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Biden struggles to contain Israel-Hamas war as conflict spreads

Asia
 A picture taken from southern Israel bordering the Gaza Strip on Dec 27, 2023, shows smoke after an Israeli bombardment in the Palestinian territory amid ongoing battles with the Hamas militant group. [AFP]

As the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expands its ground offensive in Gaza, Iran's threats of retaliation over the airstrikes that killed a senior military officer and continued attacks from Tehran-backed groups in the region are increasing the likelihood of an all-out war in the Middle East. It is a risk U.S. President Joe Biden cannot afford as he heads into an election year in 2024.

Earlier this week, Tehran vowed retribution for what it called the assassination in Syria of Seyed Razi Mousavi, a senior adviser to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Mousavi was said to be involved in supplying arms to Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militia in Lebanon and Syria that has been intensifying its assault from Israel's northern border in solidarity to Palestinians in Gaza. Israel declined to confirm it was behind the airstrike that killed Mousavi.

The White House did not respond to VOA's queries on whether Israel informed Washington in advance of the airstrikes that killed Mousavi, or whether the administration believes the war can still be contained in Gaza.

The conflict spreads

Immediately after the Gaza war broke out, the United States moved military assets to the Middle East as a deterrence and telegraphed to Tehran and its proxies to stay out. Around the region, however, there are signs the conflict is spreading.

On Monday, Biden ordered "necessary and proportionate" strikes at Kataib Hezbollah, Iran-backed militias in Iraq, in response to a drone attack that injured soldiers in a U.S. military base in Irbil, northern Iraq.

Baghdad condemned the U.S. strikes as a "hostile act" and a violation of its sovereignty. But with about 3,500 U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria directly in the line of fire, analysts say Biden had little choice but to respond.

On Tuesday, Yemen's Iran-backed Houthi militia, also known as Ansar Allah, claimed responsibility for a missile attack on a container ship in the Red Sea. It's the latest in a string of attacks on global shipping in recent weeks that has prompted Washington to set up a multinational naval forces coalition to patrol the waterways.

Escalation is inescapable as Iran-backed groups compete to show their support for Hamas, said Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute who focuses on Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria.

"Some players within the Axis of Resistance, like the Houthis, are trying to show that they are more dedicated to the cause than the other Iraqi or Lebanese or Syrian factions," he told VOA, referring to groups in the region with varying levels of military and political proximity to Tehran.

"The Red Sea is the real concern because the Houthis are much harder to deter, particularly because nobody wants to disrupt the peace process of Saudi Arabia," he added.

Since 2022, Saudi Arabia and Houthi rebels in Yemen have been negotiating a permanent cease-fire to end their eight-year war.

'On the brink of war'

Since the Gaza conflict began, Israel has engaged in fierce cross-border clashes with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

"The situation is really on the brink of war," said Elisheva Machlis, senior lecturer of Middle East Studies at Bar-Ilan University.

Tens of thousands of Israelis have been evacuated from border towns in anticipation of an attack by Hezbollah. It's "an intolerable situation" that may be turning public opinion to favor of expanding the war north, Machlis told VOA.

Netanyahu's government has said that military action is not off the table to ensure that Israeli citizens can return to their homes.

Risk of Israel–Iran war

"Israel's decision to assassinate a high-ranking member of the Iranian military in Damascus is a huge provocation," said Omar Rahman, fellow at the Middle East Council on Global Affairs.

"Iran has stayed out of direct involvement so far, but if its commanders are being targeted, it will have trouble continuing along a path of restraint," he told VOA.

Israel neither confirms nor denies involvement in Mousavi's death.

If Israel is behind the killing, it's unclear whether it is doing so as a warning to Tehran or to trigger an Iranian response that would give Israel the pretext to enlarge the war, said Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a Washington research group that advocates restraint in American foreign policy.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant acknowledged the country is "in a multifront war," under attack in "seven theaters," including Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Iran.

Pressure on Israel

As President Biden gears up for the November 2024 election with polls showing most Americans disapproving of his handling of Gaza, he is keen to avoid a broader war. Privately, the Biden administration has been urging Israeli for restraint in Lebanon.

On Gaza, the U.S. has been making increasingly public and urgent appeals for Israel to transition to a more limited and surgical phase of the war. Israeli attacks, however, have been intensifying. Since Christmas Eve, its airstrikes have killed hundreds of Palestinians, many of them in refugee camps.

"We are expanding the fight in the coming days," said Netanyahu in comments released by his Likud party on Monday.

U.S. pressure on Israel continued Tuesday, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan met with Ron Dermer, the Israeli minister of strategic affairs, in Washington. Among Gaza-related topics, the meeting focused on "the transition to a different phase of the war to maximize focus on high-value Hamas targets," and "practical steps to improve the humanitarian situation and minimize harm to civilians," a White House official told VOA.

The meeting is the latest in a monthslong diplomatic engagement by Biden's top aides with stakeholders across the region, pushing for more aid for Gazans and hostage release deals even as it continues to provide Israel with military assistance and diplomatic support.

At the United Nations, U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield worked with Arab states to reach language on a resolution on temporary pauses in fighting and humanitarian aid delivery mechanisms that Washington could abstain on to allow adoption by the Security Council.

Biden is "trying every solution possible except for the most obvious one: a cease-fire in Gaza," Parsi, of the Quincy Institute, told VOA. "A cease-fire would end the attacks on U.S. troops, end the attacks on ships in the Red Sea and most likely also calm down the Lebanese Israeli border."

The U.S. and Israel say a cease-fire at this point will allow Hamas to regroup.

Since October 9, Israeli airstrikes and a ground offensive have killed close to 21,000 people in Gaza, according to health authorities there. Hamas' October 7 surprise attacks in Israel killed 1,200 people. The violence is the bloodiest episode in the decades-long territorial conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

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