Regional turmoil: On the West Asia situation

West Asia needs a new security equilibrium with the Palestine issue at the centre 

January 18, 2024 12:25 am | Updated 08:48 am IST

The war on Gaza is no longer about Israel and Hamas. Israel has carried out targeted strikes in Lebanon and Syria, killing Hezbollah, Hamas and Iranian commanders. From southern Lebanon, Hezbollah is exchanging fire with Israeli troops. Iran-backed militias in Syria and Iraq have attacked U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq. The Houthis, the Iran-backed rebels of Yemen, have turned the Red Sea into a battlefield. The U.S.’s air strikes in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, seek to retaliate against Shia militias. As chaos and instability spread, Sunni Islamist militants attacked Iran, killing at least 100 people. In the latest escalation, Iran claims to have destroyed an Israeli intelligence outpost in Iraq’s Kurdistan and training camps of Sunni Islamists in Syria and Pakistan, in air strikes. This is now a classic case of regional anarchy where countries are taking unilateral military measures to address their perceived security challenges, throwing international laws and the idea of sovereignty, the bedrock of the international system, to the wind, thereby risking a wider all-out war.

Just weeks before the October 7 attack, Jake Sullivan, the U.S. National Security Adviser, had said “the Middle East is quieter today than it has been in two decades”. The Abraham Accords were on a strong footing, and Saudi Arabia and Israel were moving closer towards normalisation. Iraq had become quieter; Gulf Arabs and Iran had reached a rapprochement; and a ceasefire was holding in Yemen. Most of these changes, however, ignored the oldest crisis in the region — Israel’s continuing occupation of the Palestinian territories. The October 7 Hamas attack and Israel’s subsequent vengeful offensive in Gaza have not only brought Palestine back to the centre of West Asia but also lit fires, triggering perhaps the deepest security crisis in the region since 1967. The involvement of non-state actors and the absence of an off ramp complicate matters. After 100 days of war with Hamas, Israel has achieved little in Gaza. The Houthis, a militia that survived seven years of Saudi bombing, are unlikely to be deterred by America’s strikes. Even though Iran wants to showcase strength and boldness, it cannot mask its inherent weakness, which also makes it unpredictable. The old order, anchored by America’s domineering regional presence, is in tatters. What West Asia needs is a new security equilibrium. There has to be an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, and peace between Israel and Palestinians could be used as a springboard for further talks aimed at regional security between the main stakeholders — Israel, Arab nations, Iran, the U.S. and their respective allies and proxies.

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