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

Analysis 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

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.


Egypt’s FM expresses need for restraint in calls to foreign ministers of Iran, Israel

Egypt’s FM expresses need for restraint in calls to foreign ministers of Iran, Israel
Updated 12 sec ago
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Egypt’s FM expresses need for restraint in calls to foreign ministers of Iran, Israel

Egypt’s FM expresses need for restraint in calls to foreign ministers of Iran, Israel
CAIRO: Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry expressed the need for restraint in phone calls with the foreign ministers of Iran and Israel on Sunday, Egypt said.
Shoukry called on his Iranian and Israeli counterparts “to exercise utmost self-restraint and refrain from provocations that would increase tension and instability in the region,” a foreign ministry statement said.
Egypt is ready to intensify its efforts to defuse the current crisis, “which has begun taking a dangerous turn as it coincides with the crisis in the Gaza Strip and adds tension to other hot spots in the region,” the statement added.
Shoukry also held a call on Sunday with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to discuss “what has become a serious threat to the security and stability” of the Middle East after Iran launched drones and missile on Israel early on Sunday.

Cyprus suspends processing of Syrian asylum applications

Cyprus suspends processing of Syrian asylum applications
Updated 9 min 44 sec ago
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Cyprus suspends processing of Syrian asylum applications

Cyprus suspends processing of Syrian asylum applications
  • According to Cyprus Interior Ministry statistics, some 2,140 people arrived by boat to EU-member Cyprus between Jan. 1 and April 4 of this year, the vast majority of them Syrian nationals departing from Lebanon

NICOSIA: Cyprus has said it’s suspending processing all asylum applications by Syrian nationals because large numbers of refugees from the war-torn country continue to reach the island nation by boat, primarily from Lebanon.
In a written statement, the Cypriot government said the suspension is also partly because of ongoing efforts to get the EU to redesignate some areas of the war-torn country as safe zones to enable repatriations.
The drastic step comes in the wake of Cypriot President Nicos Christodoulides’ visit to Lebanon early last week to appeal to authorities there to stop departures of migrant-laden boats from their shores. The request comes in light of a 27-fold increase in migrant arrivals to Cyprus so far this year over the same period last year.
According to Cyprus Interior Ministry statistics, some 2,140 people arrived by boat to EU-member Cyprus between Jan. 1 and April 4 of this year, the vast majority of them Syrian nationals departing from Lebanon. In contrast, only 78 people arrived by boat to the island nation in the corresponding period last year.
Last Monday, Christodoulides and Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati called on the EU to provide financial support to help cash-strapped Lebanon stop migrants from reaching Cyprus.
Just days prior to his Lebanon trip, the Cypriot president said that he had personally asked EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen to intercede with Lebanese authorities to curb migrant boat departures.
Although the EU should provide “substantial” EU support to Lebanon, Christodoulides said any financial help should be linked to how effectively Lebanese authorities monitor their coastline and prevent boat departures.

 


Jordan PM says escalation in region would lead to ‘dangerous paths’

This video grab from AFPTV taken on April 14, 2024 shows explosions lighting up Jerusalem sky during Iranian attack on Israel.
This video grab from AFPTV taken on April 14, 2024 shows explosions lighting up Jerusalem sky during Iranian attack on Israel.
Updated 36 min 8 sec ago
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Jordan PM says escalation in region would lead to ‘dangerous paths’

This video grab from AFPTV taken on April 14, 2024 shows explosions lighting up Jerusalem sky during Iranian attack on Israel.
  • Jordan’s King Abdullah also told US President Joe Biden in a phone call on Sunday that Jordan “won’t be an arena for a regional war”

