After the significant upheaval after the Arab Spring, the Middle East has once again been roiled by a series of simultaneous crises. Every day, headlines detail new escalations as the region continues to descend into near-constant violence. This article seeks to provide a basic but comprehensive guide to the events that have unfolded in Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen, as while these conflicts may be hundreds of miles apart, each remains deeply interconnected.
The most significant and ubiquitously reported catalyst for regional destabilization was the October 7, 2023 attack led by Hamas into Israel. 373 Israeli military personnel were killed, but over 695 civilians were massacred when multiple towns were razed to the ground and their inhabitants killed or abducted. In response, the Israeli military began a campaign of airstrikes followed by a full-scale ground invasion of the Gaza Strip. Since the war began, over 27,365 Gazans have been killed by Israeli forces in the small Palestinian territory, most civilians. The Israeli-Palestine conflict is extremely complex and rooted in significant- and heavily disputed- historical debates which are outside the scope of this article. However, a neutral summary would be as follows: the Gaza Strip is a small territory to the southwest of Israel considered to be a core part of a future Palestinian state, and inhabited by over 2,000,000 Palestinians.
Occupied by Israel from 1967 until the early 2000s, the Gaza Strip has long been faced by dire conditions. Considering the small area the territory encompasses and a continued Israeli and Egyptian partial-blockade, 47% of the population was unemployed before the war began. This desperation and a lack of international recognition for the Gaza Strip, was accelerated by a major political shift in the territory. After winning the local elections in 2006, the rising militant group Hamas cemented complete dominance after a brief battle with rival Palestinian groups in 2007. Hamas is considered a terrorist group by the United States, as well as other world governments and organizations such as the EU, as the group has long held the absolute destruction of any Jewish state through warfare as their primary objective. The primary rival of Hamas (other than Israel) is Fatah, which rules the West Bank, the largest and most populous portion of modern Palestine. Fatah grew out of the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization), the forefather of Palestinian independence movements, and despite the controversial reputation of the PLO, is considered much more moderate than Hamas. Fatah acts as the official government of the West Bank, cooperates with Israel, and is seen as more likely to obtain international recognition for statehood. However, Fatah has not permitted elections since their defeat in the Gaza Strip in 2006, a major point of worldwide concern and internal tension considering Fatah’s unpopularity among Palestinians. The West Bank has also seen violence since October 7th, with well over 200 Palestinians killed as Israeli forces have launched raids into West Bank cities. These raids have resulted in skirmishes with loosely organized local Palestinian militias loosely supportive of Hamas. Additionally, Palestinians in the West Bank have been killed by Israeli settlers terrorizing locals in attempts to seize more land, urged on by some in the Israeli government who seek to ethnically cleanse all Palestinians, both from Gaza and the West Bank. So far, Israeli settlers have not been allowed into the Gaza Strip- and such a development would cause massive international backlash.
Hamas’s additional backing by Iran significantly expands the scope of the conflict outside Gaza and Israel, and . Though not subservient to Iran, Hamas has long received backing from Israel’s largest rival. Iran is a theocratic and Shia fundamentalist nation, ruled by the supreme leader Ayatollah Khomenei (Ayatollah being a religious title). The Shiite sect of Islam, while smaller than the dominant Sunni branch, still has communities across the Middle East. While Hamas is not a Shiite organization, all of the other groups discussed in this article are, and their common religious identity binds them together, with Iran as the most powerful and influential Shiite nation in the world.
Lebanon, which borders Israel to the north, was the site of a brutal civil war during the 20th century. Hezbollah, a religious fundamentalist and nationalist movement, emerged as a major player during the 1975-1990 war. Drawing on the Shiite minority in southern Lebanon, the group came to rule much of Lebanon- even contesting the power of the official Lebanese Army- and gained attention by bombing American embassies and killing US soldiers on a UN peacekeeping mission. Hezbollah has entrenched itself in the area north of Israel and south of the Litani River, which Israel attempted to force them from during the 2006 war, which began after Hezbollah abducted multiple Israeli soldiers. Hezbollah is considered a member of the “Axis of Resistance” alongside Hamas and other smaller Palestinian groups, and since October 7th, has launched attacks on Israeli military installations on the border and fired barrages of missiles into civilian settlements in northern Israel. Thousands of airstrikes and artillery shells have been fired by Israel into southern Lebanon in response, killing over 180 Hezbollah fighters. This low-level conflict has not involved the Lebanese Army, which has avoided Hezbollah territory and has little presence the south of the country to maintain an uneasy truce with the militant group.
