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.


Hezbollah says targeted Israel base in retaliation for fighters’ killing

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Hezbollah says targeted Israel base in retaliation for fighters’ killing

  • Galilee Medical Center in the northern Israeli city of Nahariya said that it had received ‘14 wounded people... including two who are seriously wounded’
  • Hezbollah said the attack came ‘in response to the enemy assassinating a number of resistance fighters in Ain Baal and Shehabiya’
BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Hezbollah group said it attacked an Israeli army base on Wednesday, with Israeli medics reporting the strike wounded 14 people, including two seriously, in a northern village.
Israel and Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Hamas ally, have been exchanging near-daily cross-border fire since the Palestinian militant group attacked southern Israel on October 7, triggering war in the Gaza Strip.
But Wednesday’s incident marked the third day in a row that Hezbollah strikes wounded people in Israel, with regional tensions high after Iran launched a direct attack on Israel over the weekend in retaliation for a deadly strike on Tehran’s Damascus consulate.
Hezbollah said it launched “a combined attack with guided missiles and explosive drones on a new military reconnaissance command center in Arab Al-Aramshe,” an Arab-majority village of northern Israel near the Lebanese border.
The Galilee Medical Center in the northern Israeli city of Nahariya said in a statement it had received “14 wounded people... including two who are seriously wounded.”
Hezbollah said the attack came “in response to the enemy assassinating a number of resistance fighters in Ain Baal and Shehabiya” on Tuesday.
According to the Israeli army, “a number of launches from Lebanon were identified crossing into the area of Arab Al-Aramshe,” and Israeli forces struck the sources of the fire.
On Tuesday, Israel said its strikes in south Lebanon killed two local Hezbollah commanders and another operative, with the Iran-backed group saying three of its members were killed as it launched rockets in retaliation.
Local Israeli authorities said three people were wounded in a strike from Lebanon earlier that day.
On Monday, Hezbollah targeted Israeli troops with explosive devices, wounding four soldiers who crossed into Lebanese territory, the first such attack in six months of clashes.
The violence has killed at least 368 people in Lebanon, mostly Hezbollah fighters but also at least 70 civilians, according to an AFP tally.
In Israel, the military says 10 soldiers and eight civilians have been killed near the northern border since hostilities began.
Tens of thousands of civilians have fled their homes on both sides of the border, with the violence fueling fears of all-out conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, which last went to war in 2006.

UN appeals for $2.8 bln for Gaza, West Bank aid

Updated 17 April 2024
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UN appeals for $2.8 bln for Gaza, West Bank aid

  • $782.1 million will be destined for food aid for 2.2 million people in Gaza

GENEVA: The United Nations appealed on Wednesday for $2.8 billion in funding to assist more than three million people in Gaza and the West Bank until the end of the year, to help ease food shortages and prevent looming famine in Gaza.
A flash appeal published by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that sum was needed to help 3.1 million people and “reduce human suffering and prevent further loss of life.”
A major chunk of funding — $782.1 million — will be destined for food aid for 2.2 million people in Gaza and 400,000 people in the West Bank, the appeal said.
More than six months of war have created critical food shortages among Gaza’s Palestinians that in some areas now exceed famine levels, according to the United Nations.
A senior UN aid official said on Tuesday that the United Nations was struggling to prevent famine in the Gaza Strip and while there had been some improvement in coordination with Israel, aid deliveries in the enclave still faced obstacles.
Israel aims to wipe out Hamas in Gaza after a deadly Oct. 7 attack on Israel by the Palestinian militant group, in which it killed some 1,200 people and took more than 250 people hostage, according to Israeli tallies.
Gaza health authorities say Israel has killed more than 33,000 people since, in its assault on the enclave.


