'West Asia crisis could lead to global political, economic chaos': Former diplomat Ratakonda

It could empower aggressive non-state actors and lead to political realignments

Iran Israel Syria Palestinians People carry the flag-draped coffin of an Iranian Revolutionary Guard member, who was killed in an Israeli air strike in Syria | AP
Dayakara Ratakonda Dayakara Ratakonda

For the most part, West Asia constantly presents an image of a volatile place. Even so, recent developments in the region have created shock and awe for resident and non-resident stakeholders alike, causing serious foreboding for global peace and order.

Hamas, the armed Palestinian group ruling Gaza, which is a part of occupied Palestine, unleashed a brutal attack on October 7, 2023 on an unprepared Israel, leaving 1,200 dead and thousands injured. Several hundred Israelis were taken hostage by Hamas, which enjoys Iranian support.

Israel’s disproportionate and relentless retaliation against Hamas has killed thousands of civilians, including women and children, in Gaza. The attacks have also led to a blockade in the delivery of food, medicine and other essential supplies. Armed non-state entities in the region with pro-Iranian labels, such as the Houthis in Yemen and the Hezbollah in Lebanon, along with Shia militias in Iraq, have joined Hamas in fighting Israel. Sea-based support offered by the Houthis has led to naval engagements in the Red Sea, disrupting shipments to and from Israel. The Jewish nation finds political, economic, diplomatic and military backing from the US and its allies.

Despite suffering heavy losses, the political will of the two sides to continue the fight remains unabated. Hamas has shown remarkable fighting spirit― possibly the result of long-term planning―and it has not yet faced any serious backlash from the people of Gaza.

Now exists a militant Shiite arc from the eastern Mediterranean up to the Persian Gulf, championing the Palestinian cause and ready to confront Israel.
Countries in the region do not want an escalation. One cannot, however, rule out the law of unintended consequences and black swan developments.

The October 7 attacks have caused a serious dent in Israel’s image of invincibility, deepened its insecurities and heightened the search for a new paradigm for security that preempts any future threat from Hamas. Continued detention of Israeli hostages by Hamas has created political pressure on the Benjamin Netanyahu-led unity government. Efforts led by Egypt and Qatar for the release of the hostages have so far given only limited results. The enormous loss of Palestinian lives from Israel’s air and ground offensive and its refusal to allow humanitarian relief to the beleaguered Gazans have led to diplomatic setbacks for the country, including at the United Nations and the International Court of Justice.

The US-brokered Abraham accords that were to create a new Arab-Israeli equation now stays frozen at the take-off stage itself. Conversely, the Palestine question received global attention and sympathy with increased support for the two-state solution. Also, anti-semitism began to appear sporadically in several western capitals. The Israeli economy is suffering with its military reservists taken away for fighting and also with the exit of Palestinian workers. Tourism, too, has taken a hit. The Israeli GDP is expected to witness a steep fall.

Iran’s recent missile strikes on Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan and Idlib in northwest Syria, on alleged Israeli spy spots, signal Tehran’s new forward policy that is offensive-defensive in nature, not to speak of its recent naval deployment in the Red Sea. This might be a message to Hamas, the Houthis and the Hezbollah as much as to Israel that Iran is no longer a mere moral supporter, materials supplier and strategy adviser against Israel, that attacks against Iranian interests in the region would be replied to in kind and that Iran now is an active up front participant in the “axis of resistance” against Israel.

Interestingly, there is a subtext of cross-sectarian cooperation in the line-up against Israel. Hamas, an offspring of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, received armed support from the Houthis, the Hezbollah and the Iraqi militias―all Shiite and proxies of the Shia power centre, Iran. Thus, now exists a militant Shiite arc from the eastern Mediterranean up to the Persian Gulf, championing the Palestinian cause and ready to confront Israel. Pan-Arab and pan-Islamic platforms, on the other hand, were content to just express outrage at Israel’s relentless bombing of Gaza. It is also worth noting that at the ICJ, hardly any Arab or Islamic country gave active support to South Africa’s case against Israel.

Mideast Tensions Reckless endangerment: Oil tanker Marlin Luanda on fire after an attack by the Houthis in the Red sea | AP

Iraq, meanwhile, has asked the US to withdraw its forces from its territory, following American retaliatory action against Iraqi Shiite militias who targeted US bases in Iraq and Syria for supporting Israel. In the event of American withdrawal, the Islamic State is likely to rear its ugly head again, drawing in Iran. It is likely to impact the fragile sectarian peace in Iraq and also affect the sensitive equations between the countries in the region.

Moreover, a geopolitical angle is seen behind the October 7 attacks. It was clear that a massive retaliation by Israel would have attendant consequences that include a halt by key Arab countries to the diplomatic engagement with Israel, coupled with a hold on the Abraham accords that aim to end the Israeli isolation in the Arab world.

Attacks attributed to Israel on Syria and Lebanon that killed Iranian, Hamas and Hezbollah leaders; Iran’s stepped-up activism; incremental support to Hamas from Russia, China and Turkey; Iraqi demand for withdrawal of US troops from its territory; Islamic State taking no active stance at this stage but waiting for the waters to be muddied further; the total absence of common ground between Israel and Hamas for a negotiated outcome and Shia non-state actors fighting Israel independent of their state patrons point to an explosive cocktail.

Facing multiple dilemmas and challenges, countries in the region do not want an escalation. One cannot, however, rule out the law of unintended consequences and black swan developments, which can lead to unforeseen outcomes. Non-state actors are calling the shots without green signal from their principals. Iran, for instance, said it had no prior knowledge of the October 7 attacks.

Iran also denied any association with the drone attack on January 28 in northeastern Jordan that killed three US soldiers. A pro-Iranian Shiite outfit has claimed responsibility. The key players would do well to remember that it was a just a bullet fired by the Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip at Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, which led to the events that precipitated World War I in 1914. The war incidentally shaped the present political geography of West Asia, thanks to an Anglo-French agreement in 1916 and the Balfour Declaration in 1917.

The author was India’s ambassador to Iraq and Jordan. He also served at the West Asia desk of the ministry of external affairs.