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

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Updated 15 February 2024

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.


• 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.

Divisions, elections and Assad lay bare Europe’s Syrian quagmire

Updated 17 sec ago

Divisions, elections and Assad lay bare Europe’s Syrian quagmire

PARIS: The European Union will convene donors next week to keep Syria on the global agenda, but as the economic and social burden of refugees on neighboring countries mounts the bloc is divided and unable to find solutions to tackle the issue, diplomats say.
Syria has become a forgotten crisis that nobody wants to stir amid the war raging between Israel and Islamist Palestinian militants Hamas and tensions growing between Iran and Western powers over its regional activities.
More than 5 million refugees mostly in Lebanon and Turkiye and millions more displaced internally have little prospect of returning home with political stability no closer than since the uprising against President Bashar Assad’s rule began in 2011.
Funding to support them is dropping with the likes of the World Food Programme reducing its aid. Difficulties to host refugees are surfacing, notably in Lebanon, where the economic situation is perilous and a call to send Syrians home is one of the rare issues that unites all communities.
“We have no levers because we never resumed relations with the Assad regime and there are no indications anybody really will,” said a former European envoy to Syria.
“Even if we did, why would Syria offer carrots to countries that have been hostile to him and especially taking back people who opposed him anyway.”
Major European and Arab ministers along with key international organizations meet for the 8th Syria conference next Monday, but beyond vague promises and financial pledges, there are few signs that Europe can take the lead.
The talks come just ahead of the European elections on June 6-9 in which migration is a divisive issue among the bloc’s 27-member states. With far-right and populist parties already expected to do well, there is little appetite to step up refugee support.
The conference itself has changed from eight years ago. The level of participation has been downgraded. The likes of Russia, the key actor backing Assad, is no longer invited after its invasion of Ukraine. The global geopolitical situation and drop in the conflict’s intensity keeps it off radars.
There are divisions within the EU on the subject. Some countries such as Italy and Cyprus are more open to having a form of dialogue with Assad to at least discuss possible ways to step up voluntary returns in conjunction with and under the auspices of the United Nations.
However, others, like France which acknowledges the pressure the refugees are weighing on Lebanon and fears broader conflict between Iran-backed Hezbollah and Israel, remain steadfast that there can be no discussion with the Assad regime until key conditions are met.
But the reality on the ground is forcing a discussion on the issue.
Demonstrating the tensions between the EU and the countries hosting refugees, Lebanese MPs threatened to reject the bloc’s 1 billion euro package announced earlier this month, slamming it as a “bribe” to keep refugees in limbo in Lebanon instead of resettling them permanently in Europe or sending them back home to Syria.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who unlike in previous years is not due to attend the Brussels conference, has said that Beirut would start dealing with the issue itself without proper international assistance.
The result has been an upswing in migrant boats from Lebanon to Europe, with nearby Cyprus and increasingly Italy, too, as the main destinations, prompting some countries to ring alarm bells fearing a flood of new refugees into the bloc.
“Let me be clear, the current situation is not sustainable for Lebanon, it’s not sustainable for Cyprus and it’s not sustainable for the European Union. It hasn’t been sustainable for years,” Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides said this month during a visit to Lebanon.
Highlighting the divisions in Europe, eight countries — Austria, Czech Republic, Cyprus, Denmark, Greece, Italy, Malta and Poland — last week issued a joint statement after talks in Cyprus, breaking ranks with the bloc’s previous positions.
They argued that the dynamics in Syria had changed and that while political stability did not exist yet, things had evolved sufficiently to “re-evaluate the situation” to find “more effective ways of handling the issue.”
“I don’t think there will be a big movement in terms of EU attitude, but perhaps some baby steps to engage and see if more can be done in various areas,” said a diplomat from one of the countries that attended the talks in Cyprus.
Another was more blunt.
“Come Tuesday Syria will be swept under the carpet and forgotten. The Lebanese will be left to deal with the crisis alone,” said a French diplomat.

