Middle East on the Brink: The Rising Threat of Accidental Escalation


“It is hard to think of a time when there has been so much danger and insecurity and instability in the world,” the UK’s foreign secretary David Cameron said recently.

“The lights are absolutely flashing red, as it were, on the global dashboard.”

Cameron was referring, above all, to the regional instability unleashed by the war in Gaza.

The UK and US launched strikes on more than 60 targets in Yemen, with the aim of degrading the Houthi militia’s ability to hit cargo ships in the Red Sea.

Joe Biden has previously been cautious of any step that might trigger an unpredictable military response, and his secretary of state Antony Blinken said on Thursday, “I don’t think the conflict is escalating.” But like Cameron, he acknowledged that “there are lots of danger points”.

Last night, the US said that a missile targeting one of its warships had been intercepted, and a Houthi spokesperson said that further attacks could involve hundreds of drones and missiles, which would be a significant escalation.

But the Houthis are far from the only players, and no one can predict exactly what it would take for one of these “danger points” to precipitate a wider conflict,” said the Guardian’s international security correspondent Jason Burke, on how to think about the risks.

It’s now 101 days since the Hamas attack that started Israel’s war in Gaza. Since then, Israel has killed about 24,000 people, and about 85% of the Gazan population has been displaced.

“It is unadulterated, brutal violence in Gaza,” said Jason Burke, who is currently reporting from Jerusalem. “But across the region, a lot of what has happened is performative, it is about actors sending messages in a very complex, constantly evolving situation.”

There are still important factors holding back an escalation that spirals out of control. But, Jason said, “there is definitely more tension about the possibility than a couple of months ago. The situation feels much more volatile.”

The US/UK strikes in Yemen, carried out with the support of the Netherlands, Australia, Canada and Bahrain, came in response to 26 attacks by the Iranian-backed Houthi militia on vessels passing through the Red Sea – jeopardising a major trade route linking Asia to Europe and the US.

The Houthis say that the attacks will only stop when “the Israeli war on the people of Gaza stops”.

The attacks have hit radar systems, drone storage and launch sites; according to the Houthis’ spokesperson, five of its members have been killed.

The operation is intended to re-establish deterrence and offer some protection to commercial shipping, rather than wipe the Houthi forces off the map.

But US officials quoted by the New York Times say that the Houthis retain about three-quarters of their ability to fire on shipping.

“It’s almost impossible to completely eradicate those kind of capabilities with a couple of rounds of airstrikes,” Jason said.

“These are mobile facilities in a big country ,you’d need unbelievably good intelligence, fantastic accuracy, and quite a lot of luck.”

That may mean more strikes in the coming days. “If you don’t act against the Houthis in the Red Sea, you are going to see more attacks,” David Cameron said yesterday.

“The Houthis are far more savvy, prepared and well-equipped than many western commentators realise,” Farea al Muslimi, from the Chatham House Middle East programme, said.

“Their recklessness and willingness to escalate in the face of a challenge are always underrated.”

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