Escalating Stakes:

The Biden administration has clearly sided with Israel and its right to defend itself since the beginning of the al-Aqsa Flood operation that Hamas launched against settlements surrounding the Gaza Strip. The US position supports Israel’s right to eradicate Palestinian militant factions in Gaza. Statements by US officials in support of the Israeli military operations, which have caused a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, were met with anger by the Arab street and by pushback both at home and abroad. Many US reports indicate that the Biden administration is pressuring Tel Aviv to not expand military operations in order to contain regional and international fallout. The US administration also wants to mitigate domestic repercussions of the conflict as the November 2024 presidential election approaches, since this could have a significant impact on Biden’s chances of winning a second term.

Interests under Threat

The Israeli military operation and potential expansion of the scope of its ground invasion in Gaza has had many negative repercussions for US influence, interests, and security in the Middle East, including:

1. Increased attacks against US targets in the region: As the humanitarian cost of the Israeli war on the Gaza Strip rises, attacks that have been linked to Iranian-aligned militias against US forces in Iraq and Syria have also grown. The Pentagon stated in late October that US forces in Iraq and Syria had been targeted by drone or rocket attacks on at least 27 occasions in recent days, as US forces in the region increased. Patrick Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, stated that 21 US personnel had been injured in two of these attacks, when drones hit the al-Asad Airbase in Iraq and the al-Tanf Airbase in Syria.

US reports indicate that there is intelligence suggesting that Iranian proxy militants in the Middle East are planning to intensify armed attacks using drones against US forces in the region. Tehran will try to make the most of popular and state anger against the boundless US support for Israeli military operations in Gaza.

2. Calls to close the US embassy in Iraq: Given the rising number of Palestinians killed and injured in the US-backed Israeli military operations in Gaza, political calls for closing the US embassy in Baghdad have escalated. This was particularly true after the leader of the Sadrist current, Muqtada al-Sadr, called for its closure—a call that was heard by local armed forces. This has raised concerns about the potential for the US embassy in Baghdad to be targeted by violence.

In the Iraqi Council of Representatives, 32 of a total 329 members introduced an official document demanding that the head of parliament convene an emergency session to shut down the US embassy in Baghdad, expel the US Ambassador Alina Romanowksi from Iraq, and suspend diplomatic ties with all countries backing Israel in its war on Gaza and other Palestinian territories. However, there are indications that it will be difficult to convene this session in light of major disputes between the leader of the Sadrist current and Shi‘ite Coordination Framework leaders. This will prevent the Council of Representatives from reaching a final decision on closing the US embassy in Iraq.

3. Opposition to appointment of US ambassador to Kuwait: A number of Kuwaiti representatives and activists led a wave of protests demanding that Kuwait block the new US Ambassador to Kuwait, Karen Sasahara, from assuming her post in light of the ongoing Israeli war on the Gaza Strip. A number of representatives threatened to interrogate the government if it approved the US ambassador to Kuwait. However, the Kuwaiti government refused to listen to these calls, and the controversy ended with Kuwaiti Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Salem al-Sabah affirming that the Emir had already accepted the US ambassador to Kuwait.

4. Erosion of trust in the US as an honest broker: US support for Israel as the latter carries out military attacks targeting unarmed civilians in Gaza has increased popular opposition to the US in many countries in the region. Previously, this opposition had been waning. Meanwhile, the Arab street is increasingly accepting of US adversaries and rivals such as Russia and China. Russian and Chinese involvement in the Middle East has grown while Washington’s involvement in the region has receded. A Gallup poll conducted in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in September 2023, before the Israeli war on Gaza, found that Palestinians did not trust the US president to serve as a fair mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Eighty-four percent of Palestinians said they had little to no trust that President Biden would help negotiate a fair peace agreement that treated Israelis and Palestinians equally.

5. Fears of threats against Americans in the region: The US administration and many US analysts are afraid that the rising humanitarian costs of Israeli military operations in Gaza, and escalating Arab opposition for unqualified US support for Israel, could lead to shifts in how pro-Iranian militias in the region target US military bases. There are concerns that soldiers could be taken hostage and that there could be attempts to kill US soldiers or diplomats in various Arab countries where these militias are active.