British envoy says Israel is ‘making a decision to act’ as Iran vows to respond to any incursion

Updated 17 April 2024
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British envoy says Israel is ‘making a decision to act’ as Iran vows to respond to any incursion

  • Cameron said ‘it’s clear the Israelis are making a decision to act’ against Iran, but he hoped they would do so ‘in a way that is smart as well as tough’
  • Cameron said the main aim of his visit was to refocus attention on the ongoing war in Gaza and the need for a ceasefire and the release of hostages held by Hamas

JERUSALEM: British Foreign Secretary David Cameron said Wednesday that Israel “is making a decision to act” in response to Iran’s missile and drone attack over the weekend, while Iran warned that even the “tiniest” invasion of its territory would bring a “massive and harsh” response.
Israel has vowed to respond to Iran’s unprecedented attack without saying when or how, leaving the region bracing for further escalation after months of unrest linked to the ongoing war in Gaza. Israel’s closest allies, including the United States and the United Kingdom — which helped it repel the Iranian attack — are trying to limit any further escalation.
Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi meanwhile warned Israel against any retaliation as he addressed an annual army parade, which had been relocated to a barracks from its usual route and was not carried live on state TV — possibly because of fears that it could be targeted.
In remarks carried by Iran’s official IRNA news agency, Raisi said Saturday’s attack was a limited one, and that if Iran had wanted to carry out a bigger attack, “nothing would remain from the Zionist regime.”
Adding to the already high tensions, a rocket attack by Lebanon’s Hezbollah wounded six people in an Israeli border town on Wednesday. The Iran-backed militant group said it was a response to the killing of a number of its fighters, including a commander, in Israeli strikes on Lebanon the day before.
Both Cameron and Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock were in Israel on separate visits to meet with top officials on Wednesday. The two European countries, which are among Israel’s closest allies, have urged restraint.
Cameron said “it’s clear the Israelis are making a decision to act” against Iran, but he hoped they would do so “in a way that is smart as well as tough and also does as little as possible to escalate this conflict.” He spoke after meeting with Israel’s President Isaac Herzog, whose office is mainly ceremonial.
Cameron said the main aim of his visit was to refocus attention on the ongoing war in Gaza and the need for a ceasefire and the release of hostages held by Hamas.
Baerbock meanwhile called on all sides to prevent the conflict from spreading.
“I will assure our Israeli partners of Germany’s full solidarity,” she said Tuesday. “And we will discuss how a further escalation with more and more violence can be prevented. Because what matters now is to put a stop to Iran without encouraging further escalation.”
The ministers said they would push for further international sanctions on Iran.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he met with both ministers and thanked them for their countries’ support.
“They have all sorts of suggestions and advice. I appreciate that. But I want to be clear: Our decisions we will make ourselves, and the state of Israel will do whatever it needs to defend itself,” Netanyahu said in a statement.
Iran launched hundreds of missiles and drones at Israel over the weekend in response to an apparent Israeli strike on Iran’s embassy compound in Syria on April 1 that killed 12 people, including two Iranian generals.
Israel, with help from the United States, the United Kingdom, neighboring Jordan and other nations, says it successfully intercepted nearly all the missiles and drones. A seven-year-old girl was wounded in the attack, which did not cause any deaths or major damage.
Israel and Iran have waged a shadow war for decades, but the strike over the weekend was the first direct Iranian military attack on Israel.
Regional tensions have soared since the Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel launched by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Palestinian armed groups supported by Iran. The attack killed some 1,200 Israelis, and the militants took around 250 hostages. Israel responded with one of the deadliest and most destructive military onslaughts in recent history, killing nearly 34,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza health officials.
Israel has withdrawn most of its forces from Gaza after major offensives that left its two biggest cities — Gaza City and Khan Younis, in ruins. But Israeli officials say the war is not over and that they plan to send ground forces into the southernmost Gaza city of Rafah, where more than half the territory’s population of 2.3 million people have sought refuge from fighting elsewhere.
Hamas is still holding around 130 hostages, a quarter of whom are believed to be dead, and international efforts to broker a ceasefire and hostage release have made little progress.
Hezbollah, another close Iran ally, has traded fire with Israel along the border on a near-daily basis since the war began, in a low-intensity conflict that risks igniting all-out war. Iran-backed groups in Iraq and Syria have also launched attacks, and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have targeted international shipping in the Red Sea, portraying it as a blockade of Israel.
President Joe Biden’s administration on Tuesday announced new sanctions on Iran and has worked to coordinate a global rebuke of the attack while urging all sides to de-escalate. US officials said earlier this week that Biden told Netanyahu that Washington would not participate in any offensive action against Iran.
Israel appears unlikely to attack Iran directly without US support, but it could resort to more covert methods such as targeting other senior Iranian commanders or Iran-backed groups in other countries, or launching a cyberattack.
It’s unclear how Iran might respond given the heightened tensions. Any miscalculation by either side risks setting off a regional war.


