Since the eruption of the Gaza war, the question of whether the crisis would take a regional shape has made headlines in international media outlets. The aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines sent to the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East by the US showed that Washington also had a regional war fear and employed a preemptive measure accordingly. Iran and its proxies’ reaction to the crisis were the first to come to mind parallel to this fear. Iranian leaders ranging from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian delivered threatening remarks following the start of the vicious Israeli bombardment on Gaza, warning that regional escalation is likely to loom on the horizon if Israel continues its war crimes in Gaza.
While it is beyond doubt that Iran does not want to engage in the Gaza war directly and rejects the claims that the ‘Al Aqsa Flood Operation’ was orchestrated by it, Tehran congratulated the Hamas leadership for the attack and is capable of at least distracting Israel to some extent through its proxies in different Arab countries. In this respect, given its close ties to Tehran, Lebanese Hezbollah’s capacity and response have become the main focus of the discussions. Nevertheless, the skirmishes that transpired between the Israeli forces and the group’s militants in the aftermath of the Gaza crisis have thus far remained under the traditional rules of engagement between the warring parties. Therefore, despite Hezbollah’s growing losses, the situation has not spiraled out of control.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s long-awaited speeches also showed that the group is not in favor of a military escalation in the Lebanon-Israel border, disappointing many of his supporters. Undoubtedly, Hezbollah drew some lessons from the 2006 war, which led to the destruction of Southern Lebanon due to the severe Israeli reaction to Hezbollah. Despite this situation, Hezbollah’s incrementally growing losses and the catastrophic humanitarian crisis unfolding in Gaza, along with the fact that a permanent ceasefire seems to be a long way off, put increasing pressure on the group and its leader, Nasrallah. Thus, Hezbollah is expected to push the limits of the mentioned traditional rules of engagement, likely prompting a more vicious response from Israel. In the meantime, the missile attacks conducted by Houthis in Yemen- another critical ally of Hezbollah in the so-called axis of resistance- against Israel are not capable of changing the course of the Israeli aggression on Gaza.
In addition to the abovementioned sides, Israel and the US perceived a threat from Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria, too, and tried to employ crippling measures against them. Although the Syrian regime has so far tried to stay from the fallout of the Gaza war and limited itself to merely publishing/delivering official statements condemning Israel, Tel Aviv is trying to prevent Syria from becoming a viable front against it in its fight against Gaza. To this end, Iranian-backed militias are constantly targeted in the country by Israel. The Israeli attacks on the Iran-aligned militias in the Syrian-regime-held areas, which have been ongoing ever since 2013, aimed at blocking the weaponry flow to Hezbollah and eliminating other threats arising from the militias. Taking this motive into account, Syria was shelled after a rocket attack that took place on the Golan Heights a short period after the ignition of the Gaza War. Allegedly, a drone attack that targeted the city of Eilat in Israel was also conducted by an armed group in Syria. Israel was quick to strike Syria as retaliation in early November. It is worth mentioning that no group claimed responsibility for the mentioned attacks on Israel.
Moreover, the Aleppo and Damascus airports have continued to be the target of the Israeli forces. The war on Gaza did not decrease the intensity of the Israeli forces’ attacks on airports in Syria. For instance, Aleppo airport was attacked by Israeli forces at least six times in 2023. The last example of such an attack occurred on October 22. Following this, in early December, Iran announced that two Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps members were killed in Syria in an Israeli attack. Israel clearly intends to paralyze the airports and render them non-operational in an effort to prevent Iran from using them for its geopolitical interests and agenda.
Additionally, according to the Pentagon, since the eruption of the vicious war in Gaza, more than 70 attacks have been carried out by the Iran-backed groups on the US bases in Syria and Iraq for the unreserved US support to Israel. The US forces intercepted some of these attacks, while others led to the injuries. As a response to the string of attacks, in late October, according to the US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Washington conducted air strikes against Iran-aligned groups in Eastern Syrian areas of Albu Kamal and the city of Al Mayadeen upon President Biden’s order. According to the Secretary of Defense, the attacks destroyed the facilities belonging to the militias. Additionally, the US strikes have been extended to neighboring Iraq too. On December 4th, the US conducted an air strike near Kirkuk in Iraq, which led to the killing of 5 militias.
In short, although the ‘Palestinian cause’ has been a very instrumental tool in the search for increasing&obtaining legitimacy for different political actors in the region, specifically for the Assad regime, neither the Syrian regime nor the Iraqi government intends to become the new front of the Gaza War due to their own limitations, priorities, and interests. However, the presence of Iran-allied militias entails a grave risk both for Baghdad and Damascus, given that the militias are thought to get their directives directly from Iran or local actors linked to Tehran rather than Damascus or Baghdad leadership. As the Israeli army’s intention to extend its operation towards South Gaza becomes more apparent with every passing moment, both Syria and Iraq are likely to increasingly face the threat of getting dragged into the Gaza crisis. The Western camp’s strategic blindness emanating from its unreserved support to Israel in the Gaza war is likely to increase regional tension in the upcoming period and prompt the regional actors to accelerate hedging their bets in their foreign policy decisions in line with the emerging global order. The Western camp’s declining reliability, popularity, and influence is likely to pave the way for Iran, Russia, and China to benefit from the current reality.