Containing a Catastrophe: The Race to Prevent a Wider Middle East War

Crisis management: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan in Riyadh on 14 October. Image: Associated Press / Alamy

As Israel prepares to launch a ground offensive in Gaza, there is a real risk that the war could escalate into a wider conflagration. Efforts to contain the conflict will test key relationships across the region.

It is already clear that Hamas’s attack on Israel on 7 October was a watershed moment. It was the deadliest attack on the State of Israel since its existence; its scale and brutality make it paradigm-shifting. Looking to past conflicts – the Gaza wars of 2008/09, 2012 and 2014, for example, or the Israel–Hezbollah war in 2006 – therefore has only limited value. A week after the attack, there are two broad scenarios for how this crisis could unfold.

Two Scenarios for Escalation

In the first scenario, the Israel–Hamas war could stay contained to Gaza and southern Israel. The launch of Israel’s impending attack on Hamas ‘from the air, sea and land’ will have unpredictable consequences. But there is still the possibility that the war could remain limited in scope, at least geographically.

In the second scenario, the war could expand beyond southern Israel and become a regional conflict. The escalation logic of this scenario is plain: the unfolding war in Gaza could lead other groups that define themselves through their resistance or enmity towards Israel – most notably armed Palestinian factions in the West Bank; Hezbollah in Lebanon; Iranian-backed groups in Syria, Iraq or elsewhere; or even Iran itself – to conclude that they must get involved lest they lose legitimacy. A major attack on Israel by any of these actors would likely be met with a furious response from the Israeli military, which would in turn further fuel escalation in the region.

Thus far, the clashes and skirmishes that have occurred in the West Bank and across the Israeli-Lebanese and Israeli-Syrian borders have remained relatively limited, indicating a level of intentional restraint on all sides. Nevertheless, the escalation scenario should not be dismissed as alarmist. Much will be written in the coming months about how it was possible for Israel to fail to see Hamas’s 7 October attack coming. One conclusion is likely to be that there was a failure of imagination: Israeli and other intelligence services may have been aware of various different Hamas actions or of Israel’s own vulnerabilities, but the dots were not joined together – it wasn’t just that no one thought that an attack of such scale was possible, but that no one had thought of such an attack at all. Policymakers around the world, including in the UK, now have a responsibility not to commit the same mistake and to take a potential escalation of the conflict – even beyond all precedent – seriously.

To be clear, even the first scenario is catastrophic. The war in Gaza, like the attack that provoked it, has already reached unprecedented levels of brutality, bloodshed and destruction. The Israeli hostages taken by Hamas, together with hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who had no hand in Hamas’s actions at all, are in mortal jeopardy. Even among the combatants – both Hamas and the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) – casualties must be expected at rates not seen before. Yet still, the second scenario is much worse.

Regional De-Escalation Upended – and Tested

Hamas’s attack has upended the regional trend towards de-escalation and reducing tensions that has prevailed in the Middle East over the past three years. The notion that governments in the region could agree to put their differences aside, rebuild diplomatic relations and focus on shared interests in economic development – all while leaving the leaving the root causes and underlying conflicts that led to instability and tensions in the first place unaddressed – has been exposed as untenable. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict – or, for that matter, the ongoing conflicts in Libya, Syria and Yemen, or the socio-economic cleavages in many other countries in the region – cannot be ignored or put in boxes, no matter how much governments in the region and beyond may want to focus on more positive agendas.

Governments across the region are likely to come under immense popular pressure as their populations rally in support of the Palestinians in Gaza

At the same time, however, the Israel–Hamas war and the real threat of its escalation into a regional conflagration will now test the new relationships that have been formed over the past three years – between Israel and the Gulf Arab states, between Israel and Turkey, between Turkey and Egypt and the Gulf Arab states, and between the Gulf Arab states and Iran. Governments across the region, from Ankara and Cairo to Riyadh and even Tehran, have a shared interest in at the very least containing the current crisis to remain within the confines of the first scenario. Many of them are likely to come under immense popular pressure as their pro-Palestinian (though not necessarily pro-Hamas) populations rally in support of the Palestinians in Gaza. But the drivers for their push towards de-escalation, including the conclusion that escalation only begets more instability in the region, and the desire for stability and economic development, remain unchanged.

