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Source: The Guardian

Dec 22, 2023

The risk of a broader Middle East war is rising

Pressure is mounting on Biden to strike the Houthis, but that could mean war across Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran


By Christopher S Chivvis


Since 7 October the world has been horrified by the gruesome fighting between Israel and Gaza. But the war could still get much worse.


Iran’s proxy in Yemen, the Houthis, have been firing missiles and drones at commercial shipping and naval vessels and at southern Israel for weeks now. Global markets are spooked as the danger to shipping through the Bab al-Mandeb strait rises.


Pressure is mounting on the Biden administration to strike back against Iran and its Houthi partner to stop these attacks. Advocates of striking back hard think this will deter a larger war.


But if the US goes too far, it could end up entering a war it badly needs to avoid. The horror of the conflict between Israel and Gaza is already bad enough, but a larger conflagration would be a catastrophe for the US, Israel and people throughout the region.


A broader war could span Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Israel and Iran itself. It would come at an already precarious moment in global security when the US is struggling to supply more aid to Ukraine and manage rising tension in east Asia over Taiwan and the South China Sea. Regional and global effects would be unavoidable and could last decades, plunging the US back into large-scale Middle East conflicts it can ill-afford.


Since the 7 October Hamas attack, a regional war has narrowly been avoided. Iran, which has historically provided financial and political support to Hamas, has allowed its proxies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to strike US and Israeli targets. The US and Israel have struck back against Iran’s proxies and in at least one instance against Iranian forces themselves.


Thankfully, these low-level attacks have not escalated into a larger conflict among Iran, Israel and the US. The two US aircraft carriers now sitting off Israel’s coast appear to have helped deter Hezbollah from large-scale attacks on Israel from the north. The Biden administration has meanwhile restrained Israel itself from full-scale operations in Lebanon. Unfortunately, continued Houthi harassment of shipping through the Red Sea presents a risk of expanding war.


The Houthis are a radical insurgent group that controls a large part of Yemen, including the capital. They are extremely hostile to Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US. Since October, Houthi units have attacked shipping passing through the Red Sea with drones and cruise missiles. In November, they hijacked a commercial vessel and took the crew hostage. The US navy has shot down dozens of these missiles and drones but cannot expect to intercept everything the Houthis fire indefinitely.


Some analysts point to potential damage to the principle of freedom of navigation. More concerning, however, are the immediate economic costs to global shipping and oil prices, especially at a moment when inflation just seems to have been brought under control.


The precise magnitude of the economic damage is hard to predict, but real damage could occur and will probably increase over time if more and more vessels end up being rerouted. Before the crisis, 12% of global trade and 30% of container shipping passed via the Red Sea route. The Cape of Good Hope is the main alternative route, but it takes much longer and is more expensive.


The Houthi attacks have forced a very difficult choice on the Biden administration. The American right, which has long had Iran in its gunsights, has been calling for the US to strike back hard at Iran. These experts and former officials argue that a show of force would deter further provocations from Iran and its proxies and help stabilize the region. John Bolton, the former Trump national security adviser, recently charged that Biden was “failing to establish even minimal deterrence” and called for more far-reaching US strikes, including direct attacks on Iran.


This would be a big gamble. Rather than deterring Iran, more far-reaching strikes might well incite Tehran to lash out in an effort to protect its interests and prestige or to warn the US to go no further. If an Iranian counterattack resulted in significant US casualties, Washington would immediately come under pressure to retaliate. This is the path to a broader regional war that would be enormously damaging to US national interests.


The White House has wisely sought to avoid this risk to date, and President Biden might thus choose to continue to tolerate the Houthis’ harassment of commercial shipping, despite the economic costs. Washington’s most recent response to these attacks was the announcement on 18 December of an international naval coalition to help protect shipping through the Red Sea. Internationalizing the response to Houthi attacks is a good idea, but the coalition is unfortunately small and its capabilities and operational concept are unclear.


Eventually costs may get so high that military action against the Houthis becomes unavoidable. Tactical strikes against Houthi units on the ground in Yemen could limit the damage to the global economy by degrading Houthi capacity to fire in the first place.


It should be clear, however, that these low-level strikes would probably not deter Iran from supporting further attacks by its partners around the region. Yemeni citizens would also suffer just as the US is trying to distance itself from association with the plight of the citizens of Gaza. The humanitarian effects would be intensified if Washington were to redesignate the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization, a move some US senators have recently proposed.


As they struggle for a solution, American policymakers should not lose sight of the fact that this is a global problem, not just a US problem. Many other countries have a major stake in keeping trade flowing and should be feeling the pressure to ante up and help solve the problem.


Above all, China, which has been struggling to emerge from its post-Covid economic doldrums, has much to lose if commercial shipping through the straits is further endangered. The US and its allies around the world should be pressing Beijing to use its ties to Tehran to encourage Iranian restraint. It is in Beijing’s self-interest to take constructive action.


It is very possible that the US will end up striking the Houthis in Yemen if they continue their attacks on global shipping, but these strikes should remain limited to the tactical level. The history of military operations from Bosnia to Kosovo to Afghanistan and Libya reminds us that pressure to expand strikes always grows once they commence.


In a situation where emotions are running high thanks to the appalling violence in Gaza, with hawks in Washington eager to dole out hellfire and brimstone on Tehran, and the global economy at stake, it will be even harder to exercise restraint and avoid a broader regional war – the worst-case outcome for American interests.



  • Christopher S Chivvis is the director of the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace



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