Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 38 Issue 10
Author: Silvia Boltuc
The United States is escalating its military involvement in the Middle East to counter the resurgence of the Islamic State. This includes a substantial deployment in Syria and Iraq. Concurrently, the Red Sea crisis involving Houthis’ attacks poses a multifaceted challenge, impacting regional stability and exacerbating geopolitical tensions. The situation is further complicated by the ongoing conflicts in Gaza and the broader dynamics of the Middle East.
- The United States is deploying 1500 soldiers to combat the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, indicating a renewed focus on counterterrorism.
- The Islamic State’s twin bombing in Kerman, Iran, underscores persistent regional threats, despite earlier claims of defeat.
- The Red Sea crisis, triggered by Houthi attacks, and involving a significant US-UK retaliatory strike, caused geopolitical ramifications and discontent in the Gulf region.
The United States is set to increase its military presence in the Middle East, specifically in the ongoing efforts against the Islamic State. Washington plans to deploy 1500 soldiers from the 44th Infantry Brigade Combat Team of the New Jersey Army National Guard. This marks the largest deployment of these troops since 2008.
The deployment is part of Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), the international military coalition’s intervention against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, initiated in August 2016.
As of 2021, only 2.500 US troops have remained in Iraq, serving in an advisory capacity. Additionally, there are 900 soldiers in Syria actively engaged in combat operations against the Islamic State.
The Islamic State has regained global attention through a twin bombing attack in the Iranian city of Kerman. The attack occurred during the commemoration of Qasem Soleimani’s death, representing a highly symbolic move.
Soleimani, indeed, was recognised within Iran as the ‘anti-terrorism commander,’ a title earned for leading Shiite groups directly in combating the regional activities of the terrorist group.
On January 15th, 2024, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) conducted a retaliatory strike on targets in northern Syria. The IRGC took this action in response to the attacks in Kerman, which were carried out by fighters from the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) who allegedly had received training in that region.
Read more | Geopolitical Risk in the Red Sea
The Middle East:
Despite a rapid deterioration in Iran’s relations with the Western world, stemming from the US withdrawal from the nuclear pact and subsequent events, the international community condemned the attack on civilians in Kerman.
Although the Trump administration declared the Islamic State Caliphate defeated in 2019, the recent bombing highlighted the ongoing threat in the Middle East posed by the terrorist group.
Despite suggestions in recent years for the United States to disengage from the Middle East, especially after withdrawing from Afghanistan and partially from Iraq, Washington’s intelligence activities remained focused on counterterrorism. This focus resulted in some successes, such as the drone strike that killed al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in Afghanistan in 2022.
Of particular concern are the camps and prisons in Syria housing Islamic State fighters, such as the al-Hol camp and the al-Sina prison. According to open sources, these facilities lack adequate control, allowing the presence of weapons, computers used for online activities like recruitment and propaganda, millions of dollars in economic resources, and practices in line with the style of the Islamic State, such as brutal executions.
In addition to the constant attacks conducted by the Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq, ISKP remains active in Afghanistan.
The recent events in Kerman have heightened the challenges in a region already grappling with significant instability due to ongoing events in Gaza and the Red Sea.
Indeed, on October 19th, 2023, Yemen’s Houthi movement started a series of attacks targeting the ships in the Red Sea linked to Israel. The Yemeni rebels asserted unwavering support for the Palestinian cause.
The United States assembled a multinational naval coalition to help safeguard commercial traffic from attacks by Houthis, known as Operation Prosperity Guardian.
On January 12th, 2024, the US and British militaries conducted a significant retaliatory strike against Houthi forces in Yemen, targeting over 60 sites.
Gulf countries, including the UAE, Oman, and Saudi Arabia, have condemned or expressed concerned over the strikes. Some suggest that Houthi attacks are a result of Washington’s unwavering support for Israel.
As discontent over the Palestinian issue grows across the Muslim world, extending beyond the Arab League, the recent operation targeting Houthi facilities in Yemen adds another layer to the crisis. Significantly, Russia also condemned the US-UK joint operation, showing Moscow’s increasing alignment with Arab state allies.
For Gulf states, this could impede efforts to achieve stability in the region, thereby affecting their economic goals. For years, a Saudi-led coalition, supported by the United States, has conducted a prolonged bombing campaign on Houthi rebels, implemented a naval blockade, and deployed ground forces in Yemen, resulting in a humanitarian disaster.
In September 2023, Saudi Arabia commended the positive outcomes of talks with Yemen’s Houthi rebels after their visit to the kingdom for peace discussions. The ongoing conflict between the Houthis and the United States-UK forces may have repercussions on the current Yemeni Peace Process.
Furthermore, Saudi and US officials announced in March 2023 that Iran had agreed to cease arms shipments to its Houthi allies in Yemen as part of a China-brokered deal to restore diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia.
Given this context, Riyadh refrained from joining the ‘Red Sea coalition,’ despite allowing access to its airspace. The crisis in the Red Sea has the potential to undermine all the efforts made in recent years to achieve stability within the broader region.
Iran is not immune to the dynamics in the Middle East. On January 15th, 2024, IRGC claimed responsibility for missile attacks on Syria, targeting ‘the perpetrators of terrorist operations in the Islamic Republic’.
The statement also mentioned attacks on ‘anti-Iranian espionage centres and terrorist groups’ in Erbil, Iraq, implicating Mossad in these activities. Tehran was likely seeking avenge for the killing of Seyed Radhi Mousavi, IRGC influential commander, in Damascus. Still, latest IRGC attack on Erbil might have consequences on Iran-Iraqi Kurdistan relations.
Iran’s Foreign Minister, Amir-Abdollahian, labelled the United States’ support for Israel as ‘a big mistake.’ However, he emphasised that the Islamic Republic of Iran does not give orders to regional Resistance Forces, including those in Yemen; instead, according to his stances, they act independently within the framework of their own interests.
The region faces heightened risks because of the Islamic State’s resurgence and increasing friction between Iran and the United States/Israel.
The Red Sea crisis poses further significant geopolitical risks, affecting stability and regional alliances, especially given the discontent expressed by the Gulf countries and the broader Muslim world.
Recent attack on Houthis’ facilities in Yemen, intertwined with the conflict in Gaza, threaten regional peace initiatives, as the Yemeni Peace Process, and risk enlarging the ongoing conflict between Israel and Resistance Forces to the broader Middle East.
- Escalation of Conflicts. The region may witness a further escalation of conflicts, with increased military interventions and heightened tensions, adversely affecting stability. Increasing discontent might lead to worsening relations between the Western bloc and Muslim countries, particularly with strategic allies such as the Gulf monarchies.
- Diplomatic Resolution. Robust diplomatic efforts may emerge to de-escalate tensions, fostering collaboration between regional actors to achieve a ceasefire in Gaza and stop attacks in the Red Sea.
- Continued Instability. The persistence of regional challenges, including terrorism and conflicts, may lead to prolonged instability, impacting political, economic, and security dimensions. This might lead to a renew engagement of US/NATO Forces in the Middle East.
In light of escalating threats and complex dynamics, sustained international cooperation is imperative to address terrorism and regional conflicts. The United States should balance its military response with diplomatic initiatives, engaging key stakeholders to foster stability. Ongoing monitoring of the evolving situation and adaptive strategies are crucial to mitigating risks and preserving regional security.
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