More aid getting from US pier to people in Gaza, officials say, after troubled launch

Updated 45 min 37 sec ago

More aid getting from US pier to people in Gaza, officials say, after troubled launch

  • Crowds overrun some of the first trucks coming from the new US-led sea route and taking its contents over the weekend, leading to a two-day suspension of aid distribution
  • At maximum capacity, the pier would bring in enough food for 500,000 of Gaza’s people. US officials stressed the need for flow through open land crossings for the remaining 1.8 million

WASHINGTON: A six-day-old US pier project in Gaza is starting to get more aid to Palestinians in need but conditions are challenging, US officials said Thursday. That reflects the larger problems bringing food and other supplies to starving people in the besieged territory.

The floating pier had a troubled launch, with crowds overrunning some of the first trucks coming from the new US-led sea route and taking its contents over the weekend. One man in the crowd was shot dead in still-unexplained circumstances. It led to a two-day suspension of aid distribution.
The US military worked with the UN and Israeli officials to select safer alternate routes for trucks coming from the pier, US Vice Admiral Brad Cooper told reporters Thursday.
As a result, the US pier on Wednesday accounted for 27 of the 70 total trucks of aid that the UN was able to round up from all land and sea crossings into Gaza for distribution to civilians, the United States said.
That’s a fraction of the 150 truckloads of food, emergency nutrition treatment and other supplies that US officials aim to bring in when the sea route is working at maximum capacity.
Plus, Gaza needs 600 trucks entering each day, according to the US Agency for International Development, to curb a famine that the heads of USAID and the UN World Food Program have said has begun in the north and to keep it from spreading south.

Only one of the 54 trucks that came from the pier Tuesday and Wednesday encountered any security issues on their way to aid warehouses and distribution points, US officials said. They called the issues “minor” but gave no details.
A deepening Israeli offensive in the southern city of Rafah has made it impossible for aid shipments to get through the crossing there, which is a key source for fuel and food coming into Gaza. Israel says it is bringing aid in through another border crossing, Kerem Shalom, but humanitarian organizations say Israeli military operations make it difficult for them to retrieve the aid there for distribution.
The Biden administration last week launched the $320 million floating pier for a new maritime aid route into Gaza as the seven-month-old Israel-Hamas war and Israeli restrictions on land crossings have severely limited food deliveries to 2.3 million Palestinians.
For all humanitarian efforts, “the risks are manifold,” Daniel Dieckhaus, USAID’s response director for Gaza, said at a briefing with Cooper. “This is an active conflict with deteriorating conditions.”
Dieckhaus rejected charges from some aid groups that the pier is diverting attention from what the US, UN and relief workers say is the essential need for Israel to allow full access to land crossings for humanitarian shipments.
For instance, Jeremy Konyndyk, a former USAID official now leading Refugees International, tweeted that “the pier is humanitarian theater.”
“I would not call, within a couple of days, getting enough food and other supplies for tens of thousands of people for a month theater,” Dieckhaus said Thursday when asked about the criticism.
At maximum capacity, the pier would bring in enough food for 500,000 of Gaza’s people. US officials stressed the need for flow through open land crossings for the remaining 1.8 million.

Three US troops have non-combat injuries during Gaza pier operation

Updated 24 May 2024

Three US troops have non-combat injuries during Gaza pier operation

WASHINGTON: Three US troops suffered non-combat injuries in the effort to make a temporary pier off the coast of Gaza into a conduit for humanitarian aid, with one in critical condition at an Israeli hospital, US officials said on Thursday.

The injuries were the first for US forces during the latest operation to bring humanitarian aid to Palestinians.

The pier was announced by US President Joe Biden in March and involved the military assembling the floating structure off the coast. Estimated to cost $320 million for the first 90 days and involve about 1,000 US service members, it went into operation last week.

US Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, the deputy commander of US Central Command, told reporters that two of the troops had a sprained ankle and a minor back injury.

