As the Biden administration grapples with an increasingly tense and unstable situation in the Middle East, Secretary of State Antony Blinken is heading to the region this weekend for the fourth time in three months on a tour expected to focus largely on easing resurgent fears that the Israel-Hamas war could erupt into a broader conflict.
With international criticism of Israel's operations in Gaza mounting, growing U.S. concerns about the end game, and more immediate worries about a recent explosion in attacks in the Red Sea, Lebanon, Iran and Iraq, Blinken will have a packed and difficult agenda. He leaves just days after a suspected Israeli attack killed a senior Hamas leader in Beirut and, while a White House spokesman said "nobody should be shedding a tear" over his death, it could further complicate Blinken's mission.
"We don't expect every conversation on this trip to be easy," State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said. "There are obviously tough issues facing the region and difficult choices ahead. But the secretary believes it is the responsibility of the United States of America to lead diplomatic efforts to tackle those challenges head on, and he's prepared to do that in the days to come."
Blinken leaves late Thursday on his latest extended Mideast tour, which will take him to Turkey, Greece, Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the West Bank and Egypt.
Apart from Gaza-specific priorities he will bring to Israel — including pressing for a dramatic increase in humanitarian aid to Gaza, a shift toward less intense military operations and a concerted effort to rein in violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank by Jewish settlers — Blinken will be seeking regional assistance in calming the situation.
"It is in no one's interest, not Israel's, not the region's, not the world's, for this conflict to spread beyond Gaza," Miller said. The key elements to preventing this will be deterring attacks by Yemen's Iran-backed Houthi rebels on commercial Red Sea shipping, deterring attacks on Israel by Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah and deterring attacks on U.S. military facilities and interests by Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria.
Yet, U.S. influence with Iran is minimal and it must rely either on its own military deterrence or on partners to make the case with Iran that a regional war would be catastrophic.
"Strategically, Iran is winning," said Paul Salem, head of the Washington-based Middle East Institute. He said Hezbollah and the overall network of Iranian-allied groups are pleased with what the current level of hostilities has achieved.
"Iran is sitting pretty," he said. "It doesn't need to do anything dramatic. It is kind of on the winning side."
Since the Gaza war erupted with Israel's response to the deadly Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, the Biden administration has been seriously concerned about a potential spread in the conflict.
It had breathed a sigh of relief in the weeks following the start of the the Israeli operation, when it successfully counseled Israeli officials not to mount pre-emptive strikes against Hezbollah in Lebanon and sent two aircraft carrier strike groups to the eastern Mediterranean to serve as a deterrent.
Two and a half months later, though, the chances of a regional war have increased with Israel determined to strike Hamas operatives and leaders no matter where they are. Meanwhile, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis and pro-Iran militias have been stepping up attacks on U.S., Israeli and international interests.
As with his previous Mideast visits, Blinken will be concentrating on expanding humanitarian aid to Gaza, pressing Israel to minimize civilian Palestinian casualties, pushing for the release of hostages held by Hamas and stressing the importance of planning for the administration of a postwar Gaza.
But, his agenda has been clouded by recent developments, including a drone strike attributed to Israel that killed Hamas deputy leader Saleh Arouri in Beirut's southern suburbs, explosions in Iran that targeted a memorial service for U.S.-assassinated Revolutionary Guard commander Qassem Soleimani, a drone attack on a pro-Iranian Iraqi militia group in Baghdad and U.S. and allied responses to Houthi attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea.
For example, the first speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah during the Israel-Hamas war, nearly a month into the conflict, was widely seen by analysts as telegraphing that his group had no interest in engaging in a full-on war with Israel.
On Wednesday, however, following the killing of Arouri, Nasrallah took a more belligerent tone and appeared to be making a case to the Lebanese people that a wider war might be necessary.
Nasrallah said Hezbollah had so far calibrated between "the need to support Gaza and to take into account Lebanese national interests," which have limited its military involvement. But he said in the event that "war is launched on us, then Lebanese national interests require that we take the war to the end, without limits."
On Thursday, an armed unmanned surface vessel launched from Houthi-controlled Yemen got within a "couple of miles" of U.S. Navy and commercial vessels in the Red Sea before detonating, just hours after the White House and a host of partner nations issued a final warning to the Iran-backed militia group to cease the attacks or face potential military action.
And, in Baghdad on Thursday, a U.S. airstrike on the headquarters of an Iran-backed militia killed a high-ranking commander, identified as Abu Taqwa, with the Popular Mobilization Force, or PMF. A U.S. defense official said Taqwa was targeted because he was actively involved in attacks on U.S. personnel.
An Iraqi military spokesman, Yehia Rasool, said the Iraqi army blames the U.S.-led International Coalition Forces for the "unprovoked attack on an Iraqi security body operating in accordance with the powers granted to it by" the Iraqi military.
The primary mission of the U.S.-led coalition is to fight the Islamic State, the Sunni group that many believe was behind Wednesday's bombing in Iran.
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