What the intensifying US-Iran proxy war means for crisis-wracked Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen

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Updated 15 February 2024
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What the intensifying US-Iran proxy war means for crisis-wracked Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen

  • Analysts say the ailing regional economies can ill-afford a conflict resulting from Gaza escalation
  • Violence on Lebanon-Israel border could spread to vulnerable Arab states under Iran’s ‘unity of arenas’ strategy

LONDON: Israel’s military offensive in the Gaza Strip has spilled over into neighboring countries and sent shockwaves across the wider region, transforming Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen into battlefields in an escalating proxy war between the US and Iran.

This mounting instability has wrought havoc on the economies of the region, many of which were already grappling with deep recessions, spiraling inflation, high unemployment and political instability, leaving them ill-equipped to withstand a major conflict.

The International Monetary Fund revised down regional growth projections for 2024 by 0.5 percent in October following the Hamas-led attacks on Israel that saw 1,200 killed and 240 taken hostage, sparking the ongoing conflict in Gaza.

Regional gross domestic product is forecast to grow by a mere 2.9 percent this year — a scant improvement on the modest 2 percent growth seen in 2023.

With their economies stagnant, these nations could easily implode if the conflict escalates further.




Syrian fighters ride in a convoy during a military drill by the Turkish-backed “Suleiman Shah Division” in the opposition-held Afrin region of northern Syria. (AFP/File)

“Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen are all facing existing crises of one sort or another and can ill-afford to see economic investors flee due to the high risks of war,” Omar Rahman, a fellow at the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, told Arab News.

Since launching its military campaign in Gaza, Israel has simultaneously mounted a series of strikes against targets in Syria and Lebanon — many of them targeting senior members of Hamas and its fellow Iranian proxy Hezbollah.

The most recent of these attacks took place in January, when an Israeli strike on the Syrian capital Damascus hit a residential building reportedly used by members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

“Syria has become a battleground for great power rivalries, both regional and international,” Joshua Landis, director of both the Center for Middle East Studies and the Farzaneh Family Center for Iranian and Arabian Gulf Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told Arab News.

The increased drumbeat of Israeli strikes on Syrian military bases, weapons depots and airports, as well as the increasing number of targeted killings of leading Iranian officials, “means more death, destruction and instability,” he said.

Landis believes the escalating regional conflagration, with Israel and the US in one corner and Iran’s proxy militias in the other, has “provided cover for many local combatants to increase the pace of their attacks,” thereby compounding Syria’s multiple, overlapping predicaments.

“The Syrian regime has been bombing northwest Syrian militias in an effort to keep them from building effective state institutions in their region,” said Landis, referring to the armed opposition groups that remain in control of Idlib province and parts of Aleppo.

“Turkiye has intensified its assassination campaign against leading YPG (People’s Defense Units) officials in northeast Syria, and local Syrian communities have been up in arms against the oppression and mismanagement of local authorities.

“The Druze continue their demonstrations against the regime in the Jabal Druze, and the Arab tribes continue to militate against the Kurds in northeast Syria.”




An injured man looks at rubble and debris of a destroyed building in the aftermath of Israeli bombardment on Rafah, Gaza Strip. (AFP)

Against this backdrop, the regime of Bashar Assad in Damascus, long propped up by Iran and Hezbollah, has found itself, willingly or unwillingly, caught in the middle of this latest bout of regional turmoil.

Earlier this month, the US launched strikes against 85 targets across seven locations in Syria and Iraq in retaliation for Iran-backed militia attacks on US troops stationed in the region, including a Jan. 27 incident in which three American personnel were killed and 40 wounded at a base in Jordan close to the Syrian border.

And despite stating that “the United States does not seek conflict in the Middle East or anywhere else in the world,” President Joe Biden has vowed that its response “will continue at times and places of our choosing.”

For the Syrian public, this regional escalation spells further misery. “The economic fallout of this violence and instability has been severe,” said Landis. “The economy is frozen. Inflation continues to eat away at the spending power of Syrians, driving them into ever-greater poverty.”

According to UN figures, 90 percent of Syria’s population is grappling with poverty, with 80 percent living below the poverty line.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in December that 16.7 million people across Syria require humanitarian assistance.

However, with multiple conflicts and crises raging across the globe, the humanitarian aid sector faces a funding crisis of its own.

The UN has requested $46 billion in donations for 2024, highlighting that the existing shortfall would leave more than 150 million people without aid.

“The UN Development Programme and World Food Programme are both hollowing out their humanitarian aid programs as the international gaze is diverted to Gaza, Sudan and other hotspots,” said Landis.

