West Asia escalation further deepens the crisis

Sub Title : Geopolitical ramifications of the battle raging in West Asia

Issues Details : Vol 18 Issue 1 Mar – Apr 2024

Author : Ravi Srivastava

Page No. : 49

Category : Geostrategy

: March 22, 2024

The audacious Hamas attack on Israel last October sent shockwaves globally, revealing intricate details of planning and execution. This article delves into the ramifications of this event on regional geopolitics, highlighting the complexities and challenges faced by key stakeholders.

The audacious Hamas attack on Israel last October was not only unexpected but extremely shocking in its details of execution. The suaveness of the counter-intelligence that Hamas displayed in keeping such a mega preparation under wraps drew instant attention of the global intelligence community. The incident that unfolded in Southern Israel was a crude reminder of shallow peace and a deep divide between the state of Israel and Hamas, its avowed enemy in Palestine.

The barbarism displayed by Hamas reflected the chilling savageness of terrorists seemingly hardened to ‘demonstrate’ how much more they can dip down in cruelty. This left a deep scar on the conscience of the Israeli state to see its women abducted and robbed of their honour. Responding to a media question on why the West is not ‘reacting’ to the hordes of visuals of the humanitarian catastrophe being witnessed in Gaza due to Israeli operation, German Foreign Minister Ms. Annalena Baerbock gave a very sinking reply, that she has also woken up to see videos posted on social media of Israeli women being paraded in the most dishonourable way on the streets of Gaza. The feeling of isolation at the world stage has been an instigator of the tough response from Israel that followed.

Regional Matrix

Since the beginning of Israeli action in Gaza, the regional  geopolitical landscape has taken a sharp turn. The anticipated military actions by Israel were not only cautioned against citing dense neighbourhood by countries like Iran but surprisingly China chose to make a cautionary comment as well, reminding need for a ‘two-state’ solution. Beijing’s response came as a surprise, it demonstrated Chinese willingness to be seen as a player with a rising profile in regional politics. Since the time China brokered a breakthrough between Iran and Saudi Arabia in April 2023, the intricacies in the Middle East have been getting very complicated.

Not that Israeli military actions were unexpected what created a greater challenge was the threat of escalation. This vulnerability of violence management was pleasing all those who counted it as insurance for Hamas getting away mildly. It would be very interesting to seek Beijing’s reaction to a similar ‘two-state’ solution for Taiwan or recount to Iran, how it chose to react when its Quds Force commander General Qassem Soleimani was assassinated. Predictably both will argue that the situation and the incidents are not in a similar context. That’s the exact point, every nation faces certain peculiar security and geopolitical challenges different from the other and has to make a choice to guard its national interest howsoever, unconvincing it may appear to its critics.

It is widely believed that Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Houthis in Yemen have many sympathisers in the Iranian establishment. It has also been noted that Iran was in the lead to oppose any counteractions from Israel, while it expressed compliments to Hamas for the ‘successful operation’. Such development only adds credence to wild speculations and more pointed scrutiny by the global community. The Wall Street Journal on 8th October 2023 reported, that Iran’s notorious Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps gave the final go-ahead to Hamas just a week before the incident. As a French philosopher, Voltaire once said “Nothing can exist without a cause”. The concern is, if all was reasonably going well, what forced authorities in Iran to allow such a thing to happen in the first place?

An analysis of developments, leading to the incident reflects a sustained strategy to limit US intervention in the region. Which was getting further aided by the US’s own declining interest in the Middle East, as it reoriented its Indo-Pacific strategy. After the Iran-Saudi rapprochement and continued ignorance of Iranian concerns by the United States, Tehran felt the better way forward is to push for limiting the US influence in the region. Nothing better than hamstringing the US closest ally Israel, preventing it from getting wider recognition and demonstratively rubbing insults. Such an agenda was very pleasing to everyone in Beijing as well and that explains why China acted so swiftly in sending its warships around Israeli coasts. The US must retrospect that its newest philosophy of hands-off approach may ultimately extract greater costs and even greater diplomatic capital without assurances of desired success either.

Helplessness Creeping

As the Israeli operations gathered momentum the squeeze started to trouble the original protagonists. Soon Hezbollah issued complete support to Hamas warning Israel to open a second front from the North. No later Houthis in their Yemeni-controlled territory threatened global shipping in the Red Sea. The new conflict matrix now had active and rather very well-equipped adversaries, not only threatening Israel but global trade and commerce effectively challenging Western-led and Western-defined global order. This is something that China has been doing in the South & East China Seas as it now attempts to replicate and suck in Western powers by popping up regional proxies. China has very well calculated that the only way to ease pressure in its neighbourhood is to keep the US greatly engaged elsewhere!

