Nine stops in one week. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Istanbul this Friday for the first leg of his new marathon tour of the Middle East. This is the fourth in three months and the most complicated so far. In addition to the goals of previous visits – to pressure Israel to moderate its tactics in Gaza and to outline the future of the Gaza Strip after the war – this one seeks above all to prevent growing tensions from in the region degenerate into a much larger conflict with unpredictable consequences. , just as the US election campaign is about to begin.
Preventing the crisis from expanding beyond Gaza has been the main goal of the United States since the start of the conflict after the Hamas attacks on October 7 and the start of the Israeli offensive in Gaza in response. For weeks, Washington has strengthened its military presence in the region and the risk seemed relatively contained. But today, the attacks by Yemen’s Houthi militias in the Red Sea, the drone assassination of Hamas number two Saleh al Aruri in Beirut and the harassment of American positions in Iraq and Syria are sparks that threaten to start an uncontrollable fire in the country. the region, which would inevitably drag Washington into the electoral heat. This is a dire prospect for Joe Biden, just as his re-election is at stake in next November’s election. The president, who began his first term by announcing the withdrawal from Afghanistan, ended it with open conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East.
“The risk is real and the concerns are great. It has always been real and the concern has always been great. This is why the pace of activity of this administration to reduce the risk of expansion of the conflict has been high since the beginning of the crisis, underlined the spokesperson of the Department of State, Matthew Miller, announcing the trip of Blinken.
Washington’s anger against Israel
The escalation of tensions also comes at a delicate moment in relations between Washington and Israel. The United States maintains its support for its ally, both in declarations and in sending weapons: just a week ago, the Biden administration once again bypassed Congress to approve $147.5 million (135 million euros) in ammunition and equipment for your partner. But his irritation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is increasingly visible. This week, the State Department condemned in particularly exasperated language the statements of two Israeli ministers, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, who called for emptying Gaza of its Palestinian residents.
Worried by the turn of events, the White House launched a real diplomatic offensive. Blinken’s trip was preceded by a visit to Israel this week by presidential adviser Amos Hochstein, while in Washington, Middle East envoy Brett McGurk met with Lebanon’s foreign minister on Wednesday.
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“I am returning to the region to engage in additional diplomacy on the situation in Gaza. “I will continue to call for the protection of civilian lives and work intensively with our partners to ensure the release of hostages and the continued delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza,” Blinken wrote on X, the former Twitter account, just before embarking on a trip. in Türkiye.
I am returning to the region to engage in additional diplomacy on the situation in Gaza. I will continue to call for the protection of civilian life and work intensively with my partners to secure the release of the hostages and ensure the continued delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza. https://t.co/zylFYbs5uw
—Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) January 4, 2024
Its mission goes further, according to the State Department. “It will address urgent mechanisms to end violence, calm discourse and reduce regional tensions, including deterring Houthi attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea and avoiding escalation in Lebanon,” he said. he noted when announcing the trip.
The head of American diplomacy will visit, in addition to Turkey and the Greek island of Crete, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the West Bank and Egypt. “We don’t expect every conversation during this tour to be easy. Clearly, the region faces complex issues and difficult decisions to make,” acknowledged State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller.
In Israel, Blinken plans to emphasize “the need to do more to reduce tensions in the West Bank,” call for “immediate steps to significantly increase humanitarian aid to Gaza” and address the government’s plans for ” transition to the next phase. operations,” according to the spokesperson.
These will be some of the toughest conversations of the tour. Israel rejects the two-state solution advocated by the United States and proposes a Palestinian civilian administration in Gaza while maintaining military control of the territory. He assures that he will continue his offensive and demands that Washington obtain from Hezbollah an end to its rocket fire from southern Lebanon towards northern Israel and a withdrawal north of the Litani River. This week, he warned Hochstein that time was running out for such mediation and threatened a severe blow to the Iran-backed Shiite militia.
The time for democracy
Washington believes that there is still time to resort to diplomacy. “From everything we see, there is no clear desire on the part of Hezbollah to go to war with Israel, and vice versa,” noted a senior administration official this week, who is expressed on condition of anonymity.
But at the same time, the United States is hardening its military posture. Even though it withdrew one of the two aircraft carriers it had sent to the area at the start of the conflict, the Gerald Fordmaintains the Eisenhower and a group of gunships, as well as the additional aircraft and soldiers with which it has been reinforced.
This Thursday, he killed the leader of a Shiite militia in Baghdad with a drone, which provoked the fury of the Iraqi government. Prime Minister Mohamed Shia al Soudan announced the creation of a committee tasked with planning the departure of international coalition forces from the country.
In the Red Sea, the United States is leading a coalition of more than a dozen countries to protect merchant ships from Houthi attacks, more than 25 since the crisis began. Earlier this week, the coalition issued a stark warning against further attacks and promised that these also Iranian-backed militias would “bear the consequences” if the clashes were repeated. “Don’t expect a second warning,” the aforementioned senior US official stressed in this regard.
But on Thursday, these militias launched an unmanned ship filled with explosives into the Red Sea for the first time since the crisis began. It did not hit any ships, according to the Pentagon, but it contributed to further raising temperatures in the region. Washington’s great fear is that one of these attempts could end up sinking a merchant ship, which would represent a serious escalation.
The White House assures that it will act decisively to protect the interests of the United States and its citizens, but it also does not want to contribute to triggering a situation in which it could be drawn into playing a greater role in the Middle-East.
“We will act with great force in the face of any threat to our people or our interests. We’re also going to do it in a very smart way, one that potentially won’t drag us into the depths of a situation that works in favor of these groups” backed by Iran, the senior official said.
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