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  Opinion   Columnists  22 Jan 2024  K.C. Singh | After Gaza, war close to South Asian fringe

K.C. Singh | After Gaza, war close to South Asian fringe

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry. He tweets at @ambkcsingh.
Published : Jan 22, 2024, 11:55 pm IST
Updated : Jan 22, 2024, 11:55 pm IST

The conflict that has been raging in Gaza ever since the horrific terror attacks on Israel on October 7, 2023 was so far a distant event.

The Iranian attack on alleged terror bases in Balochistan and Pakistan’s retaliation against targets in Iran has brought the war much nearer South Asia.(Image:AP)
 The Iranian attack on alleged terror bases in Balochistan and Pakistan’s retaliation against targets in Iran has brought the war much nearer South Asia.(Image:AP)

The conflict that has been raging in Gaza ever since the horrific terror attacks on Israel on October 7, 2023 was so far a distant event. The Houthis, by disrupting traffic though the Red Sea-Suez Canal area, forced the Indian Navy into action once a ship near India’s contiguous maritime zone faced a drone hit. However, the Iranian attack on alleged terror bases in Balochistan and Pakistan’s retaliation against targets in Iran has brought the war much nearer South Asia. Any escalation could affect the Strait of Hormuz, through which flow over 20 million barrels of oil per day, constituting one-fifth of global consumption. Many saw it as a resurgence of the old Iran-Pakistan dissonance over militant Balochis on both sides of their 900-km porous border. Of nine million Balochis, seven million live in Pakistan the rest are in Iran. In each country, they want independence from the host nation. In Pakistan, the discrimination is perceived on an ethnicity basis, while in Iran the Shia majority also treats them as a Sunni problem. Ironically, the Balochis in both nations seek self-determination. The Iranians have long demanded that Pakistan curb the activities of the Jesh-e-Adl group. In January, a suicide bombing in Kerman caused huge loss of lives, amongst masses gathered to commemorate the death anniversary of US-killed Iranian general Qasem Suleimani. More recently, in eastern Iran, bordering Pakistan, Iranian security officials were killed by suspected terrorists from Pakistan.

To understand the Iranian objectives, the larger context needs to be studied. The Gaza conflict is really a battle between Iran and the US-Israel alliance. The United States erred in ignoring two factors. One, the Palestinian issue continued unresolved, though simmering below the surface. Two, the extreme right-wing alliance of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since early 2023 had worsened the coercive treatment of Palestinians living in the West Bank, including by forced expansion of Jewish settlements. Even the warning by the head of Israel’s domestic intelligence agency Shin Bet was ignored. Regardless, the Biden administration envisioned a new security arrangement in West Asia and the Gulf through the Abraham Accords, aimed at normalising

Israel’s relations with the principal Gulf nations. This new strategic alliance was to contain Iranian influence in the so-called Shia crescent running from Iran to the Mediterranean. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco joined it. Saudi Arabia held back until its preconditions were met, which included a solution to the Palestinian issue. The sudden and brutal attack by Hamas upturned all the American calculations. It is unlikely that Iran knew the detailed plans or timing of the attack. But it is unbelievable that Iran blindly armed and trained the Hamas fighters. The use of drones to knock out Israeli electronic parameter security and monitoring required new equipment and tactics, most honed in the Ukraine conflict. The Russian use of cheaper weapon-carrying Iranian drones has globally altered battlefield tactics. The Israeli intelligence services obviously failed to connect the dots or obtain updated information on Hamas’ new equipment and modified training. The Iranian retaliation, bypassing its proxies in Lebanon and Yemen, was aimed at sending a signal to all non-state actors, knowingly or unwittingly, furthering the Israeli and US agenda. Considering that ISIS took the credit for the nasty suicide bombing at Kerman, Iran chose three targets that it assessed had masterminded the attack. They bombed ISIS assets in North Syria and an alleged

Israeli Mossad facility in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish province, and finally Jesh-e-Adl, a Balochi terrorist organisation with a history of past attacks on Iranian security forces. Coincidentally, former Indian Navy officer Kulbhushan Jadhav, arrested for espionage in Pakistan, was reportedly picked up from Iran by the last group before being handed over to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. Iran saw them having played a role in recent attacks on their security forces, besides likely operational cooperation with ISIS. The Erbil attack on an alleged Mossad espionage complex indicates suspicion of an Israeli role in recent bombings or shootings within Iran. Iran also vowed revenge against Israel for its attack on a Revolutionary Guards base in Syria’s capital Damascus, which killed five guardsmen.

The Pakistan-Iran standoff de-escalated rather quickly. Pakistan has an interim government tasked to oversee the conduct of a crucial parliamentary election. Similarly, Iran’s priority is to have the conflict in Gaza ended before Israel completely decapitates the top leadership of Hamas. US President Joe Biden, with his re-election 10 months away, is under domestic pressure to stop the butchery in Gaza. But the Israeli Prime Minister has diametrically opposite considerations as ending of the Gaza mayhem without the clear elimination of Hamas is tantamount to defeat, or at least failure. Besides initial intelligence lapses and a tardy military response to the October 7 attacks, the absence of a clear victory will cost Mr Netanyahu his job. He is therefore resisting US pressure to end military operations and start moving towards a political solution. Mr Netanyahu’s vocal rejection of a Palestinian state openly defies the US.

According to some reports, India has allowed an Israeli team to start recr-uiting workers from India to replace Palestinians in the Israeli workforce. This is a dangerous move that can cause ripples in the Arab world and generate anti-India sentiments. In the six Gulf Coordination Council nations, the eight million Indians, who mostly hold blue-collar jobs, could face a backlash.

The continuing attacks by the US and its allies on the Houthis have so far had limited effect on Houthis’ ability to disrupt maritime traffic in the Red Sea. They do not need to launch missiles and drones continuously. Even intermittent firing scares vessels away and raises insurance and freight rates. The Iranian escalation holds some lessons. Iran would prefer to bleed Israel using proxies. But it cannot control escalation if even one of the multiple players decides to punish Iran through the acts of non-state actors.

In conclusion, Israel’s Gaza operation needs to end very soon. Israel also requires not only a change of government but a more moderate and accommodative administration. An interim governance mechanism is needed for Gaza and the West Bank. The US is reportedly asking the Saudis and Emiratis to take up that task. Huge financial aid would be needed for reconstruction and rehabilitation of over two million people without jobs, medical care, schools and homes. Even if all the above happens, the region would still be at the starting point of a more peaceful West Asia. Meanwhile, the risk of a slip between the proverbial cup and the lip looms over the entire region.

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