And what had initially looked like green shoots of recovery for the Syrian economy were soon buried.

Syria’s tourism sector, “which was a bright spot last year, can only be expected to take a downturn in the shadow of the Gaza war and regional instability,” said Landis.




Armed Yemeni Houthis sit on the back of an armored vehicle during an anti-Israel and anti-US rally in Sanaa. (AFP/File)

Lebanon faces similar challenges. Its border with Israel has been a flashpoint since the Gaza conflict began in October, with sporadic exchanges of fire between the Israel Defense Forces and Lebanese armed groups, including Hezbollah.

Many Lebanese fear that a full-blown conflict even more destructive than the 2006 war could easily break out, with unimaginable consequences for civilians.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant warned in January that “the possibility of reaching a political settlement with Lebanon is running out, and as a result, we may end up resorting to military action.”

Having been in the throes of a crippling financial crisis since 2019 and trapped in a state of political paralysis, unable to appoint a new president or build a functioning administration, Lebanon is perhaps uniquely vulnerable.

“Lebanon, which is already reeling economically and politically, faces the clearest prospect of a catastrophic military conflict, like in 2006,” said Rahman.

“That’s why there’s a reluctance from Hezbollah for major escalation with Israel in spite of its other inclinations.”

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Citing the “high uncertainty” brought about by the Gaza war, the World Bank refrained from offering a forecast for Lebanon’s GDP in 2024.

The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, meanwhile, projected modest growth of 1.7 percent.

Eva J. Koulouriotis, a political analyst specializing in the Middle East, warned that any escalation on the Lebanese-Israeli border into all-out war “will have serious repercussions.”

This “dangerous” development “will increase the likelihood of its expansion to Syria and Iraq, as well as a greater escalation in Yemen under what Iran’s regional arms call the ‘unity of arenas’ strategy,” she told Arab News.

“Politically, in Lebanon, the state of division and disharmony between the political factions will increase and the specter of the Lebanese arena turning into a new civil war will return. This will mean a comprehensive collapse of the economy.”

Koulouriotis believes an escalation between Israel and Hezbollah, coupled with a failure to secure a ceasefire in Gaza, will only fuel the threat posed by the Iran-backed Houthi militia in Yemen to commercial shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.




Smoke billows during Israeli bombardment on the village of Khiyam in southern Lebanon. (AFP)

Since Nov. 19, the Houthis have launched more than 20 missile and drone attacks against vessels in these strategic waterways, with the stated aim of pressuring Israel to halt its military campaign in Gaza.

In early February, the US and UK launched a barrage of strikes targeting 36 Houthi positions. Houthi military spokesman Yahya Saree said Yemen’s capital Sanaa was among the sites targeted.

Having been locked in its own grinding civil war between the Houthis and the internationally recognized government since 2015, Yemen is already in a state of economic ruin, with sections of its population on the brink of famine.

“War-torn Yemen is already highly dependent on humanitarian aid, and is in the midst of long-running negotiations to bring an end to its eight-year war,” said Rahman, warning that “the current confrontation with the US and UK risks destabilizing that process and disrupting crucial flows of aid and economic redevelopment.”

The US has also launched several attacks against Iran-backed militias operating in Iraq. On Feb. 8, an American drone strike in Baghdad killed a senior commander of Kataib Hezbollah alongside two of his guards.

The Pentagon claimed that the commander was responsible for the fatal Jan. 27 attack on US forces in Jordan.

INNUMBERS

• 2.9% IMF’s GDP growth forecast for the Middle East and North Africa in 2024.

• 90% Proportion of Syria’s population grappling with poverty, according to UN figures.

• 16.7m People across Syria who require humanitarian assistance, according to UN OCHA.

• 1.7% Lebanon’s projected growth in 2024, according to UN DESA.

US military bases in the Middle East have been hit with more than 165 rocket and drone attacks since mid-October.  

Having emerged from decades of conflict and insurgency, Iraq had been showing signs of economic recovery, albeit still heavily reliant on oil exports and a bloated public sector.

Although regional instability is no doubt unwelcome at the very moment things appeared to be getting on track, Rahman believes the latest bout of regional violence offers “a mixed bag” for Iraq.

“In one sense, its oil export-dependent economy benefits from instability and higher prices,” he said. “Its Iran-aligned militias are also able to advance their agenda of pushing the US out of the country.

