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“The Logic of Escalation”: From Red Sea to Iran & Beyond, Will Israel’s Gaza Assault Spark Wider War?

StoryJanuary 17, 2024
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Military actions by various actors across the Middle East are compounding fears that Israel’s assault on Gaza is escalating into a full-blown regional war. In recent days, the United States has carried out strikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen who have resumed their attacks on container ships in the Red Sea; Iran has struck targets in northern Iraq, Syria and Pakistan; while Hezbollah and Israel have escalated the intensity of fighting across their border. For a look at where all this is headed, we speak with journalist Spencer Ackerman, who says it’s “the most dangerous moment for the Middle East” he has witnessed in over 20 years of covering war and security. “This is now a conflict with battlefronts ranging across the region,” he says. “We shouldn’t think that absent an active act of deescalation that this won’t continue spiraling outward throughout 2024.” Ackerman writes the Forever Wars newsletter and is the foreign policy columnist for The Nation.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

From northern Iraq to Lebanon to Pakistan to the Red Sea, an array of strikes and counterstrikes over the last several days are compounding fears that Israel’s assault on Gaza could escalate into a full-blown regional war. In just the past few days, the U.S. has carried out strikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen, who have resumed their attacks on container ships in the Red Sea. Iran has struck what it said was as an Israeli spy headquarters in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, as well as targeting anti-Iran militants in Pakistan and Syria. Meanwhile, in Lebanon, Hezbollah and Israel have escalated the intensity of fighting across the border.

For more, we’re joined by award-winning journalist Spencer Ackerman, foreign policy columnist for The Nation magazine. His latest piece, “Israel Is Not Promising to 'Scale Back' Its War.” He also publishes the Forever Wars newsletter on Ghost, where his new piece is headlined “Iran’s Opening Shots and the Logic of Escalation.”

Welcome back, Spencer, to Democracy Now! Talk about this possibility of a widening war, and what you’re most concerned about.

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Amy, thank you for having me.

I think that in my 20-plus years of covering the “war on terror,” this is the most dangerous moment in — for the Middle East that I’ve seen professionally. You talk about there being the possibility of a full-blown regional conflict. We’re at least at half-blown now. Consider what the battlefields are and have been in this conflict: Gaza, obviously the most important one, the most devastating to humanity, where the Palestinians are experiencing what could and probably should be understood as a genocide, but also southern Israel, northern Israel, southern Lebanon, northwestern Syria, Beirut, northeastern Syria, Erbil, Baghdad, southwestern Yemen, the Red Sea, Pakistan, as well. This is now a conflict with battlefronts ranging across the region, each of which facing pressure to escalate as their various combatants’ objectives are not fully achieved. We shouldn’t think that absent an active act of deescalation, that this won’t continue spiraling outward throughout 2024.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Spencer, this whole idea that we hear almost every day some member of the Biden administration say that they’re trying to prevent an escalation of the conflict in the region, when in fact their actions are quite the opposite?

SPENCER ACKERMAN: That’s right, Juan. We heard the Biden administration say most recently that it was deeply concerned about escalation in Lebanon. Well, just in the last 24 hours, the Israeli Air Force has been bombing southern Lebanon, bombing what it says are Hezbollah positions there, but also the United States has taken direct action, not just in the Red Sea, but also on Yemeni soil itself multiple times, three times at least, including most recently yesterday. And, as well, recently it carried out its first drone strike in Baghdad since 2020, which has now strained U.S.-Iraqi relations. So, the United States, while it might say that it’s seeking to contain the conflict, is caught up in the logic of escalation.

And that means we shouldn’t give the Biden administration a pass on this. These aren’t, you know, automatic gravitational forces. These are the accumulations of choices that Biden and his team are making to involve the U.S. more deeply in this spiraling conflict, all of which could be stopped if the United States used its immense influence over Israel to restrain it or stop it from carrying out its collective punishment of Gaza.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We often hear, as well, about the Axis of Resistance, supposedly controlled or financed by Iran, but very little about the Axis of Empire, of the U.K., the United States and Israel in the region. To what degree does this axis have more right to control the affairs of the region than those who are actually from countries there?

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Quite well said, Juan. Without ceding any of Iran’s claims to regional hegemony, the United States and its allies act as if they are the representatives of the natural and just order of the Middle East, and not, in fact, Western impositions upon the aspirations of the citizenry, the people of these countries, to determine their own affairs.

And we are seeing that quite starkly most recently in Yemen, where one of the most war-devastated countries in the Middle East, as a result of not only U.S. strikes against al-Qaeda targets, what the United States says is al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, stemming from something like over the past 15 years, but also a U.S.-backed Saudi and Emirati campaign that lasted seven years before a ceasefire took hold in 2022, that brought not only famine but cholera to this country, that has been engulfed in a foreign-backed, foreign-sponsored and foreign-accelerated civil war, nevertheless, even among people who don’t accept the Houthi movement as the legitimate rulers of Yemen, saw massive demonstrations after the United States and its Western allies started bombing Yemen in retaliation for the Houthi attempt to relieve the siege of Gaza. So you really have the — we really have on full exposure the rejection of U.S. claims to, you know, standing for peace and stability in the region.

AMY GOODMAN: Spencer, your piece last week for The Nation is headlined “Israel Is Not Promising to 'Scale Back' Its War,” which you wrote partly as a corrective to a New York Times article that claimed that’s what Israel is planning. If you could explain this and what it means for — I mean, we just heard Gideon Levy, the Israeli Jewish journalist at Haaretz, talking about this war going on for a year or more.

SPENCER ACKERMAN: That’s right. Amy, when you listen to what the Israeli government says to its own people, like Gideon mentioned, it talks about a war that will — and this is what Benjamin Netanyahu said over the weekend — “will last until victory, and no one, not even The Hague, will stop us,” which is an incredibly and ominous thing to say, and probably ought to be tacked on to South Africa’s genocide lawsuit.

What it says to the Americans, as the Americans are feeling the pressure from its Arab allies in the region, and indeed from President Biden’s own supporters in the United States who want to see this war stopped, is that, in fact, it’s scaling down to lower-intensity operations, or more often it doesn’t say that quite outright. It says it will move away from high-intensity operations into what it says is a so-called phase three of its operations in Gaza.

So, what is phase three? Phase three focuses on southern Gaza. Every day we are getting reports of casualties from Gaza, civilian casualties in the triple digits. Israel already made something like 1.7, 1.8 million people —

AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds.

SPENCER ACKERMAN: — relocate to southern Gaza. So this war is not, in fact, scaling down. It’s moving toward a sustainable path of civilian devastation.

AMY GOODMAN: Spencer Ackerman, foreign policy columnist for The Nation magazine, also publishes the Forever Wars newsletter on Ghost. We’ll link to your pieces at democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, for another edition of Democracy Now!

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