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Security analysts are warning foreign businesses in the Middle East to prepare evacuation plans amid fears unrest could spread across the region following the October 7 attack in Israel.
More than 1,400 people were killed in the attack by Hamas and retaliatory strikes by Israel on Gaza have killed more than 7,000. The Israeli military is currently preparing a ground invasion of the Palestinian enclave.
As regional tension climbs, US and coalition troops have been attacked at least 19 times in Iraq and Syria by Iran-backed forces since October 17, which led the Pentagon on Friday to launch precision strikes against two sites in eastern Syria used by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and groups it supports.
Security risk and crisis management consultancy Crisis24 is working with businesses to plan their exit strategies to help protect their employees.
Mark Niblett, senior vice president of global operations at Crisis24, said escalation from other Iran-backed groups across the Middle East is definitely a possibility.
“I spend a lot of time in the region and my opinion is the Houthis in Yemen, financed by Iran, with reported financing from countries like North Korea, are always fostering a rhetoric of an overarching US Israeli conspiracy theory,” he told The National.
“They were very active from 2015 to last year, will we see an uptick in incidents? I think it is definitely a possibility and given that the financing aspect, the Iran aspect financing Hamas and this current conflict I would most definitely be watching it very closely.
“I would definitely be watching it very, very closely.
“Now is not the time for complacency.”
Tess Baker, vice president of crisis and security consulting at Crisis24, said the firm has teams on the ground helping businesses plan evacuations, from ensuring staff have access to water and safe houses to getting transport to border crossings.
“We are working with a number of organisations throughout the Middle East and they are obviously very concerned about both the immediate situation and the potential for escalation and what that will look like and the impact on their people,” she said.
“We have teams working full time out of Dubai, Tel Aviv, Oman and Cairo doing key things, firstly analysing in-country analysis with their ears to the ground and helping organisations plan for evacuations of foreign national staff and planning for supporting people who cannot or will not evacuate and shelter people.
“We are looking at potential escalations and where it could go and mapping out scenarios.”
Defence analyst Sam Cranny-Evans suggested Israel could delay its ground offensive until the US believes that American troops in the region are secure.
“The US bases in Syria and Iraq clearly felt quite exposed when everything began escalating. This, we can see, has led to the introduction of additional air defence troops, the US carrier groups off the coast of Israel and that kind of thing,” he said.
“The timing of the invasion will likely depend on a number of things, but primarily the readiness of the Israeli troops – they have to be well equipped, they have to be well supplied before they’re going to conduct any urban warfare – and secondly the US’s confidence around its ability to secure its own personnel in the region and also prevent wider horizontal escalation.”
But Tobias Borck, an expert on Middle East security at the Royal United Services Institute, said Iran and groups it supports appeared so far not to be seeking an escalation of the conflict.
“Almost all governments across the region are in a consensus that they would like to contain this conflict. At this stage, I even think that it seems like Iran is in that consensus, too,” he said.
But he said it would be wrong to think of groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthis as “sitting by the phone waiting for Tehran to ring to tell them what to do”.
“We could see an escalation, for example, from Hezbollah without Tehran wanting Hezbollah to escalate. That is possible,” he said.
“If Hezbollah comes to the conclusion that it has to act in order to retain its legitimacy within its specific context then it will, regardless of what Tehran says.”
Earlier this month the US State Department ordered non-emergency staff and family members to leave the American embassy in Baghdad and consulate in Erbil “due to increased security threats against US personnel and interests”.