Is Biden’s policy towards the Israel-Hamas war working?

America’s airstrikes in West Asia are spreading the fire instead of boosting its own deterrence

January 29, 2024 04:35 pm | Updated 05:50 pm IST

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks at an event in South Carolina. File

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks at an event in South Carolina. File | Photo Credit: Jacquelyn Martin

The drone attack by Iran-backed Shia militias on a U.S. military logistics hub in Jordan, along the border with Syria, in which three American service persons were killed and dozens more injured, is the deadliest assault on U.S. forces in West Asia since the Hamas-Israel war broke out on October 7.

President Joe Biden has said the U.S. will retaliate, indicating that the current security crisis in West Asia is set to escalate further.

When Israel launched an all-out attack on Gaza, after Hamas’s cross-border raid killing at least 1,200 Israelis, mostly civilians, the Biden administration adopted a two-fold approach — to let Israel continue its war with America’s military assistance and diplomatic protection while simultaneously working to prevent the crisis from escalating into a regional conflict. Three and a half months later, Israel’s war is far from over, while the crisis has already spread across the region.  

Biden’s unwavering support for Israel

Even when casualties rose in Gaza and international pressure mounted on Israel to halt the attacks, the Biden administration continued to back Israel’s war.

It vetoed a UN Security Council Resolution that called for a humanitarian ceasefire and voted against back-to-back resolutions in the UN General Assembly that were critical of Israel’s war and occupation.

Israel’s war has killed over 26,000 Palestinians (mostly women and children), wounded more than 60,000 and displaced roughly 90% of Gaza’s 2.3 million population.

The International Court of Justice, the UN’s top court, last week ordered Israel to take measures to prevent genocidal acts by its forces in Gaza. Yet, the Biden administration hasn’t even called for a ceasefire.

On the other side, to prevent the crisis from escalating, Mr. Biden sent his top diplomat Antony Blinken several times to the region. Mr. Blinken held multiple rounds of talks with Arab leaders with whom the U.S. has substantial diplomatic leverage. However, the problem the U.S. faced was that it lacked a similar diplomatic leverage with Iran. And the main security challenge came from Iran-backed militias in West Asia.

Rise in militia attacks 

The U.S. faced two kinds of attacks. One, the Islamic Resistance Forces, the Shia militias based in Iraq and Syria, carried out at least 150 attacks against U.S. forces and bases in the region since October 7. Two, Houthis, the Shia rebels of Yemen, started attacking commercial vessels in the busy shipping lanes of Red Sea, directly challenging the U.S.’s ability to provide security to global shipping. According to a report in Financial Times, the U.S. sought China’s help to rein in the Houthis through Iran. But it did not seem to have worked. America’s response was typical — it carried out retaliatory airstrikes in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

The U.S. has conducted at least half a dozen strikes in Yemen, targeting Houthi positions. But the Houthis still attack ships in the Red Sea. The challenge the US faces is that airstrikes alone hardly deter home-grown militias.

The Houthis have survived seven years of Saudi bombing and are controlling swathes of Yemen’s territories, including its Red Sea coast and ports. According to a report in the International Crisis Group, Houthis’ attacks on the Red Sea in “solidarity with the Palestinians” are popular among its base in Yemen and help it recruit new fighters. 

Chances of escalation are high

The U.S. strikes on Shia militias in Iraq and Syria were also not immediately effective as the drone attack in Jordan showed. America’s airstrikes are spreading the fire instead of boosting its own deterrence. The U.S. has some 2,000 soldiers in Iraq, 3,000 in Jordan and up to 1,000 in Syria, who are close targets for the vast network of Shia militias, which Iran has built across the region, from Iraq to Syria to Lebanon and then to Yemen.

Three and a half months since the Israel-Hamas war began, Israel is far from meeting its declared objectives — dismantling Hamas and freeing hostages. U.S. intelligence estimates that only 20-30% of Hamas fighters were killed in three months, while 80% of Hamas’s vast tunnel networks in Gaza remain intact, according to American media.

As long as the war continues, the chances of further regional escalation are high, with the U.S. being drawn deeper into the West Asian vortex at a time when it wants to pivot away from the region to focus on its more conventional challenges in the Indo-Pacific and Eastern Europe.

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