Gaza's ripple effect is spreading beyond the Middle East

From the Red Sea to Pakistan, drone and missile strikes reveal a growing number of flashpoints. The region cannot keep riding its luck

Armed Houthi fighters visit a shrine for slain comrades in Sanaa on Wednesday. The US returned the rebels to its list of foreign terrorist organisations this week. EPA
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Almost 2,300 kilometres separate Gaza and Yemen; this vast distance shows the extent to which the atmosphere of anarchy unleashed on October 7 has spread across the Middle East and beyond. This week, the US, which is already the subject of intense scrutiny over the diplomatic and military cover it is giving its Israeli allies, attempted to reassert its authority regarding one part of this widening conflict – by returning the Iran-aligned Houthi movement to its list of international terrorist organisations.

With hindsight, the Houthis's removal from the list after US President Joe Biden took office in 2021 seems to have done little to deter the rebels from preparing and carrying out drone and missile attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea. This is ostensibly being done as part of their role in the "axis of resistance" to Israel, but also has the effect of forcing the international community to engage with their agenda as well as drowning out critics who have highlighted the militants’ patchy record of delivery for the millions of Yemenis who live under their rule.

Washington’s decision to remove the Houthis’ terrorist designation may have been motivated by a desire to support the peace process in Yemen, but it was also a miscalculation. By performing this week’s about-face, the US has recognised the threat posed by the group, but it also suggests a lack of direction at the highest levels of American political and military decision making.

This lack of sure-footedness is not reassuring given that it comes as the ripple effect started on October 7 increasingly resembles a dangerous regional free-for-all. On Thursday, Iranian media said the south-eastern city of Saravan was struck by missiles and drones launched from nearby Pakistan. Islamabad said these were “highly-co-ordinated and specifically targeted” strikes against “terrorist hideouts” in Sistan and Baluchestan.

They followed Iranian strikes on Pakistan’s Balochistan province on Tuesday night, with Iranian outlets reporting that the attacks were aimed at Jaish Al Adl, a Baluch militant group. These are not the only cross-border strikes carried out by Iran this week. On Monday, targets in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan region, were hit, as were suspected ISIS militants in Syria.

Since its foundation in 1979, the Iranian regime has been embroiled in direct or indirect armed conflict with all of its neighbours – with the exception of Armenia and Russia. It has also tussled for political, military and economic dominance with most of its neighbours. The antagonism that characterises many of Tehran’s interactions is a worrying constant in the region.

What these developments have in common is that the wave of instability that began with Gaza is now disproportionally affecting states that already have significant political, economic and security problems. Iran is also recovering from the recent Kerman bombings that claimed nearly 100 lives and were the worst terrorist attack in its recent history.

The violent escalation with Pakistan is particularly worrying – the two neighbours are not antagonists and have co-operated on intelligence sharing in the past. In 2023, Pakistan and Iran agreed to enhance security co-operation and intelligence sharing to tackle terrorism. They previously worked together to counter drug trafficking and improve regional security.

Air strikes and missile launches are the worst way to tackle what is essentially a security/intelligence problem, particularly so at a time of acute crisis in the Middle East, and as Pakistan’s caretaker administration gets ready for elections in three weeks.

An immediate halt to the catastrophic Gaza war as well as a return to clear and responsible decision making is what’s required to take the heat of this situation. Too many flashpoints are developing – in Lebanon, Iraq, the Red Sea and now in South Asia. The stakes are higher than ever and the longer the war in Gaza continues, the bigger the chance of greater escalation.

Published: January 19, 2024, 3:00 AM