Consequences of the Israel-Hamas conflict in the Middle East

4 janvier 2024

The Hamas attacks of 7 October and the massive Israeli response that followed have considerably changed the face of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is foreseeable that the geopolitical consequences of this direct confrontation in Gaza cannot remain confined to the 400 km2 or so of the Gaza Strip. Will the worrying actions on both sides in response to the situation in the region lead to a major confrontation?

On the one hand, while a direct confrontation between Tehran and its closest allies such as Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen and pro-Iranian militias in Syria and Iraq has been contained for the time being, there is no guarantee that the situation will not evolve into a major conflict in the coming weeks.

In addition, the safety of shipping in the Red Sea is under threat and could disrupt world trade. An event that could have repercussions on a regional scale, since this vital artery for Egypt is also very important for Saudi Arabia, which has concentrated its main development project on its western coastline there, and for Jordan, whose only maritime access is via the port of Aqaba.

Saudi-Iranian relations put to the test

The recent events could also have repercussions on Saudi-Iranian relations, which have only just been restored. Very discreet since the Hamas attack on 7 October and the start of operations in Gaza, the Saudis are currently reflecting on the scope of the agreement they concluded seven months ago with Iran under the patronage of China. This agreement was reaffirmed in Beijing a few days ago, but it is proving difficult to put into practice beyond the formal resumption of relations between the two countries.

Officially, nothing has been called into question and the smiles are still there, but the unease is palpable and the mistrust palpable. The main aim of the agreement was to establish a new balance in the region, with Mohamed Ben Salman’s Saudi Arabia taking its place as leader of the peninsula. It also aimed to reduce Iranian support for the Houthis. However, the increase in Houthi actions in the Red Sea, undoubtedly with Iranian backing and support, can only worry Riyadh. The Houthis, with their considerable ballistic capabilities, are a threat not only to shipping in the Red Sea, but also to Saudi oil installations. The September 2019 drone attack on the ARAMCO sites is still fresh in people’s minds.

A serious threat to Egypt

As far as Egypt is concerned, the stakes are of a completely different order. Navigation through the Suez Canal is one of the country’s main sources of foreign currency. Last year, this artery brought in more than 8 billion euros in revenue. A closure of the canal or a long-term diversion of shipping would be catastrophic for an economically drained country. The fall of a missile off the coast of the seaside resort of Dahab, a popular tourist spot on the Red Sea on the border with Jordan, has added to Cairo’s fears of being hit not only by a drop in revenue from the Suez Canal, but also from tourism, another essential source of foreign currency. The foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan have therefore joined forces to coordinate their action.

Tolerance from the major powers: has a threshold been crossed?

The other question that arises is that of the limits of tolerance on the part of the major powers, particularly the United States, in the face of this situation that threatens their interests. Drone attacks against ships are on the increase. Almost every day, Western navies shoot down missiles or drones fired by the Houthis. The US Navy recently sank three Yemeni boats attacking a Danish MAERSK container ship.

In other countries with a significant Iranian presence, such as Iraq and Syria, attacks by pro-Iranian militias against the American presence in Iraq have been on the increase for several months. The Americans retaliated this week after yet another attack on their military installations in Iraq: a sign of Washington’s irritation that the limits of its patience have been reached.

India, for its part, did not hesitate to point the finger at Iran following the attack on a ship flying its flag in the Arabian Sea. This major incident is likely to provoke a response from the Indian giant, which has decided to deploy ships with significant ballistic capabilities in the region. China, for its part, is pretending not to notice, but it does have the means to put pressure on Iran and has a naval base in Djibouti that it could activate if necessary.

Syria: a new theatre of confrontation

On the Syrian side, Jordan, which was the main architect of Damascus’s readmission to the League of Arab States last May, has carried out several air raids and ground incursions against drug gangs affiliated to pro-Iranian militias close to the regime. Relations between the two countries are very tense and all dialogue has come to a halt. Amman did not hesitate to declare that Syria had not honoured any of its commitments (as was to be expected).

In Syria, Israel sent a strong signal to the Iranians by eliminating Redha Mussavi, a senior officer in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, responsible for logistics and supplies of arms and munitions to Syria, in the Sayëda Zeinab area, a Shiite sanctuary on the outskirts of Damascus. Redha Mussavi was also close to General Qassem Suleimani, who was eliminated by the Americans in Baghdad in January 2020. The attack in Kerman on 3 January 2024, which killed more than a hundred people during the fourth commemoration of the death of Qassem Suleimani, has not been claimed, but will throw the Iranian authorities into even greater turmoil.

How will Tehran respond?

After the confusion caused by the words of Ramadan Cherif, spokesman for the Revolutionary Guards, who had declared that the attack of 7 October was part of the revenge for the elimination of Qassem Suleimani, which was tantamount to admitting Teheran’s direct involvement in this action, the Iranian authorities, through the voice of the head of the Revolutionary Guards and Hamas, hastened to deny this information, attributing exclusive authorship to Hamas. The fact remains that Hussein Salamé, the head of the Revolutionary Guards, in his tribute to Redha Mussavi, declared: « We will settle for nothing less than the elimination of the Zionist entity to take our revenge ».

For the moment the Lebanese front, despite the threat from Hezbollah, is relatively calm. Hassan Nasrallah’s recent statement on Wednesday 3 January does not indicate any major change in the line adopted by his movement, despite the elimination by an Israeli drone in the southern suburbs of Beirut (in the heart of Hezbollah’s stronghold) of Hamas’ number 2, Saleh el Arouri, who was said to be very close to the Iranians. This restraint is partly due to the firm conviction of the Iranians and Hassan Nasrallah that a major confrontation with Israel could be damaging for Israel, but fatal for his movement.

The impression one gets from this situation is that everyone is holding their breath, but keeping their finger on the trigger until one provocation too many sets the region ablaze. The Arab countries concerned, though worried and annoyed, are pretending to ignore the growing number of signals for fear of upsetting public opinion. But what will happen if the region goes up in flames?
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