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Analysis: Risk of spiraling Mideast violence grows as war in Gaza inflames tensions

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip has raised the temperature on tensions across the Middle East, increasing the risk that other conflicts in the region could spin out of control.

Whether it is assaults on shipping vessels by Houthi rebels in Yemen or tit-for-tat attacks between Iran and Pakistan, a line can be drawn back to the war that was started when Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing some 1,200 people and taking about 250 hostage.

Since then, Israel has killed more than 24,000 Palestinians and displaced nearly 2 million others from their homes, arousing anger throughout the Muslim world.

With no end in sight to the war, tensions in the region are worsening by the day.

THE HOUTHI THREAT DRAWS IN THE U.S.

The Houthis, a rebel group that has held Yemen's capital since 2014, link their attacks on shipping in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden directly back to the war in Gaza. But their targets increasingly have had tenuous — if no links at all — to the war.

The U.S. has retaliated with multiple strikes against the Houthis, the latest coming Friday when Navy fighter jets targeted missile launchers in Yemen.

Armed and supported by Iran, the Houthis have a world view guided by their group's slogan: "God is the greatest, death to America, death to Israel, curse the Jews, victory to Islam.”

Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, is locked in a stalemated war between the Houthis and parties under the banner of a Saudi-led coalition.

Any direct military confrontation with the U.S. bolsters the Houthis' position within Yemen's fractious political scene. It also raises their profile within the so-called “Axis of Resistance,” which is made up of Iran and the militant groups it supports, including Hamas and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

The brewing conflict with the U.S. also allows the Houthis to ignore both Arab and international efforts to reach a permanent cease-fire and potential peace deal in Yemen.

The U.S. has a long, complicated history in Yemen. It includes America's relationship with the country's late 33-year strongman president, a yearslong drone-strike campaign against suspected al-Qaida members and struggling to help broker an end to the war as famine threatens the country.

IRAN FLEXES POWER AND FACES RESISTANCE

On the surface, airstrikes launched this week between Iran and Pakistan may not seem to be connected to the Israel-Hamas war; but they are.

They spring in part from suicide bombings by the Islamic State earlier this month that killed more than 90 people in Iran. It was the deadliest militant attack in Iran since its 1979 Islamic Revolution.

In taking credit for the attack, the Islamic State called on its supporters around the world to avenge the bloodshed in the Gaza Strip by attacking Christians and Jews. But it also criticized Palestinian-aligned militants such as Hamas and Hezbollah for receiving support from Iran.

The Islamic State group follows an extremists' version of Sunni Islam and views Shiites like those in Iran as heretics.

“Iran and its parties were spared from a fierce battle that Gaza is enduring alone from the blood of its children and women,” the Islamic State group message said.

The Islamic State attack increased the pressure faced by Iran’s theocracy. It has struggled to regain control following women-led mass demonstrations and individual protests sparked by the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini.

Iran hasn't directly intervened in the Israel-Hamas war, despite long describing Israel as its archenemy. But it has faced years of attacks likely carried out by Israel as part of a wider shadow war across the Mideast since the collapse of its nuclear deal with world powers.

Iran first launched strikes this week against targets in Iraq and Syria in response to the Islamic State suicide bombings. The assault drew anger, but no direct response from either nation.

But then Iran launched an attack on what it described as militant hideouts in Pakistan after alleging the suicide bombers passed through the country from Afghanistan. The attack killed two children and immediately raised tensions with nuclear-armed Pakistan, which also maintains a strong conventional military to counter its neighboring rival, India.

Pakistan responded Thursday with its own strikes inside Iran, killing at least nine people.

The U.S., China and the U.N. have urged restraint, and on Friday both countries appeared to signal efforts to tamp down tensions. But the potential for escalation, while low, remains. Iran wants to present itself as a regional Mideast power, while Pakistan’s military needs to show it can deter India -- in part, so it can maintain domestic support key to its political power.

WILL SIMMERING TENSIONS BOIL OVER?

There are risks that crises across the region could spin out of control.

Some hardline members of the Israeli government have called for Palestinians to be expelled from the Gaza Strip into the Sinai Peninsula. That could destabilize Egypt and the longstanding peace between it and Israel.

Syria is still in the midst of a civil war. Neighboring Jordan, a crucial power in Jerusalem, is suspected of launching airstrikes in Syria to disrupt drug smugglers, including one this week that killed nine people.

Still technically at war with Israel since its founding in 1948, Syria has been a launching pad for attacks aimed at the Israel-occupied Golan Heights since the start of the war.

Goaded by Hamas to get into the fight, Hezbollah militants in Lebanon have also launched strikes into Israel since the start of the war in Gaza. Israel has retaliated, but so far the two sides have stopped short of full-scale war along their border.

Even in Afghanistan — where the Taliban hold sway since the fall of Kabul in 2021 — an affiliate of the Islamic State group may yet to take advantage of the Gaza war to launch new attacks amid the extremists’ new campaign tied to the conflict.

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EDITOR’S NOTE — Jon Gambrell, the news director for the Gulf and Iran for The Associated Press, has reported from each of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Iran and other locations across the Mideast and wider world since joining the AP in 2006.