Larger conflict looms over West Asia : The Tribune India

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Larger conflict looms over West Asia

Escalation imminent as the Gaza war rages on four months after Hamas attack

Larger conflict looms over West Asia

EYE-OPENER: One should not underestimate the impact of daily images of horrific suffering beamed by television channels and social media across the region and the world. Reuters



Shyam Saran

Former Foreign Secretary and Honorary Fellow, CPR

THE US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, is on his fifth round of visits to West Asia with stops in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar and Israel. He plans to head to the West Bank thereafter to meet the Palestinian Liberation Organisation leadership. His previous four visits to capitals in the region since the breakout of the Israel-Hamas war in October last year failed to achieve any result beyond a meagre delivery of urgently needed food and medical supplies to the hapless people of Gaza, whose lives have descended into a veritable hell of continuing slaughter, deprivation, hunger and disease. The US, in being seen as complicit with Israel’s barbaric assault against innocent men, women and children in the Gaza strip and now extending to the West Bank, may be losing its international credibility and claim to high moral credentials. Even the American people are divided with a spreading sense of outrage against Israel and anger at the Joe Biden administration’s unwillingness to call out Israel’s blatant violation of international law and human rights of the people of Palestine. This may affect President Biden’s chances of re-election.

The US, in being seen as complicit with Israel’s barbaric assault against innocent men, women and children in the Gaza strip, may be losing its credibility.

Squaring the circle of supporting Israel unconditionally and preventing the escalation of the war spawned by its increasingly brutal military operations is a bridge too far and the contradiction is not lost on the countries in the region. Despite its profession of wanting to prevent escalation, the US has been reluctantly forced into becoming a participant in the escalation process by having to launch attacks against the Houthis in Yemen and targets in Syria and Iraq in retaliation for missile attacks against its bases and forces located in the region. It is difficult to see what another round of high-level visits to the region’s capitals may achieve.

It is unlikely that Israel will agree to a ceasefire or wind down its operations significantly. PM Netanyahu’s political survival and the opportunities that Israel’s right-wing forces see in this conflict to expand Israel’s territory and settlements indicate otherwise. Netanyahu believes, and perhaps rightly so, that as long as the war continues, his position as Prime Minister is safe. By the same token, an escalation of the war into the wider region would deflect attention from what Israel is doing in Gaza and the West Bank. Its provocative attacks against Iranian targets and the Hezbollah leadership in Lebanon are aimed at drawing them into a larger conflict in which the US may be unable to stay uninvolved. Netanyahu is playing a dangerous game. Not only the US but the rest of the world, too, may end up paying a huge price. Unless the US uses its significant leverage with Israel and compels it to halt all its operations in Gaza immediately and lift its virtual siege of the strip, it may be impossible to halt the escalation of the war and its catastrophic consequences both for the region and the world.

Before October 7, 2023, the day of the horrific terror attack by Hamas against Israeli settlements, it had seemed as if the Palestinian issue had been successfully pushed to the margins. The US strategy for the region appeared to be working. It could dispense with active engagement in the region so as to focus on the Indo-Pacific as the main theatre of contention with its peer rival, China. The Ukraine war, which erupted in February 2022, already took away some of that focus, which made it all the more necessary to create and sustain a coalition of regional partners which could manage and uphold regional security in West Asia. The US would retain its forward deployments in the region, but only as contingent support. The promotion of formal relations between Israel and key nations in the Gulf was one component of this strategy. The other was putting into place the I2U2 grouping, comprising India, Israel, the UAE and the US. The Abraham Accords formalised relations between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan. It was anticipated that the most important of the Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia, would follow suit. It is on this expectation that the G20 Summit in New Delhi last year saw the conclusion of an agreement to establish an India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor, which would have included the UAE and Saudi Arabia as well as Israel, whose Haifa port would have been the terminal point. Saudi Arabia’s tacit acceptance of Israel’s participation in this project shows that the expectation of an imminent Saudi-Israel normalisation of relations was well-founded. What the Hamas attack and its aftermath have done is to bring the Palestinian issue right to the centre of West Asian politics. The US game plan has unravelled perhaps irretrievably. The longer the Gaza war continues and escalates, the trend of mainstreaming of Israel in the regional security architecture could be stalled and then go into reverse. Regimes in the Gulf countries, for their own political survival, may no longer be able to ignore or even suppress the growing anger among their people against the brutal and inhuman treatment being meted out to the Palestinian people. One should not underestimate the impact of the daily images of horrific suffering beamed by television channels and social media across the region and the world.

It is against this backdrop that India should review its policy in the region. In the pre-October 7 period, it could promote its interests by parallel engagement with Israel and key Arab states. Participation in I2U2 and the economic corridor was also contingent upon the same assumption. This may no longer hold good. The same caution should also be observed in allowing the recruitment of Indian workers for service in Israel to replace Palestinian workers from Gaza and the West Bank. This may have reputational and political consequences among Arab and Gulf states, with whom India has established mutually benign and constructive relations.

#Antony Blinken #Gaza #Hamas #Israel #Qatar #Saudi Arabia


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