Hezbollah also has a large presence in Syria, which has long been embroiled in conflict. The dictator Bashar al-Assad has faced a civil war since his brutal bombings and slaughter of pro-democracy protesters during the Arab Spring in 2011. Although initially besieged, Assad received support from Iran in the form of weapons and soldiers sent by Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed Shia militias throughout the region. After over 12 years of war and hundreds of thousands of deaths, Assad is in control of the vast majority of the country, with smaller portions held by Turkish-backed rebels or Kurdish militias. The last major fighting occurred in early 2020, and the following four years have seen Iranian militias entrench themselves in the nation, given the immense power they received by saving the Assad government. For years Israel has launched airstrikes in Syria aimed at disrupting weapon convoys arriving from Iran, occasionally killing Iranian military advisors in the country, but these strikes have increased in number significantly since October 7th.
The current situation in Iraq is similar to that of Syria. When ISIS armies overran much of Iraq in 2014, US-backed Kurdish fighters and local Shia militias were the only effective resistance keeping the nation from collapsing. These Shia militias, some of which fought the United States during the occupation from 2003 to 2011, were motivated by the fact that ISIS follows the Sunni sect of Islam, as Iraq has a long history of Shia-Sunni violence. In an uneasy partnership, the US supported both the Iraqi army and the local Shia militias, known as Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMFs. Given their significant contributions towards the defeat of ISIS, these PMFs began to control large portions of the country, though never outright fighting the Iraqi government. The PMFs have launched a small number of long-range missiles towards Israel since October 7th, but their fight has mostly been against the US.
Shia militias in both Iraq and Syria have concentrated their efforts against the small number of US bases still in the region- 8 in Iraq at the behest of the Iraqi government, and a handful in Syria in Kurdish-controlled territory. These bases are mostly in formerly ISIS-controlled territory and serve the ostensible purpose of preventing an ISIS resurgence. Dozens of missiles, drones, and mortars have been fired at these US bases, though most have been downed by American air defense systems. These attacks have put significant pressure on the US to withdraw at the threat of losing soldiers. Simultaneously, the Iraqi government is now faced by the widely popular demand to stop these attacks by conceding to the militias and ending the leases for US bases. The US has long been an ally of Jordan, a country bordering Israel, the West Bank, Syria, and Iraq. The US has multiple bases in this strategically vital nation, including one on the border with Syria named Tower 22 that supplies a major US base in Syria. Here, three US soldiers were killed in a drone attack by the Iranian-backed PMF known as the Kata’ib Hezbollah, also designated as a terrorist organization by the US government. In response, the US has launched airstrikes against a range of Shia militias in both Iraq and Syria in an attempt to disrupt future attacks.
The most peripheral major actor involved is the Houthi Movement in Yemen. Yemen has also been torn apart by a civil war since the Houthis seized the nation’s capital Sana’a in 2014. The Houthis draw their power from the Shia minority in Yemen, long oppressed by successive governments. Yemen is currently split between Houthi control and two other rival governments, one backed by Saudi Arabia and the other by the United Arab Emirates. A ceasefire has kept civil war frozen for nearly two years, though the Houthis remain powerful and entrenched in a large portion of the country. After the war in Gaza began, the Houthis began launching ballistic missiles at Israeli cities and bombing international shipping in the Red Sea. These capabilities are due to Iranian technical and material support for the Houthi Movement, and both Iranian and Hezbollah advisors sit on the Houthi decision-making council, influencing their decision-making. The Houthis also hold an extremely strategic location, as their territory lies on the western coast of Yemen near the narrow Bab al-Mandab Strait, through which all cargo ships must travel when coming to and from the Suez Canal. The Houthis claim they are only targeting ships transiting to Israel; however they have also fired upon vessels with no connection to the country. Many nations have sent vessels into the Red Sea to protect shipping by shooting down Houthi missiles and drones, and the US and UK have directly bombed Houthi territory to preempt the launches of weapons by Houthi forces.
The last four months has seen a steady drumbeat of escalation in the Middle East, as the crisis which began in Israel and Gaza has now spread across the entire region, with tens of thousands of deaths and major geopolitical consequences which could cause even greater bloodshed in the future. Though these events are extremely complicated and often connected by obscure and rarely-reported-on links, this article can hopefully shed some light on the complexities of the region.