Tensions in the Middle East are rising beyond Israel Find.jpgw1440

Tensions in the Middle East are rising beyond Israel. Find out where here. – The Washington Post

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The simmering crisis in the Middle East, sparked by the start of the war in Gaza three months ago threatens to boil over in the face of strikes and violence across the region.

In particular, tensions are rising despite there being little sign that actors in the region are ready to fight. Importantly, Iran and its allies have largely refrained from open war against Israel and its allies since the Hamas-led attack on October 7.

However, experts warn that given the diversity of actions taking place in the region and the diversity of actors with different motivations, a simple miscalculation could quickly spiral out of control.

“They're playing a very dangerous game – basically it's all bullshit,” Joost Hiltermann, a Middle East expert at the International Crisis Group, said of the various actors in the Middle East. “Any miscalculation, any miscommunication, any accidental attack could trigger a major escalation.”

In the first days of 2024, a series of targeted killings occurred across the Middle East, sparked by the war in Gaza. Here are some of the hot spots. (Video: Joe Snell/The Washington Post)

This week alone there have been targeted killings of a senior Hamas leader in Beirut and an Iraqi militia leader in Baghdad. Last week, a senior member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was killed in Damascus. In the Red Sea, Yemen's Houthi rebels continue to threaten to disrupt commercial shipping despite warnings of a military strike by the United States and its allies.

Iran, a key backer of the anti-American “Axis of Resistance,” is also reeling from a bombing that killed 95 people on Wednesday and which the Islamic State claimed responsibility for. The attack occurred at an event commemorating Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani on the fourth anniversary of his assassination in a U.S. drone strike in Iraq in 2020.

Late last month, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told a parliamentary committee that the country was already defending itself in a “multi-arena” war that extended beyond Gaza and the West Bank.

“I am saying here very clearly: anyone who takes action against us is a potential target. There is no immunity for anyone,” Gallant said.

Here are some of the trouble spots in the region:

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A senior Hamas official was killed in an attack in Beirut on Tuesday that had all the signs of a targeted killing by Israel.

Saleh Arouri is the highest-ranking Hamas official killed since October 7, when the Palestinian group led a cross-border attack on Israel that killed 1,200 people. Israeli officials have warned that they would target Hamas officials abroad, although they have not claimed direct responsibility for Arouri's killing.

The attack comes amid long-standing speculation that Hezbollah could join Hamas' war against Israel. The militant group has been carrying out cross-border attacks on Israel since October 7 but is widely believed to have held back from full hostilities.

Hamas said an explosion in Beirut on January 2 killed senior leader Saleh Arouri. A US defense official said Israel was behind the attack. (Video: AP)

Arouri was killed in Dahieh, a residential neighborhood near Beirut that is considered a Hezbollah stronghold. Hasan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, said in a speech on Wednesday that there would be a “response and punishment” to Arouri's killing.

Rym Momtaz, a fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said Hezbollah would likely face pressure from its supporters to respond, but it would also have to take into account Lebanon's precarious economic situation.

“A large part of the Lebanese population simply cannot imagine experiencing another war given what they are already going through,” Momtaz said, citing the country's financial crisis that has plunged 82 percent of the country into poverty.

The killing in Beirut is a target for Hamas leaders, wherever they are

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An Iran-linked militia commander was killed in Baghdad on Thursday in a rare U.S. airstrike in the center of the Iraqi capital.

The target, Mushtaq Talib al-Saidi, was deputy operational commander of the Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba militia in the Baghdad region, according to a statement from the group. The militia has claimed responsibility for several attacks on US troops in Iraq since October 7th — Part of a larger wave of recent attacks aimed at forcing the United States to end its presence in Iraq.

Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba is part of a coalition of Iranian-backed groups known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) that worked with the Iraqi military to defeat the Islamic State after it took over much of the country in 2014. The militia is officially overthrown under the command of the Iraqi army.

In a statement on Thursday, Iraqi military spokesman Yahya Rasool said said that the US-led international coalition forces were responsible for an “unjustified attack on an Iraqi security unit” that amounted to “blatant aggression and violation of the sovereignty and security of Iraq.”

There are currently around 2,500 US soldiers stationed in Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani said their presence was necessary to prevent the Islamic State from regaining ground.

According to the US, PMF militias have been behind over 100 attacks on US forces in the country since October 17, which represented a significant escalation and led to numerous retaliatory measures.

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Israel has repeatedly attacked Syria since October 7th. Israel Defense Forces said on Tuesday that it had struck “military infrastructure of the Syrian army” in response to rocket fires into its territory.

In late December, Iranian state media reported that Seyed Razi Mousavi, a senior official in the country's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was killed in an attack in the Sayeda Zeinab neighborhood of Damascus.

Reports of his death described Mousavi as a former colleague of Soleimani, the Iranian military leader who has achieved martyr status since his assassination by the United States. Soleimani led the Quds Force, the international arm of the Revolutionary Guard.

Randa Slim, director of the Conflict Resolution and Track II Dialogues program at the Middle East Institute, said Mousavi's death was a bigger blow to Hezbollah and Iran than Arouri.

Iranian officials vowed to retaliate for Mousavi's death. Hossein Akbari, Iran's ambassador to Syria, said Israel would receive “a response to this crime at the right time and in the right situation.”

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Yemen's Houthi rebels have carried out numerous attacks on merchant ships passing through the Red Sea. On Wednesday they reported an attack on a Malta-flagged ship that they said was en route to Israel.

The regular attacks on the key trade route have caused some major shipping companies to avoid the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a narrow waterway near territory controlled by Yemen's Iran-backed militant group.

In response to the economic disruption, the United States and its allies launched a multinational initiative called Operation Prosperity Guardian. According to the Pentagon, U.S. Navy ships clashed with Houthi forces and sank three boats in an exchange on Sunday.

In a statement posted on social media on Tuesday, the Houthis warned that “any American aggression will not go unanswered.”

The Houthis have also fired long-range missiles at Israel since October 7, claiming they will continue to target Israel until “Israeli aggression ceases.” Most of the rockets were intercepted by Israeli air defenses.

Since seizing control of Yemen's capital in 2014, the Houthis have become one of Iran's most capable and independent allies in the region. Analysts say that by disrupting shipping to support Hamas, they are both appealing to their domestic supporters and establishing themselves as partners with more established groups such as Hezbollah.

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Iran has also been hit by violence on its soil this week, as two explosions in downtown Kerman on Wednesday killed at least 95 people who had visited Soleimani's birthplace to commemorate his death.

The attack was not linked to Israel or the United States, but to another key regional foe: the Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the attacks in a message posted on social media on Thursday.

At least 95 dead in explosions in Iran at event marking general's death

“ISIS hates Iran more than Israel hates Iran, if such a thing is possible,” Hiltermann said, referring to the extremist group with an acronym.

At least 95 people were killed and dozens injured in explosions in central Iran on January 3 as mourners commemorated the death of Major General Qasem Soleimani. (Video: The Washington Post)

So far, Israel has not directly attacked Iran since October 7, although Israeli officials have indicated they would if the conflict widens. But analysts say Iran is unlikely to back away from its support for Hamas and other regional allies.

“Such an event alone would not lead to war. But the more these attacks pile up, the more they happen one after the other, the more you're moving toward a trigger where someone says, “To hell with it,” said Slim of the Middle East Institute. “Then we have a big war ahead of us.”