The Middle East is on the edge of a lethal regional conflagration. The proximate cause is the barbaric attack by Hamas militants on southern Israel on 7 October, killing more than 1,400 people and taking into the Gaza Strip at least another 199 as hostages. In response, Benjamin Netanyahu’s newly created unity government has declared a “complete siege” of the impoverished and densely populated coastal enclave, cutting off supplies of food, fuel and water, and bombarding the territory from the air. (At the time of writing, Israeli troops were poised to mount a large-scale ground offensive but had not entered the Strip.)
But the military operation – and the suffering it will entail – is unlikely to be contained in Gaza. Instead, Israel confronts the prospect of a three-front war, fought against the Iranian-backed militants of Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and northern Israel, alongside an uprising by Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. The US is being drawn inexorably back into the Middle East, the European Union is militarily and geopolitically weak, and attention on the Ukraine war is being deflected, as Vladimir Putin would wish it.
There is a worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza, where, according to Gaza officials, at least 3,000 people have been killed in air raids, including hundreds in a strike on a hospital on 17 October. More than one million residents have been ordered to leave their homes. Violence in the West Bank has also escalated. Recent days have been the deadliest in the territory since at least 2005, according to the United Nations, with 55 Palestinians killed in clashes with Israeli troops and settlers.
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At the same time, Israel has announced the evacuation of citizens along its northern border with Lebanon as the Israeli military trades rocket and artillery fire with Hezbollah. On 16 October, the British embassy in Lebanon began evacuating the family members of its staff.
Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, who met the leaders of Hezbollah and Hamas on 13 and 14 October, respectively, has explicitly warned that the conflict could spread to “multiple fronts” unless Israel abandons its assault on Gaza. “Time is running out very fast,” he said in an interview with Iranian state television on 16 October, noting that the leaders of the militant groups, which Tehran funds, had told him that “their hands are on the trigger”.
In turn, US officials have warned “other states or non-state actors that might seek to widen this war” – meaning Iran and its proxies – not to get involved. The US has deployed two aircraft carrier strike groups and a contingent of fighter jets to the eastern Mediterranean. The secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has traversed the region, speaking to key players; he has even appealed to China to “use its influence” to stop the conflict spreading. In the early hours of 17 October, Mr Blinken emerged bleary-eyed from an hours-long meeting with Mr Netanyahu to announce that Joe Biden planned to visit Israel the following day.
This is a gamble for the 80-year-old president, who first travelled to the country half a century ago, as a senator, on the eve of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In a best-case scenario for Biden, Iran turns out to be bluffing, the conflict does not widen, and he prevails on the Netanyahu government to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza. (By contrast, Donald Trump has responded erratically to the crisis, criticising the Israeli leader and inexplicably praising Hezbollah as being “very smart”.) In reality, Mr Netanyahu has yet to articulate any strategic vision for the war, beyond a desire to exact vengeance and destroy Hamas.
There is a danger that Tehran will instead decide this is the moment to call Washington’s bluff. Despite the flexing of military assets in the region and the treasury secretary Janet Yellen’s bizarre assertion earlier this week that the US could “absolutely” afford another regional war, Iran may instead view America as a declining power, so mired in its own domestic political dysfunction that it does not have the appetite for an open-ended conflict. This would leave the US facing its own three-front war: supporting Israel at the same time as Ukraine – when Western ammunition stocks are reported to be running low – while preparing for a potential conflict with China over Taiwan. We live in an age of war, and this is a perilous moment for the world. Miscalculation or overreach could lead to a wider conflagration. Western leaders must be clear-eyed about the scale of the conflict that now looms, and how it will shape the future of the Middle East, and beyond.
This article appears in the 18 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War on Three Fronts