From Gaza to the Houthis: Reading West Asia’s escalation ladder

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AUTHOR : KABIR TANEJA

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jan 15, 2024

In 2015, Yemen, the poorest country in the Gulf, became a central point of conflict as competing factions backed by Saudi Arabia on one side and Iran on the other aimed at each other. During this period, New Delhi launched Operation Rahat to evacuate Indian citizens stuck in Yemen. To achieve access to the embattled airport of the capital Sana’a, Indian diplomacy worked with both Riyadh and Tehran to desist offensives for Indian aircraft to land and leave safely. The fact that both the Saudi air campaign and Houthi militia in Yemen allowed for this evacuation to take place showcased the depth Indian diplomacy has enjoyed with various parties in the Middle East (West Asia).

Much has changed since then. The current crisis in the region, beginning from the 7 October terror strike by Hamas against Israel and its fallout to its (still controlled) spillover in other regions such as Lebanon, Syria, and now more notably the Red Sea has expectedly raised alarms the world over. Not long after 7 October, the Houthis, officially known as Ansar Allah, a prevailing Shia-Zaydi militia with links to Iran from Yemen, announced that it would enter the Gaza conflict to aid the Palestinians, a predominantly Sunni-Islam population. Since then, the group has regularly attacked commercial ships traversing through the Red Sea towards the Suez Canal while also directly targeting Western military assets, specifically the United States (US) troops in Iraq. In essence, the militant group has joined a war that is geographically more than 2,200 km away from them. The war in Palestine ultimately is a meal served on a golden plate for their own strategic and ideological aims, having been de-listed as a terrorist group by the US only in 2021.

One of the main concerns of the war between Israel and Hamas, which has seen immense destruction and death over the past three months, was the incalculable impact it could have across a region where many Arab states today want to concentrate on economic growth and not get bogged down by historical fractures once again. However, ignoring these fault lines and concentrating on economic transitions was always going to be a band-aid on a gashing wound, as much of the events since October have shown. While regional heavyweights like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) would also quietly like Hamas to be dislodged, the lack of any alternative political track is expected to potentially replace Hamas with a similar, or worse, entity.

Today, the situation in the Middle East lacks clarity on what a way forward looks like. This lack of a blueprint is not just an expectation from the US, but one from the Arab world as well, which has always wanted deep equity and now, strategic autonomy, over the region’s geopolitical realities. The war in Gaza against Hamas has continued even as the number of strikes launched by Israel now seems to be receding. However, whether from Israel or the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Kata’ib Hezbollah in Iraq, and Hamas in Gaza amongst others, there is little clarity on what the long-term aims are and what kind of off-ramps are available to make sure a region-wide conflict is avoided.

In this effect, the escalation ladder in the region is firmly in control of Iran and its proxies. All said and done, Tehran has succeeded in its strategic aims over the past decade. The Iranian regime, more particularly the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC), has managed to expand their proxy networks without much hindrance. With an exhausted US coming out of both Iraq and Afghanistan, little penchant for further foreign interventionism, and every political division domestically, management, and not resolution, of this issue may well be the course of action.

However, the problem for the US is that it lacks control of the said escalation ladder when it comes to the probability of a region-wide conflict. While President Joe Biden is inherently criticised today, in parts with merit, over his total support behind Israel’s military campaign, for the US, further loss of face in the international arena over the veracity of its security partnership could be catastrophic not only in the Middle East but also on the wider US-China contestation which is rapidly building up in Asia and beyond. These concerns challenge Biden’s leadership in a crucial election year, where his position is already on a slippery slope as Donald Trump attempts to make a comeback.

The recent air strikes against the Houthis in Yemen have opened the Pandora’s box trying to predict where any of these micro-wars are heading within the larger Israel–Hamas conflict. The air campaign, spearheaded by the US and United Kingdom (UK), comes days after Washington put together Operation Prosperity Guardian, a consortium of states to provide cover to commercial vessels operating in the region. The air strikes, which British foreign secretary David Cameron termed as a “clear and unambiguous message” to the Houthis seemed more about showing intent to criticism that they are not doing enough to deter the threat rather than a fundamental and strategic blow to the militia. The Houthis are known to be unpopular within the Yemen population. However, they are using their tactical and not just political mobilisation in support of the Palestinians to rake up support domestically where the Israeli campaign against Gaza has galvanised public opinion starkly against the US and Israel.

Finally, the lack of a wider, cohesive, united strategy on the war in Gaza is another fundamental victory for Tehran’s strategy. Iran perhaps has become the first country to successfully design and implement a master plan of ‘strategic depth’ by handing a web of proxies’ keys to the ‘escalation ladder’ in way of finances and weapons without direct involvement. The Iranian plans, despite major setbacks, have succeeded. The first step towards a fresh approach towards Middle East policy in the West, particularly in Washington, should be acceptance of this reality.

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