Houthis further raised the stakes as they started targeting commercial ships in the Red Sea, the world’s busiest shipping route between the Mediterranean and the Arabian Seas. Visuals splashed raised deep concerns among commercial shipping companies who were till then operating freely transhipping cargo from Asia to Europe. The areas around the Yemenis coast form part of a key global shipping route through the Arabian Sea, Gulf of Aden, Red Sea, Suez Canal, and then to the Mediterranean Sea. As per The Global Trade Research Initiative which offers perspective to Governments and Industry on issues related to trade, technology, and investment, the shipping costs have escalated to 233% since the Houthis started targeting commercial ships. Estimates suggest that annually a total of 20,000 commercial ships transit this route, accounting for about 15% of global trade worth USD 1 trillion.

Houthis in Yemen emerged as a serious power group controlling Northern territory, parts of Western areas close to Saudi Arabia, and the Yemeni capital Sanna. They are known to possess very sophisticated weapons including combat drones and a variety of missiles possibly provided by Iran. As per the news agency AP, since 19 November 2023, Houthis have targeted 57 commercial liners around the 20-mile choke point near Bab al-Mandab Strait in the Red Sea. As a response, the US and UK launched multiple joint air raids in February 2024, targeting their radar station, air defence, and ground infrastructure. But as it looks the battle-hardened Houthis have enough survivability options and gunpowder to seriously disrupt global sea trade.

The new dimension of conflicts now involves the active participation of proxies. In the present situation, organisations like Hamas, Hezbollah, and Houthis all can directly challenge the states. They are supported and to an extent remotely controlled by their sponsors. The global order post World War II has broadly been successful in ensuring security, sovereignty, and norms are adhered to. But at the same time, it could never factor in how deliberate instigations by non-state actors should be addressed, as none existed at that time. The challenges of proxies being faced by the world today are all deliberately created to circumvent punitive measures that may be adopted by the international community. This calls for serious introspection towards urgently formulating an operating procedure for all such scenarios lest countries get spiralled into an uncontrolled destruction mode on purposeful provocation by these proxies.

Near-Term Impacts

Unfortunately, the Gaza war seems to have a destabilising impact on the region. Painstaking gains that were achieved with improvement in relations between Israel and Arab countries now look very shaky. Since 2020, as part of the Abraham Accord Israel has considerably improved its bilateral relations with Arab countries including Bahrain, Sudan, Morrocco, Egypt, Jordan and UAE. The visit of then-Israeli PM Naftali Bennett to UAE in December 2021 was historic in many ways apart from being the first official visit, it opened the gates for stronger economic ties indicating the increasing acceptability of Israel in the region. The most basic challenge that Israel faces and categorically acknowledged in the undertone of the Abraham Accord was its lack of recognition in the Arab World.

The Gaza war will likely have four distinct near-term impacts in the region. Firstly, Israel’s hard-earned improvement in bilateral relations has already come under strain and in the worst scenario may get washed off altogether, depending on the continuity and intensity of the ongoing war; Secondly, the US position is becoming increasingly unconvincing by the day in the Arab world, a very critical parameter in global energy security and regional geopolitics. The US looks committed to supporting Israel, its closest ally in the conflict, even resorting to continued Veto in the Security Council to wade through difficult proposals. On the other hand, its Arab partners’ concern about the humanitarian crisis is heavily weighing it down, a pointer to President Biden’s recent comment about airdropping aid in Gaza; Thirdly, the growing influence of China, its strategically inconceivable that the current crisis didn’t have Beijing’s blessings. Iran has the proven ability to confront the US-led arrangements in the Middle East, it also carries deep grudges against Israel for suspicious sabotages to its nuclear programme but going so far as to authorise a massacre is just too much without a ‘strong backing’; and fourthly, the worst of it all, emboldening of non-state actors. Their belief in the ability to destabilise strategic balance and hold governments to ransom is likely getting stronger.

Today many countries feel forced to react against an invisible enemy who is constantly insinuating them. The era of World Wars is behind us when the military takeover was acceptable like a war trophy. But this new phenomenon is equally threatening honour and the sovereignty of nations. It is time that the US gets on to the drawing board with its global partners, at least with those it connects well. It would need some serious efforts to preserve the global order and square off these grave challenges. The global community would need to identify flaws in the system which has crept in over a while, due to the sluggish approach of taking freedom for granted. Israel would want to contemplate altering the course and moderate ground operations against the hyperbolic comments of its leaders. Incidents like firing on civilians gathered for food aid will not go down well by any measure, as much justification or context Israel may want to offer.

The deadly Gaza operations may start giving declining results to Israel, it would need to look at toning down and diplomatically engaging with stakeholders. The current operations in densely populated neighbourhood entails urban warfare tactics which are very tardy and carry the risk of equal casualties without the opportunity to deploy heavy weaponry or complete domination. Also, under no circumstances it can hold on to gains of ground operations by keeping it occupied by its forces. If Israel recalibrates its approach, it would offer the US some elbow room in bringing the larger opinion to a balanced view and drawing better post-war arrangements. It would ultimately benefit Israel in the long run. In case of ‘violation of assurances’, it would still work in favour of Israel. The end state of armed conflicts mostly leads to negotiated settlements if enduring peace has to be there, the window for same is nearing fast for Israel now.