The Middle East’s dangerous sideshows risk an uncontrolled escalation

Supporting players and isolated events are harder to contain with the region’s main figures on edge

epa07695827 A handout picture provided by the British Ministry of Defence (MOD) showing British Royal Marines from 42 Commando who took part in the seizure the Panama registered Grace 1, Iranian oil tanker in the Gibraltar Strait, 04 July 2019. The MOD report that they were followed on board shortly by Gibraltar police and the ship was handed over to them to continue with further checks and procedures. The operation went off without a hitch and commandos were able to board the vessel quickly. The seizure was made because of evidence it was heading to Syria in breach of EU sanctions.  EPA/RAF/BRITISH MINISTRY OF DEFENCE/HANDOUT MANDATORY CREDIT: MOD/CROWN COPYRIGHT HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES

From attacks on Turkish outposts in Idlib, a province that was once a Syrian fringe, to an Iranian tanker impounded by Gibraltar, isolated Middle East-related incidents are threatening to cascade out of control, making the need for calm all the more pressing.

Understandings between the region’s main players have become less stable, and while the risk of miscalculation has been always present, the spread of proxies in recent years has complicated the scene, with civil wars in Syria and Yemen, and weak governments in Iraq and Lebanon.

Energy markets climbed in the past few days after British marines seized a disguised Iranian oil shipment off the coast of Gibraltar that had contravened EU sanctions against the government of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.

A commander in the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps threatened retaliation in kind.

It was the latest incident in US-Iran tension since May last year, when Washington pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal signed between Tehran and world powers.

In the past two months, several tankers have been attacked near the Strait of Hormuz, missiles have hit a Saudi airport and rockets struck an Exxon Mobil oil-drilling site in Iraq.

The Gibraltar incident could renew the possibility of a tanker protection operation led by Washington, similar to Operation Earnest Will during the “tanker war” in the late stages of the 1980-1988 war between Iran and Iraq.

US-Iranian hostilities then were contained, partly because the Iran-Iraq war had almost run its course.

Three decades later, there is an Iran-friendly government in Baghdad and, although it had pledged neutrality, the many pro-Iranian militias in Iraq are regarded as being willing to do Tehran’s bidding.

But some of the militias are more ideological than others and are linked to different power centres in Iran, making it difficult to trace their actions to one decision-making body, Iraqi sources say.

Among others carving turf under the auspices of regional players are Kurdish militias, Lebanese Hezbollah and myriad other militias in Syria backed by Iran, Syrian rebels supported by Turkey and militants with apparently open channels to Ankara, as well as Mr Al Assad’s core Alawite loyalists.

In some instances, small players push the limits, or may act without total approval of their patrons, political analysts and regional sources say.

They point to attacks in the past month on Turkish observation posts in Syria’s Idlib governorate, in which a Turkish soldier was killed and several wounded.

Turkey had set up about a dozen of the posts in co-ordination with Moscow and Iran under the so-called Astana process.

Ankara said Mr Al Assad’s forces were behind the attacks, while Russia said Syrian rebels had attacked their Turkish backers.

“The Russian-Turkish understanding at Astana over Syria is floundering and the Assad regime has found a way to make it worse by attacking the Turks in Idlib,” an Arab diplomatic source said.

The Astana process, which aims to find a larger political solution for the civil war, has been stuck, largely because the three powers cannot agree on the spoils or on what constitutes stabilisation.

But all three countries seek to sideline Washington in Syria, where a US-backed Kurdish militia had grabbed major oil and gasfields, as well as large parts of the northern frontier with Turkey.

Another player in Syria is Israel, which has been conducting air strikes against Iranian and Syrian regime targets, helped by a degree of non-interference by Russia.

Apparent Iranian retaliation took the form of several strikes at Israeli sites in the occupied Golan Heights, the territory seized from Syria in 1967 and now recognised as belonging to Israel by US President Donald Trump.

In one Israeli air strike on Thursday, a Syrian missile went awry and smashed into Northern Cyprus, causing no casualties.

During another Israeli raid, in 2018, a Syrian missile intended for an Israeli warplane brought down a Russian military aircraft, killing about 14 personnel.

“The regime has upped its anti-Israel propaganda lately and is painting all casualties from the Israeli hits as civilian, but there is no appetite within its constituency for a war with Israel,” the diplomatic source said.

“With so many Iran proxies in Syria, the regime might not have much say.”

Iran had made it clear that it considers it has a right to fight back at an "economic war" waged by the US and its allies in the region.

The American “maximum pressure” approach to Tehran has split Washington’s European allies and even some of its regional ones.

Their concerns over the nuclear deal helping the expansion of Tehran has been tempered by the possibility of a wider conflict.

The nuclear deal had helped to avoid wider regional conflict while it was being negotiated.

In early 2015, Israel struck a Hezbollah convoy in Quneitra, the province on the Syrian side of the Golan.

The attack killed a Revolutionary Guard general and a son of the late Imad Mughniyeh, who some say was a near indispensable Hezbollah operative. Mughniyeh was assassinated in Damascus in 2008.

Some Israeli political commentators saw the strike as a message from Israel for Iran to stay away from the Syrian side of the Golan border, although Tehran later returned through proxies.

Retaliation came a few weeks later. A Hezbollah ambush on a patrol in the disputed territory of Shebaa Farms, in which artillery shells were used, killed two Israeli soldiers.

There was no further escalation as it would not have been conducive to Iran or the US. The nuclear deal was reached later in 2015.

The Mughniyeh assassination did not start a war because Lebanon was still recovering from a war between Hezbollah and Israel two years earlier, which the Lebanese group had triggered.

The assassination had also soured relations between Iran and Syria.

Tehran was furious at security lapses in Damascus that had allowed the assassination to take place.

Among the big players, the stakes in the region have not been so high since the nuclear deal four years ago.

This may lead to a peaceful breakthrough but geopolitical factors that had constrained violence in the past have weakened, making that a more distant prospect.