6. Balancing support for Israel with ending hostilities against Gaza: The US administration faces a challenge in balancing its support for Israeli military operations in Gaza with addressing regional and international demands to stop the violence and maintain stability in the region. Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority previously cancelled a meeting that had been scheduled with President Biden during his brief trip to Israel on 18 October 2023 after Israel was accused of bombing al-Ahli Baptist Hospital.

This challenge also arose during US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent trip to the region, when he met with the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Egypt, and Jordan as well as Palestinian officials in Amman. The Egyptian and Jordanian foreign ministers stood beside Blinken in the 4 November press conference and called for a ceasefire. They affirmed that the killing of thousands of civilians could not be justified on grounds of self-defense. However, Blinken rejected their calls and said that implementing a ceasefire now would permit Hamas to regroup and attack Israel again.

7. Pressure on Arab countries to sever ties with Israel: President Biden has made an effort to support the development of relations between Arab states and Israel, which he talked about during his electoral campaign. However, the ongoing military operations have undercut these opportunities after the parties had been close to reaching an agreement. The ongoing Israeli military operations in Gaza could also create numerous obstacles for Arab states that had ties with Israel, or had thought about improving relations. There is growing pressure from the people to sever ties due to the current war between Israel and Hamas. Many Arab countries have witnessed major protests expressing popular support for Palestinians. The ongoing war in Gaza and continued US support for Israel will put Arab governments in a difficult spot. As Israeli military operations continue, the US administration will find Arab normalization with Israel slows down or stops for a time.

US Responses

US military bases in Iraq and Syria as well as US citizens have been targeted following the Biden administration’s clear support for the Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip, which have produced an escalating humanitarian disaster. In response, the US administration has announced several measures to protect US national security and interests in the Middle East, including the following:

1. Bolster US presence in the Middle East: Since the beginning of military escalation in the Palestinian territories after the al-Aqsa Flood operation, the US has sought to bolster its military presence in the region. It has three main aims in doing so: (1) to affirm that the US will not allow Iranian-aligned militias to threaten US national interests and security in the region; (2) to indicate that the US military supports Israel’s right to defend itself and affirm that the US will protect the security of its strategic allies in the region, and (3) to deter Iranian proxies in the region from expanding the scope of the Israeli war against Hamas and the Palestinian resistance beyond Gaza.

An operation was announced to send the USS Eisenhower (an aircraft carrier), the USS Ford, and a number of other warships to the Mediterranean Sea. There are also around 2000 US troops potentially ready to go to Israel to provide aid in areas such as medical and logistical support. The US Department of Defense asked additional war planes to be on the ready to support flights of A-10, F-15, and F-16 planes in the Middle East to assist Israel if needed. The US Department of Defense also announced in late October that the US would send 300 additional soldiers to the region and that their main focus would be providing support in areas including defusing explosives and communications.

2. US support to protect military bases in the region: With the growing drone attacks on US military bases in Iraq and Syria, which are expected to increase further given continued Israeli military operations in Gaza, the US army has taken new steps to protect its forces in the Middle East. This has included increasing US military patrols, limiting access to US bases, and ramping up intelligence gathering through drones or surveillance operations. The US has also bolstered surveillance using guard towers for military installations, implemented security procedures near points of access to bases, and expanded operations to counter potential drone, rockets, and missile attacks that could be launched against US bases.

The commander of the US Central Command, General Michael Kurilla, said to Reuters that the heightened number of attacks and attempted attacks against US military sites highlighted the importance of continuously reviewing procedures to protect US forces. He indicated that there were steps being taken to protect forces and that additional US miliary assets had been brought to the region in recent days. He said this would prevent increased losses among US forces in the theater of operations.

3. Prevent expansion of the Israeli war: Many US reports indicate that the US administration is warning Israel against expanding its military operations, even though the US has also declared that Israel has the right to defense itself and eradicate Hamas. However, the rising humanitarian costs of the Israeli ground invasion in the Gaza Strip could cause shifts in global public opinion towards Israel, including regarding the right to self-defense. Self-defense could be seen as a justification given by the Israeli forces as they commit war crimes, and could undercut US support for Israel as domestic and foreign pressure grows to stop Tel Aviv from committing further humanitarian violations.

