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Unreal: White House still denies Mideast turmoil linked to Gaza

Unreal: White House still denies Mideast turmoil linked to Gaza

Acknowledging the connection would make it harder to justify unconditional backing for Israel’s war.

Analysis | Middle East

The Biden administration continues to deny any connections between the war in Gaza and the ongoing conflicts involving U.S. forces in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.

The White House’s position that these are all unrelated conflicts that are just cropping up at the same time can’t be squared with the evidence showing that the war in Gaza has fueled regional instability and violence, including the recent drone attack by an Iraqi militia that killed three American service members and injured more than 40 at a base in Jordan earlier this week.

As much as the administration might want to keep the conflict confined to Gaza, the truth is that it has spread to several other countries. It is a disservice to the American people and to American military personnel to pretend that U.S. support for the war in Gaza hasn’t already had serious negative consequences for regional stability and for American forces in the region when it clearly has.

When he was asked about this “same, larger conflict” at a press conference on Wednesday, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby dismissed any link between Gaza and the U.S. fight with the Houthis or the back-and-forth strikes between local militias and U.S. forces.

“I absolutely don’t agree with your description of the same, larger conflict. There’s a conflict going on between Israel and Hamas…and we’re going to make sure that we continue to get Israel the support that they need to defend themselves against this still viable threat,” Kirby said. “There were attacks on our troops and facilities in Iraq and Syria well before the seventh of October, certainly in the last administration as well. As for the Houthis, they can claim all they want that this is linked to Gaza, but two-thirds of the ships that they’re hitting have no connection to Israel whatsoever. So it’s just not true, it’s a falsehood.”

Kirby’s answer is misleading and false. The umbrella group in Iraq that claimed responsibility for the attack in Jordan, the Islamic Resistance of Iraq, explicitly stated that its attack was connected to the war in Gaza. The Houthi leadership has been emphatic that their attacks will continue for as long as the war does. The decision of other actors to jump on a cause’s bandwagon may be cynical or not, but there is no denying that they have jumped on the bandwagon.

Refusing to face the reality of the connections between these conflicts guarantees that the U.S. will pursue ineffective and counterproductive policies by ignoring that the key to defusing regional tensions is to bring the war in Gaza to an end as quickly as possible.

Kirby did not mention that militia attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria had ceased for several months prior to October 7 because of the understanding that the U.S. and Iran had reached in connection with the prisoner exchange deal. It was only after October 7 that those attacks resumed and then increased to record levels. Local militias have additional reasons of their own for targeting U.S. forces that predate the war, but there is no way to understand the intensity of the attacks in recent months or their cessation during the pause in fighting in Gaza last year without recognizing that they are linked to Israel’s war.

The same goes for the Houthi attacks. The Houthis did not launch a campaign against commercial shipping during their war with the Saudi coalition, so this is not something that they have usually done since seizing power in 2014. The first Houthi attacks after October 7 were aimed at Israel itself. The Houthis shifted tactics to targeting commercial vessels, but it was clear that they were doing so in response to the war.

No doubt the Houthis are acting opportunistically and are launching these attacks partly to bolster their own political fortunes in Yemen, but that doesn’t change the reality that these attacks are happening now because of the war in Gaza. If that’s true, it also seems reasonable to conclude that the attacks against shipping could be ended with a ceasefire there as well.

The Biden administration has strong political incentives to deny links between these different conflicts. If they acknowledge a link, that makes it harder for them to justify their unconditional backing for Israel’s war because of the greater costs involved. It also undermines their argument for military action in Yemen against the Houthis.

The White House needs Americans to think that the costs of continued support for the war are lower than they are, and they also need Americans to buy that the strikes on Yemen aren’t related to their stubborn opposition to a ceasefire in Gaza. Now that there are American fatalities from an Iraqi militia attack, the administration wants to compartmentalize each conflict so that the American people won’t conclude that U.S. soldiers are being killed because of a foreign war that the president chose to support without conditions.

The administration insists that it wants to prevent a regional war, but that won’t be successful if it fails to recognize the relationships between Israel’s campaign and what is happening elsewhere in the Middle East. Denying the link with Gaza in Yemen has already led to the blunder of escalation against the Houthis. That has done nothing to make commercial shipping more secure, but it has drawn the U.S. into another unnecessary, open-ended fight. The president is on the verge of making a similar mistake in response to the drone attack in Jordan.

The U.S. can choose to entangle itself ever deeper in Middle Eastern conflicts as it is doing now, or it can recognize the futility and folly of going down the same dead-end road it has traveled before. If Washington wants to avoid involvement in new conflicts, it must reject the path of escalation and it must stop fueling the war in Gaza that is one of the chief drivers of regional instability.

In the longer term, the U.S. needs to reduce its military footprint in the region to make it harder for other actors to hit American forces, and it needs to reassess and significantly cut back on its client relationships.

The public deserves an honest accounting of what our government is doing in the Middle East and why, and right now the White House isn’t providing anything close to that. If the president won’t change course, the very least that he can do is level with the American people about the full costs of continuing down the dangerous path that he has chosen.

NSC spokesman John Kirby via screen grab/

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