“On the other hand, Iraq already faces political and economic precarity and risks much in being a major flashpoint, or even frontline, in a regional war that includes Iran, as it tries to rebuild after decades of war.”

Landis, however, is optimistic about the prospects for Syria if the US is pushed out of Iraq. “If America is forced to abandon its bases in Iraq, pressure will mount to evacuate Syria as well,” he said.




Yemenis hold a pro-Palestine rally in Sanaa. (AFP/File)

“Should Damascus return to northeast Syria, possibilities for an economic revitalization will open up.

“It will bring pain to the Kurds, but most Syrians who live under government control will regain oil, gas and electricity. It will help Syria regain control of its lands and resources.”

America has some 2,500 troops stationed in Iraq, 900 in Syria, and around 3,000 in Jordan as part of a US-led coalition that seeks, according to the Pentagon, to prevent the resurgence of the terrorist group Daesh.

Although the region looks increasingly like a battlefield between the US and Iran, Koulouriotis doubts that the region will witness a direct confrontation between the two — something neither side professes to want.

“Despite the current ongoing escalation on various fronts in the region, the two main sides of the conflict in Washington and Tehran are still not interested in going towards a direct and comprehensive confrontation,” she said.


Syrian first lady Asma Assad has leukemia, presidency says

Updated 21 May 2024
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Syrian first lady Asma Assad has leukemia, presidency says

  • Statement stated that Asma would undergo a special treatment protocol that would require her to isolate

DUBAI: Syria’s first lady, Asma Assad, has been diagnosed with leukemia, the Syrian presidency said on Tuesday, almost five years after she announced she had fully recovered from breast cancer.
The statement said Asma, 48, would undergo a special treatment protocol that would require her to isolate, and that she would step away from public engagements as a result.
In August 2019, Asma said she had fully recovered from breast cancer that she said had been discovered early.
Since Syria plunged into war in 2011, the British-born former investment banker has taken on the public role of leading charity efforts and meeting families of killed soldiers, but has also become hated by the opposition.
She runs the Syria Trust for Development, a large NGO that acts as an umbrella organization for many of the aid and development operations in Syria.
Last year, she accompanied her husband, President Bashar Assad ,on a visit to the United Arab Emirates, her first known official trip abroad with him since 2011. She met Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, the Emirati president’s mother, during a trip seen as a public signal of her growing role in public affairs.


Yemen’s Houthis say they downed US drone over Al-Bayda province

Updated 21 May 2024
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Yemen’s Houthis say they downed US drone over Al-Bayda province

  • The Houthis said last Friday they downed another US MQ9 drone over the southeastern province of Maareb

DUBAI: Yemen’s Houthis downed a US MQ9 drone over Al-Bayda province in southern Yemen, the Iran-aligned group’s military spokesperson said in a televised statement on Tuesday.

Yahya Saree said the drone was targeted with a locally made surface-to-air missile and that videos to support the claim would be released.

The Houthis said last Friday they downed another US MQ9 drone over the southeastern province of Maareb.

The group, which controls Yemen’s capital and most populous areas of the Arabian Peninsula state, has attacked international shipping in the Red Sea since November in solidarity with the Palestinians in the war between Israel and Hamas militants, drawing US and British retaliatory strikes since February.


Iranians pay last respects to President Ebrahim Raisi

Updated 43 min 3 sec ago
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Iranians pay last respects to President Ebrahim Raisi

  • Mourners set off from a central square in the northwestern city of Tabriz
  • Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declares five days of national mourning

TEHRAN: Tens of thousands of Iranians gathered Tuesday to mourn president Ebrahim Raisi and seven members of his entourage who were killed in a helicopter crash on a fog-shrouded mountainside in the northwest.

Waving Iranian flags and portraits of the late president, mourners set off from a central square in the northwestern city of Tabriz, where Raisi was headed when his helicopter crashed on Sunday.

They walked behind a lorry carrying the coffins of Raisi and his seven aides.

Their helicopter lost communications while it was on its way back to Tabriz after Raisi attended the inauguration of a joint dam project on the Aras river, which forms part of the border with Azerbaijan, in a ceremony with his counterpart Ilham Aliyev.

A massive search and rescue operation was launched on Sunday when two other helicopters flying alongside Raisi’s lost contact with his aircraft in bad weather.

State television announced his death in a report early on Monday, saying “the servant of the Iranian nation, Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi, has achieved the highest level of martyrdom,” showing pictures of him as a voice recited the Qur’an.

Killed alongside the Iranian president were Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, provincial officials and members of his security team.