AMMAN: Jordan’s Prime Minister Bisher Khasawneh said on Sunday any escalation in the region would lead to “dangerous paths” and that there was a need to reduce escalation by all parties.
In remarks to the cabinet, Khasawneh said the country’s armed forces would confront any attempt by any party that sought to endanger the kingdom’s security.
“There is need for all parties to act responsibly and exercise utmost degree of self restraint... and not be dragged toward any escalation that will no doubt have dangerous consequences,” Khasawneh said.
Two regional intelligences sources said US air defenses along with support from the UK and France had joined Jordan on Saturday to down dozens of Iranian drones and missiles that were flying over the country toward Jerusalem and across a wide range of targets in Israel.
Iranian drones that came from the direction of Iraq and flew over southern Jordan and the city of Aqaba that were heading to Israel’s Eilat port were also intercepted, they added.
“The army will respond to anything that will jeopardize the security and safety of the kingdom and the sanctity of its airspace and territory in the face of any danger from any party with all the available means,” Khasawneh said.
Jordan’s King Abdullah also told US President Joe Biden in a phone call on Sunday that Jordan “won’t be an arena for a regional war,” adding any “escalation by Israel would only widen the circle of conflict,” state-owned al Mamlaka public broadcaster said.
Jordan neighbors Syria and Iraq – both countries where Iranian proxy forces operate – and is also next door to Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
It has watched Israel’s war against the Palestinian group Hamas, another Iranian ally, with rising alarm.
Late last year, Amman asked Washington to deploy Patriot air defense systems to Jordan to bolster its border defenses.
Officials say the Pentagon had since increased its military aid to the kingdom, a major regional ally, where hundreds of US troops are based and hold extensive exercises with the Jordanian army throughout the year.


Sudan’s uprooted millions pay price for yearlong war

Sudan’s uprooted millions pay price for yearlong war
Updated 16 min 15 sec ago
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Sudan’s uprooted millions pay price for yearlong war

Sudan’s uprooted millions pay price for yearlong war
  • Clashes have driven more than 8.5m people from their homes, creating a major displacement crisis

CAIRO: After fleeing from the war in Sudan to Egypt, Mohamed Ismail says his ambitions are limited to putting food in the mouths of his five children from a meager monthly salary of about $100 earned at a paper factory in Giza.

One 7-year-old son sleeps in his arms because of the trauma of hearing explosions before they fled from the outskirts of the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, in January.
A year of war between Sudan’s army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, also known as RSF, has driven more than 8.5 million people from their homes, creating the world’s largest displacement crisis and uprooting families multiple times as people struggle to escape to neighboring countries with economic and security problems of their own. Financial challenges have led some to return to the war-stricken capital.
“Being safe somewhere is the most important thing,” said Ismail, 42. “We’re not even thinking about education because the economic situation doesn’t allow that. As a parent that really impacts you, but we are helpless.”
Sudan’s war erupted on April 15, 2023, over a planned political transition under which the army, led by Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, and the RSF, led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, were competing to protect their interests.
Fighting tore through the capital and unleashed waves of ethnically driven violence in the western region of Darfur, before spreading to other areas including Gezira state, an important farming region that became an aid hub where many had sought refuge.
When the RSF entered the state’s main city Wad Madani in December, looting and occupying neighborhoods as they had done in the capital, many were uprooted for a second time.
Ahmed, 50, who had fled with his wife and four children from the capital when the war began, said RSF troops pulled them from a car as they tried to escape Wad Madani in order to seize the vehicle.
They headed east to Al-Gedaref, where his 75-year-old mother-in-law died after the arduous, three-day journey. They then paid smugglers to go to Egypt, which suspended visa-free entry for women, children, and men over 50, as Sudanese poured across the border last year.
“Because of Al-Burhan and Hemedti, our lives were completely shattered. We lost everything we owned,” said Ahmed, speaking by phone from Cairo. He asked to be identified by his first name to avoid problems with Egyptian authorities.
Within Sudan, more than 3 million were already homeless from previous conflicts before the current war, mostly in Darfur, where the RSF and its allies have been accused of widespread abuses in violence over the past 12 months that they have blamed on their rivals.
Though parts of the country, Africa’s third largest by area, remain relatively unscathed, many displaced rely on charity as conditions worsen and nearly 5 million people face extreme hunger.
Sudan’s health system has collapsed, allowing outbreaks of diseases including measles and cholera. Aid agencies say the army restricts access for humanitarian relief, and what little gets through is at risk of looting in RSF-controlled areas.
Both sides have denied impeding aid efforts. But on the ground, volunteer-run “emergency rooms” linked to the pro-democracy networks from the uprising that toppled former leader Omar Bashir in 2019, have been left to provide minimal food rations and keep some basic services running.

