Interfor’s Weekly Digest | Global Security and Policy Insights – February 6, 2024
Interfor’s High-level assessment of the current situation in the Middle East:
Broadly, Interfor is encouraged to see the breadth and depth of US and European diplomatic engagement in the region. It appears that both Iran and the US genuinely do not want escalation to direct conflict. While this has been true for a long time, the fact that the current crisis credibly threatens a regional war has forced the US and Iran to reckon with their respective strategies in the region and has highlighted the critical differences they would need to reconcile to avert conflict in the long-term.
Still, the situation on the ground has continued to worsen, and this momentary optimism could be misplaced. For now, at least, it is encouraging to see the US ratcheting up diplomacy alongside increased military engagement. The more military pressure the US exerts on Iran’s proxies, the closer we are to war, the more pressure there is to return to diplomacy and de-escalate. War itself is not a strategy; it is the continuation of politics by other means. And the US is showing the beginnings of a cogent grand strategy, with diplomatic and military prongs, aimed at establishing greater regional stability.
This would all go out the window if the US attacks Iran directly, which we still do not see happening without far more extreme developments. Still, from a US electoral politics perspective, President Biden needs some kind of win in the Middle East, e.g., to be instrumental in resolving the current Israel-Palestine conflict, or, hypothetically, to adopt a muscular posture against a regional foe.
In past decades, we might have worried that a president would consider starting a war to mobilize popular support, but given increasingly strong isolationist strains within the US Republican party, a war with Iran would be highly unpopular on both sides of the aisle. Congressional Republicans are also loudly saying that Biden’s attacks in Iraq and Syria were not enough. With that in mind, we doubt the Biden administration is overly concerned with electoral politics in the context of the ongoing US confrontation with Iran. The administration’s policies toward Israel-Palestine are a likelier focus of the foreign policy conversation in the 2024 presidential election.
Global Security Matters
- On Sunday, a drone attack on a US base in eastern Syria killed six at least Kurdish fighters. The Islamic Resistance in Iraq released a video claiming responsibility for the attack. In the video, the group showed them launching a drone from an unspecified location. No US casualties were reported.
- Interfor Analysis: While the last week can only be described as an uptick in violent confrontation, Iran and the US have also both effectively indicated an interest in de-escalating the conflict from here. The US spent several days messaging that a military response was coming and may have provided some indirect warning to the Iranians (e.g., via the Iraqi government) to evacuate their own personnel.
- The strikes were meant to substantially reduce these groups’ capacity to attack the US presence in the region, while signaling a willingness to engage substantially in the region when US forces are at risk. Still, the US did not want these attacks to escalate conflict with Iran, hence some telegraphing of the strikes.
- Days before the US strike, Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraq-based militant group, claimed responsibility for the drone attack and announced it would cease attacks on US targets, in an apparent de-escalatory signal from Iran.
- In retaliation for the drone strike that killed three US troops in Jordan last weekend, the US conducted retaliatory strikes in Iraq and Syria. On Sunday, the US warned, “We are prepared to deal with anything that any group or any country tries to come at us with.”
- Throughout Sunday night, the US struck across six provinces of Yemen held by the Houthi rebels. Additionally, the US conducted a strike on Monday against two Houthi two suicide drone boats that posed an imminent threat to US Navy warships and commercial shipping. On Tuesday, the Houthis said they fired two missiles at two vessels in the Red Sea. The two vessels, Morning Tide and Star Nasia, were identified by the Houthi military spokesman as British and American.
- Interfor Analysis: The crisis in the Red Sea appears far from over. The Houthis are a significantly entrenched political actor in Yemen, who, while relying substantially on Iranian support, may not fully relent just on Iran’s say-so. They are an entrenched local political force using this conflict to mobilize their own popular support, separately from any encouragement they have received from Iran.
- When it comes to de-escalation with the Houthis, the United States’ primary hope is that the Iranians will successfully press the Houthis to reduce attacks. The US military campaign in the Red Sea, at its current level of intensity, will not sufficiently incapacitate the Houthis to preclude further aggression. The Houthis could also hypothetically slow attacks on their own, perhaps in connection with peace negotiations with the Saudis. Thus far, the peace deal does not seem to have factored into Houthi decision-making related to attacks in the Red Sea.
Cyber & Technology
- A new US policy will impose global visa restrictions on individuals involved in the misuse of commercial spyware. The restriction would also apply to individuals in countries in the EU and Israel, which do not usually require a visa to enter the US. According to a senior administration official, more than 50 US government personnel in 10 countries and 3 continents were targeted by spyware in recent years.
- The Justice Department disrupted a Botnet that the People’s Republic of China used to conceal hacking activities, including targeting critical infrastructure, directed against the US. The hackers are known as “Volt Typhoon” and used privately-owned SOHO routers infected with the “KV Botnet” malware. The operation deleted the KV Botnet from routers. Special Agent in Charge Douglas Williams stated: “This sends a clear message that the FBI will take decisive action to protect our nation’s critical infrastructure from cyber-attacks.”
- The FBI is warning of an uptick in online scammers impersonating government officials. The scammers convince victims their financial accounts were hacked so they need to liquidate their assets which a courier then picks up. The FBI announced Monday there was an increase in such scams between May and December last year and that many victims are senior citizens.