeli air strikes have knocked out the Damascus airport.  On December 25, an Israeli strike in a heavily Sabotaged Shiite neighborhood of Damascus killed a high-ranking Iranian general. Two other Iranian generals were killed in earlier December after another Israeli strike in the same neighborhood. In response, Iran vowed to retaliate against Israel. More recently on January 20, The IRGC reported that five of its “military advisers” were killed in an Israeli attack on a residential house in Damascus, the capital of Syria. SANA, the Syrian state news agency, reported that the attack, which took place on Saturday, targeted the Mazzehneighborhood. The IRGC accused Israel of “aggression” and asserted that it reserves the right to respond. 

The Kerman bombing, which was claimed by the terrorist group ISIS, serves as a powerful reminder that other non-state terrorist groups also pose a threat to regional stability. In an environment already fraught with fragility, IS will continue looking for vulnerabilities and targets of opportunity to further inflame tensions. Attacks like the one in Kerman also increase the risk of miscalculation and inadvertent escalation. In the confusion that followed the Kerman bombing, some Iranian officials blamed the attack on Israel, fueling worries that the Gaza war is becoming a regional firefight. 

Muhammad Adam Khan

Muhammad Adam Khan, Student of Peace and Conflict Studies at National Defence University,Islamabad, Pakistan. Contact: [email protected]

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