Ismail Kharif, a 37-year-old farmer living in a camp for displaced people near El Fasher, capital of North Darfur, said people there were at risk from fighting and subject to reprisals by both sides if they tried to move, while being cut off from health care, regular food supplies, and phone networks.

Across the country in Port Sudan, tens of thousands have sought shelter under army control but wonder what lies ahead.

“You cannot imagine that one day you will be living like this,” said Mashaer Ali, a 45-year-old mother of three from the capital, living in a displacement center in the Red Sea city. “Is this reality?” she said. “It’s very, very difficult.”

The war has created “one of the worst displacement and humanitarian crises in the world, and one of the most neglected and ignored almost, although its implications, its repercussions and the suffering of the people are quite extraordinary,” Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said in an interview.

 


Houthis say Iran’s attack on Israel ‘legal’

Houthis say Iran’s attack on Israel ‘legal’
Updated 14 April 2024
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Houthis say Iran’s attack on Israel ‘legal’

Houthis say Iran’s attack on Israel ‘legal’
  • Iran launched a volley of drones and missiles at Israel on Saturday night in revenge for Israel’s airstrike on its Damascus consulate
  • Houthis claim that their attacks are intended to push Israel to break its stranglehold on the Palestinian Gaza Strip

AL-MUKALLA: Houthi militia said on Sunday that Iran’s large-scale missile and drone launch on Israel was “lawful” and “in accordance with international law” and pledged to continue their attacks on ships in the Red Sea.

Iran launched a volley of drones and missiles at Israel on Saturday night in revenge for Israel’s airstrike on its Damascus consulate, which killed several Revolutionary Guards leaders.

In a statement broadcast by their official news agency, the Houthi Foreign Ministry hailed Iran’s strikes, which they claimed fell within Iran’s “rights of defense,” and called on foreign powers to halt their “unlimited” political, military, financial and logistical support for Israel. 

Despite media reports that Iran-backed militias in the region, including the Houthis in Yemen, launched drones and missiles at Israel on Saturday, the Houthis have not officially claimed credit for participating in Iran’s campaign against Israel or other attacks in the Red Sea since April 10.

Since November, the Houthis have shot hundreds of ballistic missiles and drones toward Israel, as well as international commercial and navy ships in the Red Sea, Bab Al-Mandab Strait and the Gulf of Aden, preventing Israel-linked and Israel-bound vessels from passing through crucial maritime channels.

The Houthis claim that their attacks are intended to push Israel to break its stranglehold on the Palestinian Gaza Strip. 

Unlike in the early days of their Red Sea ship campaign, when the Houthis swiftly announced strikes, they have recently published notices of more attacks some days later.

At the same time, Sultan Al-Sami’i, a member of the Houthi Supreme Political Council, reiterated on Sunday the militia’s warning to target ships in the Red Sea until Israel lifts its siege on Gaza.

Speaking on the seized Galaxy Leader ship off Yemen’s western Hodediah city, the Houthi leader said that the Red Sea was “safe” for international trade and that they were only targeting Israel-linked ships and those bound for Israel.

“Except for vessels owned by the Zionist entity or those affiliated with it, we assure all nations that the Red Sea remains a secure zone for international trade, navigation and ship passage,” Al-Sami’i said.

The US and the UK, supported by allies, have responded to the Houthi attacks on ships by striking Houthi targets in Sanaa, Saada, Hodeida and other Yemeni areas under the militia’s control.

The Houthis say that the strikes have not achieved their goal of reducing their military capabilities and that they will continue to target ships.