Winds of War over Gaza – and Beyond
Oct 24, 2023
As conditions in the US Congress, with House GOPs frantically struggling to unite over whom to chair its House caucus, continue to display dysfunctionality, President Biden has been put to the ultimate test as world leader in times of international disorder, following the brutal HAMAS surprise attack on October 7 and the ensuing Israeli determination to deal a devastating, final military blow to its long-standing enemy embedded in the 2 million plus Palestinian population in Gaza. Suddenly – in strategic competition with the unfinished, brutal war in Ukraine – developments in the Middle East have taken on an incredibly dramatic turn, with a host of proliferation risks seriously worrying strategists and analysts, having the US respond by mobilizing rather massive deterrence capabilities, such as two carrier groups with a total of 100 war planes, 2000 troops on the alert and air defence systems.
So the Middle East is back at the center stage of geopolitical attention and tension, but this time together with and on top of the ongoing and demanding Ukraine crisis, or war. In his recent White House speech (where he made an unusual comparison between HAMAS and the Kremlin), President Biden said that the two “represent different threats, but they share this in common: They both want to completely annihilate a neighboring democracy…American leadership is what holds the world together”. This world, according to Biden, is now at yet another “inflection point in history”. Decisions now by global leaders was likely to “determine the future for decades to come.” These somber words fell – from the White House – in connection with Biden’s dramatic lightning visit to the crisis area aimed as a manifestation of US “iron-clad” support for Israel and its Netanyahu-led war cabinet in its existential fight against HAMAS aggression, but apparently also used as a means to convey words of caution and restraint to the enraged Israeli leadership: we support you, but we strongly advice you to temper retaliation with longer-term wisdom!
The brutality of the HAMAS surprise attack, leaving some 1400 slaughtered Israelis behind, and some 200 people, Israelis and foreigners alike, taken hostage back into Gaza, has been a profound shock to Israelis, already shaken by domestic convulsions over the current Netanyahu regime’s attempts at undemocratic constitutional ‘reform’. After the cessation of current hostilities demands for answers are expected to be raised: how could this happen? How could the world-famous Israeli intelligence services have missed it? What mistakes at the political leadership level must be highlighted, and punished? Questions such as these are bound to be raised, and their answers are bound to have consequences into an unknown terrain. Potential implications are huge.
But for now, at the time of writing, the big issues pertain to the devastating Israeli response: massive air bombardments of the densely populated Gaza area, massive ground troops assembled around Gaza pending orders of unleashing the long notified incursion into Gaza, the cutting off of all supplies into Gaza of food, water and fuel, orders to the population in the northern part of Gaza to evacuate to the southern part, etc., all these together causing a humanitarian disaster of ‘biblical’ dimensions which in turn gives rise to outcries of protest not only from Palestinians elsewhere in Israel and beyond and in neighboring Arab/Islamic countries but also from shocked and bewildered voices of the international humanitarian community, alongside with frantic diplomatic efforts both to achieve at least a minimum of humanitarian relief to suffering Palestinian civilians and to seek the release of the hostages, whether Israeli or foreign.
Interestingly, in this looming political and humanitarian chaos (at the time of writing), the Israeli government, or war cabinet, has held back its long anticipated ground invasion, it being speculated that this Israeli stand has everything to do with the second part of the Biden administration’s package of advice: full support in principle, but at the same time strong advice for the Israelis to show restraint (proportionality in retaliation), for as long as there remains hope that the hostages can be diplomatically released or militarily rescued – and (perhaps) for as long as it takes to put some kind of humanitarian regime in order under international auspices.
At the same time – and this represents a huge dilemma for all or most actors – it is generally accepted, or at least accepted by the US, that the stated Israeli objective of its retaliatory campaign, finishing the HAMAS security threat once and for all (or finishing HAMAS altogether), cannot be achieved by air power alone, a ground incursion, however bloody, costly and internationally controversial, is a necessary and inevitable instrument. Even at the risk of putting the hostages in harm’s way and at the risk of causing massive humanitarian suffering to millions. How this precarious balancing act will be conducted during dramatic days to follow – if and when the ground invasion is finally unleashed after weeks of massive bombardments and humanitarian strangulation – will define parameters of crisis proliferation. For the US under Biden, having tied its international prestige and power to the initial (internationally increasingly controversial) decision to render Israel its full political and military support, having taken on shared ownership in crisis management with the shaken Israeli government, risks are many and varied.
At present, at the time of writing, there is first of all the clear and present risk of spread of the conflict to the north, the threat of open, full-fledged military conflict with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon – via a West Bank area in more or less total turmoil. The deterrence duel over the years since the 2006 war between Israeli Iron Dome defensive capacities and massive air and ground power and Hezbollah’s Iran-supported and rather formidable missile strength has maintained an element of stability, but now daily skirmishes at the border and evacuations of both sides have raised concerns that a full-scale war, a second front for Israeli IDF, could be moving from possible to likely, in spite of massive US deterrence efforts. And if that happens, can Iran be deterred from intervening, openly or by enhanced proxy, say in Syria and Iraq? And if not, what will Russia – and Turkey – have to say, and do, about such ominous developments? US attempts at deterring such nasty developments, flowing from the current situation over Gaza, will imply both a return by the US to an active, but controversial, role for US power in the region, and considerable risks at geopolitical escalation following reactions by adversaries in the region, and beyond.
Some voices in the US now voice regrets and anxiety at the way the Gaza/HAMAS crisis explosion risks ruining two sets of US diplomatic objectives. One is all the efforts done with a view to normalize relations between Israel and Arab states under the so-called Abraham Accords, the most recent – and important and precarious – concerning Saudi-Israeli relations. For the US the aim was a mixed one of seeking to support Israel, promote stability in the region, reducing Russian and Chinese competition, and hence paving the way for less need for US military presence in this region. The big question now is whether Israel’s massive military onslaught In Gaza, and Biden’s instant choice to stand fully with Israel in this endeavor, will render null and void all these efforts, if so leaving the region in a state of full uncertainty. Or forcing the US to step back in, in full force, with all the ensuing risks involved.
The other now jeopardized objective concerns US and US-led efforts to mobilize Global South support for Western attempts at halting and pushing back Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, given emerging accusations the Global South countries that the US and other Western countries apply double standards when supporting Israeli atrocities (and forgetting about the rights of Palestinians) while condemning Russia’s variety. Ishan Tharoor in Washington Post (Oct 23) quotes a European diplomat gloomily summing up this problem:
“All the work we have done with the Global South /over Ukraine/ has been lost…Forget about rules, forget about world order. They won’t ever listen to us again.”