Hamas leader Haniyeh to visit Turkiye this weekend: Erdogan

Updated 17 April 2024
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Hamas leader Haniyeh to visit Turkiye this weekend: Erdogan

  • Private television channel NTV reported that the two men would meet on Saturday

Istanbul: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erodgan said Wednesday he will host the leader of Palestinian militant group Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, in Turkiye this weekend.
“The leader of the Palestinian cause will be my guest this weekend,” Erdogan, an outspoken critic of Israel, told lawmakers.
Private television channel NTV reported that the two men would meet on Saturday at the Dolmabahce palace in Istanbul.
Their last meeting was in July 2023 when Erdogan hosted Haniyeh at the presidential palace in Ankara alongside Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas.
Erdogan has been one of the strongest critics of Israel since the start of the war in Gaza, sparked by the militant group’s attack on Israel on October 7, 2023.
The attack claimed 1,170 lives, mostly civilians, Israeli figures show.
Israel has responded with a ground and air offensive that the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said has killed at least 33,899 people, mostly women and children.
The Turkish leader has forged friendly ties with Haniyeh, who is based in Qatar.
Erdogan last week offered Haniyeh condolences for the death of his three sons and some of his grandchildren in an Israeli strike in Gaza.
Erdogan has called Israel a “terrorist state” and accused it of conducting a “genocide” in Gaza. He has called Hamas “liberators” or “mujahideen” fighting for their land.


After surviving airstrike Palestinian boy dies seeking aid

Updated 17 April 2024
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After surviving airstrike Palestinian boy dies seeking aid

  • The teenager was struck by one of the packages as he rushed to try to get a can of fava beans
GAZA: When an Israeli airstrike destroyed his family’s home in November, Zein Oroq was pinned under rubble. He was wounded but survived, while 17 members of his extended family died.
But Zein, 13, would later suffer a cruel fate in Gaza, where Palestinians face severe shortages of medicine, food and water in a deepening humanitarian crisis.
The population of the tiny enclave, where Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas have been fighting for more than six months, is at risk of famine.
Last week, during an air drop of aid, the teenager was struck by one of the packages as he rushed to try to get a can of fava beans, some rice or flour.
“The first time, when the house was hit by a strike, he came out from under the rubble with wounds in his head, hand and leg, God saved him,” said Zein’s grandfather, Ali Oroq.
The grandfather, standing by a large pool of wastewater, recalled how Zein would swim in a pond to get a meal from the air drops, and how he should have been sitting at a desk in school getting an education instead.
But, with mediators failing to secure a truce and Israel and Hamas braced for more war in Gaza, which has been rendered a wasteland by the fighting, his luck eventually ran out.
“While parachutes were falling, an aid box hit his head, also the stampede of people who were heading toward the box did not pay attention to the boy — they were also hungry,” said his father Mahmoud.
“So, his head was cut and wounded, he got fractures in the pelvis, skull and abdomen and with the flow of people, the pressure increased on him.”
Zein was taken to hospital, where he succumbed to his wounds on Sunday in the chaos of a war that began when Hamas militants attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and taking more than 200 hostage, according to Israeli tallies.
Israel responded with a fierce offensive that has killed more than 33,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza’s Hamas-run health authorities, and turned much of densely populated strip, home to 2.3 million people, into rubble, twisted steel and dust.
“My son is so precious, he was my support, my entire life, my first joy in this world, my biggest child, may he rest in peace,” said Mahmoud.