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December 14, 2023

With End of Humanitarian Pause, Risks of Disastrous Regional War Return

The brief humanitarian pause to the horrific warfare in Israel and Palestine between November 24 and December 1 delivered concrete results: more than 100 hostages released, a reprieve for civilians subjected to devastating bombing, and humanitarian aid entering Gaza. Less-noticed, but still significant, was a halt on attacks targeting U.S. forces and interests across the region. 

With the breakdown of the humanitarian pause, those attacks have resumed and the risks of the U.S. and Iran engaging directly, and the outbreak of a full-blown regional war, are once again growing. These attacks and the risk that they pose are a byproduct of the conflict between Israel and Palestine. The U.S. can either double down on its current approach, risking further escalation and a broader war that would be devastating to U.S. and Israeli security, or move to address the root causes of this insecurity through diplomacy. Recent history demonstrates clearly that only diplomacy has succeeded in halting Iran-linked attacks on U.S. interests, and escalation — including in the name of “deterrence” as being called for by some — has consistently only led to Iranian counter-escalation. 

Humanitarian Pause Halted Attacks

  • Between October 17 and the start of the truce on November 24, the Pentagon reported 73 attacks on U.S. positions in Iraq and Syria. While the U.S. reportedly thwarted most of the attacks, there was at least one near miss, when an armed drone crashed into a barracks at Erbil air base on Oct 25 but did not detonate.
  • The U.S. responded with retaliatory strikes of its own several times during this initial period. These progressed from strikes against unmanned facilities and warehouses on October 26 and November 8 to direct reprisals that resulted in fatalities on November 12 and November 21.
  • These attacks subsided during the humanitarian pause. The Department of Defense noted “a single rocket attack was launched against US and Coalition forces at Mission Support Site Euphrates, Syria,” on the morning of November 29, causing no damage or injuries. Otherwise, there were no further attacks on U.S. positions.
  • The war in Gaza broke a tentative de-escalation that had halted attacks from Iran-linked militias on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria for several months, thanks to backchannel diplomacy that also secured the release of Iranian-American dual nationals in a prisoner swap.

Incidents Since Breakdown of Humanitarian Pause December 1

  • On December 3, U.S. forces appear to have pre-empted an attack near Kirkuk, Iraq. According to CENTCOM, U.S. forces “engaged five militants preparing to launch a one-way attack drone,” utilizing an unmanned aerial vehicle to kill the militants and destroy the drone. Separately, on the same day, CENTCOM reported that “15 122mm rockets originating in Iraq were fired at the U.S. base Rumalyn Landing Zone in Syria,” causing no injuries or damage.
  • Also on December 3, Houthi forces appear to have launched four attacks against three commercial shipping vessels in the Red Sea. The USS Carney was operating in the area and, in responding to the distress calls, shot down three UAVs reportedly heading in the direction of the warship. The CENTCOM press release noted “We also have every reason to believe that these attacks, while launched by the Houthis in Yemen, are fully enabled by Iran. The United States will consider all appropriate responses in full coordination with its international allies and partners.”
  • On December 8, roughly seven mortars landed in the U.S. embassy compound in Baghdad, the first time the compound had been targeted in more than a year. The same day, five separate attacks were launched. Three targeted U.S. bases in Syria, while two targeted the Ain al-Asad airbase in Iraq. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin called on the Iraqi Prime Minister, Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, to underscore “the obligation of the Government of Iraq to protect diplomatic personnel and Coalition advisors and facilities.”
  • The end of the pause also led to a resumption of attacks across Lebanon’s border with Israel, with Hezbollah and Israeli forces consistently exchanging fire and shelling, leading to further casualties. On December 7, a missile from Lebanon reportedly killed an Israeli civilian, prompting Israeli reprisals and a warning from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that a full-blown war would turn “Beirut and southern Lebanon…into Gaza.” On December 10, Hezbollah fired explosive drones and missiles into Israel, and Israel countered with airstrikes on several towns in southern Lebanon.
  • On December 11, CENTCOM announced an attack on a Norwegian-flagged tanker transiting the Bab-el-Mandeb in the Red Sea. Defense officials attributed the attack to an “Anti-Ship Cruise Missile (ASCM) launched from a Houthi controlled area of Yemen.” The USS Mason was dispatched to render assistance.
  • On December 14, CENTCOM announced the USS Mason’s response to an attempt by the Houthis to board the Ardmore Encounter tanker in the Red Sea. Following their unsuccessful attempt, the Houthis fired a pair of missiles which failed to strike the vessel. The Mason subsequently shot down an unmanned aerial vehicle that was heading toward it. No damage to vessels or injuries were sustained.

Another Ceasefire and Urgent Diplomacy Needed to Forestall Drift to War

  • Hawkish voices have exploited these attacks by attacking Biden as weak and calling for “massive retaliation” against Iran. With regional tensions incredibly high, acting on hawkish fantasies for expanding the war would be tremendously dangerous. More aggressive bombing of Iran-linked forces is a two-way street that would ensure further escalation and retaliation, with many roads leading to significant casualties for U.S. forces and civilian populations across the region. 
  • Instead, serious diplomacy has consistently proven to be the only way to reduce threats from Iran, including to U.S. forces in the Middle East. Amid Obama-era nuclear negotiations, U.S. and Iran-backed forces operated in very close proximity in Iraq throughout the counter-ISIS campaign, with minimal tensions. The Trump decision to kill the nuclear deal and shift to maximum pressure broke this tentative truce, ultimately leading to the edge of war following the assassination of Qassem Soleimani and punishing Iranian reprisal strikes on U.S. bases in Iraq. Backchannel negotiations that secured the release of Iranian Americans earlier this year also helped produce a long-term end to attacks on U.S. positions in Iraq and Syria, prior to the outbreak of the Gaza conflict.
  • It is important to recognize that Iran and aligned forces across the region appear to have approached the conflict in Gaza carefully. Iran has taken clear steps to signal it does not seek escalation, including distancing itself from Hamas’ decisionmaking on the October 7th attacks. U.S. intelligence believes that Iran’s leadership is not seeking a direct war.
  • Still, many forces that receive Iran’s backing have engaged in repeated attacks on U.S. bases across the region and, particularly with respect to the Houthis, international shipping. Given the linkage between these attacks and the violence in Gaza, they appear to be intended to both signal solidarity with the Palestinian cause and signal capabilities if the war does expand across the region. 
  • While much has been made of Iran’s capabilities to disrupt or block shipping in the Strait of Hormuz in a wider war, hazards to shipping have manifested not in the Persian Gulf but in the Red Sea and the Bab-el-Mandeb strait. This signals that an open conflict with Iran and the forces it is aligned with would lead to significant complications well beyond Iran’s borders, encompassing additional maritime routes that are of vital importance to the global economy.
  • Attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, as well as international shipping in the Red Sea, are likely to continue and very well could spiral out of control unless and until there is another humanitarian pause, cessation of hostilities and permanent ceasefire in Gaza. As the U.S. seeks to revive the hostage release process, it should also dedicate significant diplomatic resources to engaging Iran diplomatically through regional interlocutors to underscore that the U.S. does not seek a wider war, that attacks on U.S. forces risk a wider war and that the U.S. is working to seek another halt in the devastating violence in Gaza. While messages along these lines appear to have been sent earlier in the crisis, the fog of war can easily lead to miscalculation in the absence of formal diplomatic ties, necessitating consistent and serious diplomatic efforts to mitigate the growing risks.
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