There are also US fears that the expanding Israeli war could prompt Iranian proxies in the region to broaden the scope of the Israeli military operations into a regional war which would have global repercussions beyond impacts on US interests. There would be ramifications for the global economy and oil and food prices would rise. Prices had begun to fall after an earlier spike after the Russian military operation launched in Ukraine on 24 February 2022. This has led to increased pressure on rich and poor countries alike, which are still recovering from the fallout of the Ukraine crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic.

US President Joe Biden previously warned during his trip to Israel on 18 October 2023 that Israel should not be "consumed by rage" in making decisions. He discussed the anger that had swept through the US after the 11 September terrorist attacks which led the US to commit various errors, by which he was clearly alluding to the US invasion of Iraqi in March 2003.

4. Calls for humanitarian aid to enter Palestine: Global anger is rising over the increasing humanitarian costs of the Israeli military operations in the Gaza strip. According to a Foreign Policy report published on 1 November 2023, many US officials have also privately expressed their own deep fears about how the bombing campaign and Israeli airstrikes on Gaza are exacerbating the humanitarian crisis and driving up civilian casualties. There are growing US calls for getting humanitarian aid to besieged Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. The US Secretary of State called for short "humanitarian pauses" to enable desperately-needed humanitarian aid supplies to reach Gaza. The Foreign Policy report indicated that US officials had been successful in pressuring Israel to resume access to water supplies in the Gaza Strip.

5. Indirect involvement in negotiations to free hostages held by Hamas: Although the US declared its support for Israeli military operations against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the US administration continues to place significant focus on efforts that Egypt and Qatar have made to release US and Israeli hostages held by Hamas. The release of hostages would also calm military tensions in the Palestinian territories and prevent this from escalating into a regional war.

6. Preparations to evacuate Americans from the region: In accordance with the US administration’s policy of rapid evacuation from conflict zones in the Middle East, a Washington Post report on 23 October 2023 indicated that the Biden administration was preparing to evacuate hundreds of thousands of Americans if it became necessary. The reports indicated that the US army was prepared to evacuate US military families if the situation required.

Given that the US is expecting increased attacks on Americans in the region given the ongoing Israeli military campaign, the US Department of State asked US citizens not to travel to Iraq for security reasons. It previously issued a security warning advising Americans abroad to exercise increased caution due to the potential for violence and heightened tensions in various places around the world. The US Secretary of State asked some non-essential US diplomatic personnel from the embassy in Baghdad and its consulate in Erbil to leave Iraq due to heightened security threats. It also urged citizens who wanted to leave Lebanon to quickly do so while there were commercial flights available, since the security situation was unpredictable.

7. Responding to Iranian proxy attacks on US military bases: The US administration has regularly affirmed that it will not sit by if US military bases are attacked by Shi‘ite militias in Iraq and Syria. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin previously warned that the US would not hesitate to carry out military action against any group or state that tried to expand the conflict between Israel and Hamas to the wider Middle East. Austin stated during a Senate hearing for monetary aid to Israel and Ukraine that if Iranian-backed groups continued to attack US forces, the US army would not hesitate to take necessary action in the region.

In response to the significant number of attacks by drones and rockets against US bases, US fighter planes launched airstrikes on 27 October on two sites in eastern Syria that were linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

Finally, the ramifications of the US stance on the Israeli military operations against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip following Hamas’s al-Aqsa Flood operation in October 2023 against Israeli settlers around Gaza will extend beyond US interests and its military presence in the Middle East. These consequences will also affect the US domestic front, where criticism of the Biden administration’s policies is on the rise as Biden continues to support Israeli military operations that have had enormous humanitarian costs for besieged Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip. This criticism has come from within the progressive wing of the Democratic party and also from within the US Department of State.

The Foreign Policy report discussed above indicated there is a storm of discontent brewing within the US Department of State. Many US diplomats have privately expressed their anger, shock, and despair regarding what they have called Washington’s "blind support" of Israel. This will force the US administration to defend its current policies, not only abroad in the Middle East, but also at home.