Iran’s precise role in Hamas’s 7 October attack will likely become clearer in the coming weeks and months, but it is incontrovertible that Tehran now has significant agency in determining whether the war escalates or not. Threatening statements by Iran’s foreign minister, warning Israel – or ‘the Zionist entity’ as he calls it – to halt its operations in Gaza or risk suffering ‘a huge earthquake,’ should be taken very seriously. It is important to note that Iran does not fully control its partners in the region. Hamas, Hezbollah, the groups it supports in Syria and Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen all have their own political agendas and the ability to make decisions. But Tehran certainly has more influence over them than anyone else.

The US and its Western allies, including the UK, are already working to deter Iran. The rapid deployment of a US aircraft carrier group to the Eastern Mediterranean in the days after 7 October, now joined by two Royal Navy ships, is surely meant to send at least two distinct messages: to reassure Israel, and to deter Iran and its partners across the region.

Others can do more than send deterring signals to Iran – and are doing so. On 11 October, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman spoke with Iran’s President Ibrahim Raisi about Riyadh’s efforts to ‘stop the ongoing escalation’; it was the first-ever publicised phone call between the two men. Other governments across the region, especially in the Gulf, are likely similarly seeking to convince Iran not to push for further escalation.

Short- and Long-Term Challenges for Regional Governments

The Gulf Arab states, together with Turkey and Egypt, also play an important role with regard to the first scenario and the ongoing war in Gaza. Their urgent calls on Israel to moderate or even end its operations in Gaza are unlikely to be heeded anytime soon, but they can nevertheless have a meaningful impact.

In the longer term, Western capitals must recognise that they cannot turn their backs on the Middle East, however much they might want to

Egypt, which shares the only border with Gaza that is not directly controlled by Israel, is under enormous pressure to allow refugees to enter its territory. Thus far, Cairo has refused. It worries that an influx of refugees could destabilise the Sinai Peninsula, where Egypt has struggled to contain a low-level insurgency for the past decade, and further undermine the already struggling Egyptian economy. Perhaps most importantly, it fears that refugees could end up staying in Egypt indefinitely, unable to return to Gaza either due to the destruction wrought by the war, or because Israel – once in control of the territory – might not allow them to come back. It is incumbent upon the US, other Western governments and the richer Gulf Arab states to work with Cairo to alleviate these concerns, including by putting pressure on Israel to allow passage across the Gaza–Egypt border in both directions.

Meanwhile, Qatar, and perhaps Egypt and Turkey, appear to be the only international actors (besides Iran) that could feasibly exercise a degree of influence over Hamas with regard to the Israeli hostages taken on 7 October. Doha, Cairo and Ankara have all been able to engage with Hamas’s political leadership in the past. However, it is unclear whether their interlocutors still have any real influence on the situation on the ground.

In the longer term, regional countries – most importantly Saudi Arabia, but also Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, the UAE and others – will have a crucial role to play in helping to rebuild a Palestinian political leadership that can legitimately speak for the Palestinian people. With the 7 October attack, Hamas has completely disqualified itself from ever being regarded as a legitimate political entity – whether by Israel or most of the international community. At the same time, Hamas’s attack has also once again exposed the Palestinian Authority in its current form as woefully ineffective. Once the current war ends, there must be a re-engagement with the Middle East Peace Process, which has been completely neglected in recent years by all sides. Riyadh and others in the region who are committed to building a more stable Middle East are best placed to help identify and then build up a Palestinian leadership that is strong enough to eventually rebuild Gaza, seriously govern the West Bank and work with Israeli counterparts (who must also be found and empowered) towards lasting solutions.

The West Cannot Ignore the Middle East

If Hamas’s attack has upended – or at the very least interrupted – the regional drive towards de-escalation, it has also highlighted that the West’s approach towards the region in recent years is unsustainable. Policymakers in the US and the UK and across Europe have sought to deprioritise the region, partly due to more urgent crises demanding their attention – most notably Russia’s war in Ukraine – and partly driven by a fatigue with the intractability of the region’s conflicts.

In the coming weeks and months, Washington, London, Brussels and others must work with partners across the region to prevent escalation. They must persuade Israel – likely behind closed doors – to exercise as much restraint as possible, and support and empower regional leaders in their efforts to stave off a wider conflagration. In the longer term, they must recognise that they cannot turn their backs on the Middle East, however much they might want to. Focusing on geopolitical challenges that are identified as more strategically important – confronting Russia, pivoting/tilting to the Indo-Pacific and dealing with China, to name but a few – is hardly possible when the Middle East is spiralling into turmoil.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Tobias Borck

Senior Associate Fellow

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