The Middle East’s Perfect Storm

The Middle East’s Perfect Storm

It seems increasingly illusory that regional escalation can be controlled or stopped much longer. 

As Israel launches its offensive on Rafah at the peril of the hostages and its international standing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has once again demonstrated that his primary objective is to ensure his political survival by catering to the messianic Far Right. Netanyahu has argued that an assault on Rafah is key to achieving total victory. However, after nearly eight months of war, Israel is turning into a pariah state while facing a quagmire in Gaza, mounting violence in the West Bank, and a brewing war with Hezbollah. 

Over 35,000 Gazans have been killed, the health system has collapsed, and half the population is facing catastrophic levels of hunger. Much of Gaza has been reduced to rubble, and reconstruction will cost around $40 billion and may last until 2040. It is unclear who will fund the reconstruction project since most Arab countries have explicitly refused to participate in any post-war plan for Gaza that does not lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state. Given the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe, rampant lawlessness, and lack of a viable plan for the day after, Hamas will be able to recruit fighters and re-establish control over most of Gaza. Hamas is already regrouping in northern Gaza and other areas that had been cleared by the IDF months ago. 

Israel’s blatant disregard for international humanitarian law is framed as an unfortunate necessity for defeating Hamas when, in reality, it is strategically dangerous. The return of the Taliban in Afghanistan or the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria are painful reminders that terrorist organizations continually resurface and cannot be defeated through military means alone. Any successful counter-insurgency requires the support of the local population and a coherent long-term strategy that addresses the underlying issues and prevents a power vacuum from emerging.  

Moreover, the brutal images coming out of Gaza are fuelling anger on the Arab street and risk jeopardizing Israel’s peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan. Cairo fears that a full-scale invasion of Rafah will lead to a massive influx of refugees who will not be able to return. Although Egypt has successfully contained the Islamist insurgency in the Sinai peninsula, any instability in the region could lead to a resurgence of terrorist organizations. 

Jordan also sees the forced displacement of Palestinians to its territory as a red line and a threat to its internal security. With over two million Palestinian refugees already living in its territory, Amman is facing regular protests calling for relations with Israel to be severed. These protests are likely to grow if the situation in the West Bank continues to deteriorate. Under Netanyahu’s far-right coalition, there has been a surge in settler violence, which has been exacerbated by the terrorist attacks of October 7. In fact, 2023 was the deadliest year for Palestinians living in the West Bank, and with the Palestinian Authority widely viewed as weak, ineffective, and kleptocratic, support for armed resistance has soared. 

Meanwhile, Iran is viewed as a champion of the Palestinian cause and is using its proxies to foment unrest in the region. The Assad regime, with the help of Hezbollah and other Iran-backed militias, has turned Syria into one of the world’s largest narco-states. This has led to a proliferation of trafficking networks throughout the region that have been established with the help of various criminal organizations, militias, and terrorist groups. Over the past three years, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has used these networks to smuggle small arms into the West Bank in hopes of sparking a third intifada. 

Since October 7, Iran has tried to smuggle more advanced weapons—including anti-tank mines, grenade launchers, and various explosives—and is using its proxies to destabilize the Jordanian government. Kata’ib Hezbollah, Iran’s most significant proxy in Iraq, has threatened to arm 12,000 fighters in Jordan to bolster Palestinian resistance in the West Bank. Jordanian authorities have also recently foiled a plot by Iran-backed militias in Syria to provide arms to a Muslim Brotherhood cell in Jordan to carry out acts of sabotage.

Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran has exploited the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and regional hostility toward the United States to present itself as the leader of the Muslim world. The IRGC has patiently and skilfully seized the opportunity of chaos from multiple wars and rising sectarian tensions to cultivate its axis of resistance. By filling the power vacuum in Iraq and supporting the Assad regime in Syria, Iran has established a land bridge to Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which facilitates the transfer of fighters and equipment to its proxies. 

Iran’s foreign policy has become even more aggressive after the ultraconservative factions consolidated power in 2021. Following the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the assassination of Quds Force commander Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the reformist and moderate factions have been sidelined, with many members barred from running in elections, including former President Hassan Rouhani. Since Ebrahim Raisi’s victory in the 2021 presidential election, the regime has tightened morality laws and launched a violent crackdown on anti-government protests, which has widened the gap between state and society. Amid the looming succession of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Raisi’s sudden death will trigger an intense power struggle, but Iran’s foreign policy is unlikely to soften. Instead, the regime may decide to weaponize its nuclear program to guarantee its survival as it faces domestic insecurities and regional hostilities.

Over the past eight months, Iran and Israel’s shadow war has intensified across multiple arenas, particularly along the Israeli-Lebanese border. The clashes between Hezbollah and Israel have resulted in the evacuation of approximately 150,000 civilians on both sides of the border. Israel is determined to launch a military offensive in southern Lebanon to push Hezbollah forces behind the Litani River in order to secure its northern border and allow its civilians to return home. Even though Hassan Nasrallah—the secretary-general of Hezbollah—is wary of a full-blown confrontation with Israel, he cannot afford to appear weak against an Israeli attack. 

Since the 2006 Lebanon war, Hezbollah has gained experience from fighting in the Syrian civil war and has substantially increased its arsenal. Furthermore, Hezbollah is Iran’s most valued ally in the region and plays a central role in the axis of resistance. If war breaks out, the IRGC will likely mobilize its forces and proxies to come to Hezbollah’s defense, which would make a wider regional war inevitable. Even a limited offensive risks completely destabilizing Lebanon, as the country faces a political deadlock, economic collapse, and renewed sectarian tensions. 

It appears as though all the issues that have plagued the Middle East for decades are culminating simultaneously. In such a volatile environment, it is illusory to believe that anyone can control further escalation.

Kelly Alkhouli is a political consultant and director of international relations at the Center of Political and Foreign Affairs (CPFA). Follow her on Twitter @KellyAlkhouli.

Image: Opachevsky Irina /