“Two were very minor, routine injuries. Those individuals returned to duty,” Cooper said.

A third service member, injured on a ship at sea, was medically evacuated to a hospital in Israel, he said. A US defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the individual was in critical condition.

US lawmakers have voiced concern about the risks to positioning US troops off the coast of Gaza. Biden has said they will not step foot in the war-torn city itself.

The Pentagon has said it will prioritize the safety of US military personnel.

“We’re clear eyed and we continue to look at force protection all day, every day and as it stands now we assess the operations can continue,” Cooper said.

Social media images showed a US air defense system, known as the Counter Rockets, Artillery and Mortars (CRAM), firing into the sky while on the pier. US officials said troops were testing the system.

Daniel Dieckhaus of the US Agency for International Development said that since the pier opened last week, about 506 metric tons of aid had been handed off to humanitarian groups inside Gaza. About a third of that has not yet been distributed but would be soon, he said.

Medic says Gaza hospital under Israeli siege for fifth day

Updated 23 May 2024

Medic says Gaza hospital under Israeli siege for fifth day

GAZA STRIP: A senior official at Al-Awda Hospital in northern Gaza said it was under Israeli military siege for a fifth straight day on Thursday after soldiers stormed it the previous day.

“We are still under siege for the fifth day in a row,” said the hospital’s acting director, Dr. Mohammed Saleh.

“Soldiers are present in the hospital’s courtyard and nearby houses,” he said, adding that there was “continuous gunfire and shelling” toward it.

Troops stormed the hospital building on Wednesday evening, he said.

“The hospital was stormed, and staff were forced to leave. I currently have only 13 staff, 11 patients, and two women accompanying wounded children,” Saleh said.

World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on social media platform X that 140 staff, patients, and accompanying adults were inside the hospital when troops stormed it.

The WHO visited Al-Awda regularly in April to deliver medical supplies and fuel, but on Tuesday Ghebreyesus said snipers were targeting the building and artillery had hit the fifth floor.

On Tuesday, patients and staff were also evacuated from another hospital in northern Gaza, Kamal Adwan, its director, Dr. Hossam Abu Safia, said at the time.

“These are the only two functional hospitals remaining in northern Gaza. Ensuring their ability to deliver health services is imperative,” Ghebreyesus said in Geneva.

Israeli troops have previously raided other medical facilities in Gaza, including Al-Shifa in Gaza City, the territory’s largest hospital, which was reduced to rubble after an operation in March, the WHO said.

Bahrain’s King Hamad says he is looking forward to improved relations with Iran

Russian President Vladimir receives Bahrain's King Hamad at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, May 23, 2024. (BNA)
Updated 23 May 2024

Bahrain’s King Hamad says he is looking forward to improved relations with Iran

  • King meets Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin 

RIYADH: Bahrain’s King Hamad said his country was looking forward to improving its relations with Iran during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin.
The king added that there was no reason for Bahrain to postpone the resumption of diplomatic relations with Iran, the Bahrain News Agency reported on Thursday.
The king and Putin discussed the war in Gaza, regional and international efforts aimed at reaching a ceasefire, and the release of hostages and detainees. They also focused on providing humanitarian aid without obstacles to the territory’s civilian population.
They highlighted the importance of advancing the course of diplomatic action to settle the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and achieving a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. The leaders also said efforts to recognize the Palestinian state and accept it as a permanent member of the UN should be supported.
They also stressed the importance of the UN Security Council assuming its responsibilities toward resolving and ending global conflicts, and working to settle them in accordance with the rules of international law and the UN Charter to maintain international peace and security.
The king informed the Russian president of the outcomes of the Arab Summit held recently in Bahrain, adding that Arab countries appreciated Russia’s sympathy for just Arab causes.
The king and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called for the convening of an international conference at the summit, which would take place under the auspices of the UN, to resolve the Palestinian issue on the basis of a two-state solution.
The king added that he hoped to host the conference and requested Russia’s support for it.