Oct 23, 2023 - Politics & Policy
Column / Behind the Curtain

Behind the Curtain: Biden fears wider war in Middle East

President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden in Rehoboth Beach, Del., on Sunday. Photo: Kent Nishimura/AFP via Getty Images

"Behind the Curtain" is a new column by Axios CEO Jim VandeHei and co-founder Mike Allen, based on regular conversations with White House and congressional leaders, CEOs and top technologists.

Top U.S. officials tell us the threats of a war widening from the Gaza Strip are real and rising, forcing the Pentagon to put more U.S. forces on higher alert for quick deployment and rush additional weapons systems to the region.

Why it matters: Red-hot rhetoric by Israel and Iran — including publicly threatening to widen the war — has U.S. officials on edge. "It's quite a dangerous situation," a senior administration official told us. "It could all veer off the rails really quickly. The whole region could be in conflict."

What we're hearing: This is a big reason President Biden and his war cabinet are using an elaborate carrot-and-stick strategy to slow Israel's invasion of Gaza. Bluntly, they need time to prepare for an Iranian escalation elsewhere, including getting more air defense systems to the region fast, sources tell Axios' Barak Ravid.

  • In an ominous appearance Sunday on ABC's "This Week," Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warned of the "prospect of a significant escalation of attacks on our troops and our people throughout the region."

What's happening: The central concern is Iran and Iran-funded terrorist groups. But, capturing the complexity of this moment, officials are keeping close tabs on China to see if Beijing exploits the chaos.

  • Iran's foreign minister warned Israel Sunday that if Gaza strikes continue, "the region will go out of control."
  • Iranian-backed Hezbollah militants in Lebanon stepped up cross-border attacks on Israel's north, per the Israel Defense Forces.
  • Israel ramped up bombing on three fronts — in Gaza, in southern Lebanon and a rare airstrike in the West Bank.
  • Israel's economy minister, Nir Barkat, told London's Mail on Sunday that if Hezbollah joins the war, "we will not just retaliate to those fronts, but we will go to the head of the snake, which is Iran."

Between the lines: U.S. Cabinet officials are making it clear they fear escalation — and that the U.S. is ready to respond mightily to attacks on American troops.

  • Secretary of State Tony Blinken said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press": "We expect that there's a likelihood of escalation ... by Iranian proxies directed against our forces ... We are taking steps to make sure that we can effectively defend our people and respond decisively if we need to."
  • "This is not what we want, not what we're looking for," Blinken added. "We don't want escalation."

What to watch: The No. 1 indicator is how Hezbollah in Lebanon, on Israel's northern border, responds to Israel's expected offensive in Gaza in the south. "If Hezbollah decides to light up northern Israel ... it would be a serious adversary that would require serious resources from Israel to deal with," the senior official told Axios.

  • Second, the U.S. is urging Israel to "go in smartly. The biggest way to see this escalate, see other groups come in, is to go in in a reckless fashion," the official said. "It's impossible to say what they're going to do. The country is absolutely traumatized, as you would expect."
  • The administration's three-part plan is sending a deterrence message to Hezbollah and other actors in the region, trying to get more aid to Palestinians faster, and emphasizing that the war is not with the Palestinian people but with Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip.

Behind the scenes: The U.S. is advising Israel to delay a ground offensive in Gaza in part to allow more hostage releases. Ten Americans are unaccounted for, and the U.S. believes a significant number are hostages.

  • The U.S. believes Israel "would struggle in a two-front war and that such a conflict could draw in both the United States and Iran, [Hezbollah's] main supporter," the N.Y. Times reports.
  • Barak is told another huge issue is getting Palestinian Americans out of Gaza (there are around 500) before a ground operation starts. Blinken confirmed on CBS' "Face the Nation" that Hamas has blocked Americans from leaving Gaza.

The big question: While the world is focused on the Middle East, does China get more aggressive in the South China Sea and eventually — the big one — Taiwan?

  • Six Chinese warships last week operated in Middle Eastern waters for what Beijing's state media called a "goodwill visit."
  • This should have gotten more attention: On Sunday, a Chinese coast guard ship rammed two Philippine military vessels during a mission to resupply the contested Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea, heightening fears of an armed conflict. The State Department says China "violated international law by intentionally interfering with the Philippine vessels' exercise of high seas freedom of navigation."

The bottom line: The world is at massive risk of armed contagion in the Middle East — and will be for a while.

Go deeper: The previous "Behind the Curtain" outlined five simultaneous global threats rattling top U.S. officials: Israeli-Hamas, the Russia-China axis, North Korea, Iran's saber-rattling and weaponized fake videos hitting every battlefield. Read that column.

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