Three linked conflicts are currently under way in the Middle East. These are: Israel's war against Hamas in Gaza, the lower intensity battle under way between Israel and Hezbollah in the north, and the Houthis' maritime campaign in support of Hamas against international shipping in the Red Sea/Gulf of Aden area.
Since October 7, most media coverage has tended to regard the Gaza war as the central arena, and the other two fronts as subsidiary to it.
This perspective needs to be revised. All three of these fronts are part of a larger regional dynamic. And all three are currently at or approaching a hinge point.
"We're focusing our efforts on the south, but Hezbollah is continuing to act with aggression," said Lt.-Col. Jonathan Conricus, speaking to journalists in Kibbutz Rosh Hanikra earlier this week. "We can do the same, if needed against Hezbollah, as we are doing against Hamas.... We have evacuated our civilians from the immediate danger zone, and we're in a defensive posture because we're focused on our operations in Gaza."
A low- to medium-intensity conflict is currently going on, north and south of Israel's border with Lebanon, with daily exchanges of fire, constant alerts, deaths on both sides. Israel clearly enjoys the tactical advantage, and this is reflected in the casualty figures. Somewhere just over 100 Hezbollah fighters have died so far, along with 17 Lebanese civilians and one soldier of the Lebanese Armed Forces, according to AFP. On the Israeli side, seven soldiers and four civilians have died, as reported by Reuters.
The mood among the Israeli troops deployed in the North appears upbeat and determined.
"We're learning every day," Lidor, a company commander mobilized since October 8, told me. "I was in the Kfir Brigade in the regular army, so we're seeing many things for the first time. But we're learning every day – and we're ready for anything."
But while, tactically, Israel clearly has the upper hand, on the strategic level the situation is less positive. Around 86,000 Israelis have left their homes as a result of Hezbollah's engagement in support of Hamas further south. There are no indications that they will be ready to return unless Hezbollah's deployment along the border comes to an end.
As to how this can be achieved, there have been reports of a US-led diplomatic effort to move Hezbollah forces from the border. The prospects for such an effort appear poor. It is not clear what inducements the US would bring to the table to make Hezbollah act in a way contrary to its core outlook and purpose. But the reports do indicate that the US remains opposed to any unilateral Israeli military move to drive the Iran-supported Shia Islamists from the border area. The continued maintenance of an effective "security zone" on the Israeli side of the border is untenable for Israel.
With the basis for diplomacy unclear, and military action evidently contrary to US wishes, the situation remains blocked. For as long as it is not resolved, the current reality represents a gain for the Iran-led regional bloc's goal of the slow chipping away at the chance for a normal life for Israelis.
Israel's goal in its war in Gaza is the destruction of the Hamas-led authority, which has ruled the area since 2007, and which ordered and carried out the massacre of October 7. Tactically, again, Israel has performed well. The IDF has moved forward methodically and effectively in northern Gaza, where Hamas resistance is now only sporadic. Major operations remain in the south, to make achieving Israel's stated goal possible.
But again, the strategic picture is less encouraging. Three contradictory timetables have been operating throughout with regard to Israel's operation in Gaza. These are:
1. The military timetable – that is, the time that Israel needs to pursue its operation to the point where the Hamas authority has been destroyed, and efforts toward the creation of a successor authority can begin, with Israel maintaining its security hold on Gaza.
2. The diplomatic timetable – that is, the amount of time available until international pressure begins for Israel to wind up operations. The stance of the US, which historically has defended Israel for a limited period against pressure of this kind before joining it, is the crucial variable here.
3. The hostage timetable – that is, the ongoing effort to bring about the release of Israeli hostages taken on October 7.
These timetables are contrary because focus on the hostages will tend to slow down the military effort, while only a limited window for this effort exists until diplomatic pressure to bring it to a close begins in earnest. The obvious Hamas intention is to use the hostage issue in order to run out the clock, until such time as Israel is forced to break off the military effort before its goal has been achieved. Israel's interest is in ensuring this does not happen.
As of now, it appears that US and Western pressure for Israel to cease the high-intensity maneuver phase of the war by early January, establish a buffer zone and continue raids and pinpointed operations into Gaza is growing. If Israel acquiesces to this, it becomes likely that Hamas will reemerge as the de facto authority in a large part of Gaza.
This will be seen, justifiably, by Hamas and its supporters as victory, and motivation for further attacks.
Red Sea/Gulf of Aden/Yemen
The third conflict front that has opened up as a result of October 7 is the maritime contest taking place in the area of the Bab al-Mandab Strait, the Gulf of Aden, and the Red Sea. In terms of potential global consequence, this may be the most important front of all.
As of now, the Houthis, who control northern Yemen, are engaged in a campaign of attacks on international shipping. More than a dozen ships have been targeted. Six million barrels of oil a day pass through the Bab al-Mandab Strait. About 12% of global trade transits here on the way to the Suez Canal.
As a result of the Houthis' terrorizing of ships passing through the strait on their way to the canal, a number of major shipping companies, including MSC, Hapag-Loyd, CMA CGM, and Maersk, have announced that they have suspended passage to the Red Sea because of the threat. Energy giant BP this week recorded a similar suspension. The cost for companies of shipping to Europe via the Cape of Good Hope instead of the Suez Canal is set to have a major economic impact. Oil prices have already risen by $2.12 to $78.67 a barrel since the attacks began.
The US this week announced the formation of a 10-nation naval coalition to defend shipping in the Red Sea from attacks by the Houthis. The Houthis have said that the attacks will continue. Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, a senior Houthi official, was quoted by Al Jazeera as saying that "even if America succeeds in mobilizing the entire world, our military operations will not stop... no matter the sacrifices it costs us."
The dimensions and nature of the operations that the new coalition will take to ensure the protection of shipping in the area remain to be seen.
So – three fronts of conflict in the Middle East, with a number of common factors. All three derive from the support afforded to movements of political Islam by the Islamic Republic of Iran, as part of its push for regional domination.
All three are currently at a hinge point, where it will be determined if the opponents of the Iran/Islamist side will take the necessary and determined action to push back their enemy, or if the enemy will be permitted to unilaterally reshape the strategic balance.
The outcome of all three, therefore, depends on the extent of will possessed by the anti-Iranian and anti-Islamist side. Much regarding the future of Israel and of the Middle East may depend on the results of the contest on all three of these fronts.
Jonathan Spyer is director of research at the Middle East Forum and director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. He is author of Days of the Fall: A Reporter's Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars (2018).