Iran’s armed forces chief of staff Mohammad Bagheri ordered an investigation into the cause of the crash as Iranians in cities nationwide gathered to mourn Raisi and his entourage.

Tens of thousands gathered in the capital’s Valiasr Square on Monday.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has ultimate authority in Iran, declared five days of national mourning and assigned vice president Mohammad Mokhber, 68, as caretaker president until a presidential election can be held.

State media later announced that the election would will be held on June 28.

Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri, who served as deputy to Amir-Abdollahian, was named acting foreign minister.

From Tabriz, Raisi’s body will be flown to the Shiite clerical center of Qom on Tuesday before being moved to Tehran that evening.

Processions will be held in in the capital on Wednesday morning before Khamenei leads prayers at a farewell ceremony.

Raisi’s body will then be flown to his home city of Mashhad, in the northeast, where he will be buried on Thursday evening after funeral rites.

Raisi, 63, had been in office since 2021. The ultra-conservative’s time in office saw mass protests, a deepening economic crisis and unprecedented armed exchanges with arch-enemy Israel.

Raisi succeeded the moderate Hassan Rouhani, at a time when the economy was battered by US sanctions imposed over Iran’s nuclear activities.

Condolence messages flooded in from Iran’s allies around the region, including the Syrian government, Palestinian militant group Hamas and Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

It was an unprecedented Hamas attack on Israel that sparked the devastating war in Gaza, now in its eighth month, and soaring tensions between Israel and the “resistance axis” led by Iran.

Israel’s killing of seven Revolutionary Guards in a drone strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus on April 1 triggered Iran’s first ever direct attack on Israel, involving hundreds of missiles and drones.

In a speech hours before his death, Raisi underlined Iran’s support for the Palestinians, a centerpiece of its foreign policy since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Palestinian flags were raised alongside Iranian flags at ceremonies held for the late president.


Israeli army raids West Bank’s Jenin, Palestinians say seven killed

Updated 21 May 2024
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Israeli army raids West Bank’s Jenin, Palestinians say seven killed

  • Among the Palestinians killed was a surgical doctor, the head of the Jenin Governmental Hospital said

JENIN: Israeli forces raided Jenin in the occupied West Bank on Tuesday in an operation that the Palestinian health ministry said killed seven Palestinians, including a doctor, and left nine others wounded.
The army said it was an operation against militants and that a number of Palestinian gunmen were shot. There was no immediate word of any Israeli casualties.
The health ministry account of the casualties was quoted by the official Palestinian news agency WAFA.
Among the Palestinians killed was a surgical doctor, the head of the Jenin Governmental Hospital said. He was killed in the vicinity of the hospital, the director said.
The West Bank is among territories Israel seized in a 1967 Middle East war. The Palestinians want it to be the core of an independent Palestinian state. US-sponsored talks on a two-state solution to the decades-old conflict broke down in 2014.


Dubai DXB airport sees record 2024 traffic after 8.4% rise in Q1

Updated 21 May 2024
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Dubai DXB airport sees record 2024 traffic after 8.4% rise in Q1

  • Dubai airport welcomed around 23 million passengers in January-March period, operator says 
  • India, Saudi Arabia and Britain were top three countries by passenger volumes in first quarter

DUBAI: Dubai’s main airport expects to handle a record passenger traffic this year after an 8.4% rise in the first quarter compared with a year earlier, operator Dubai Airports said on Tuesday.

Dubai International Airport (DXB), a major global travel hub, welcomed around 23 million passengers in the January-March period, the operator said in a statement, noting that the uptick was partly driven by increased destination offers by flagship carrier Emirates and its sister low-cost airline Flydubai.

“With a strong start to Q2 and an optimistic outlook for the rest of the year, we have revised our forecast for the year to 91 million guests, surpassing our previous annual traffic record of 89.1 million in 2018,” CEO Paul Griffiths said in the statement.

Dubai is the biggest tourism and trade hub in the Middle East, attracting a record 17.15 million international overnight visitors last year.

Its ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum last month approved a new passenger terminal in Al Maktoum International airport worth 128 billion dirhams ($34.85 billion).

The Al Maktoum International Airport will be the largest in the world with a capacity of up to 260 million passengers, and five times the size of DXB, he said, adding all operations at Dubai airport would be transferred to Al Maktoum in the coming years.

DXB is connected to 256 destinations across 102 countries. In the first quarter, India, Saudi Arabia and Britain were the top three countries by passenger numbers, Dubai Airports added. ($1 = 3.6729 UAE dirham)