11 January 2024

After 3 months of devastation in Gaza, is anyone ‘winning’?


The 19th-century German war strategist and field marshal Helmuth von Moltke famously coined the aphorism “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.” His observation might well be applied to the tragedy in Gaza.

Three months after the current conflict began, civilians have borne the brunt of the violence on both sides, with the deaths of more than 22,000 Palestinians in Gaza and 1,200 Israelis. Some 85% of Gazans have also been displaced and a quarter of the population is facing a famine, according to the United Nations.

The conflict still has a long way to run and may be headed toward stalemate. From a geopolitical perspective, here’s where the main players stand at the start of the new year.
Israel: limited success …

Israel has so far failed to achieve either of its primary war aims: the destruction of Hamas and freedom for the remainder of the 240 Israelis taken hostage on October 7.

Hamas fighters continue to use their tunnel network to ambush Israeli soldiers and are firing rockets at Israel, albeit in much lower volumes: 27 were fired at the start of the new year, compared with 3,000 in the first hours of the conflict on October 7.

There are still around 130 Israelis being held hostage, and only one hostage has been freed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), as opposed to releases arranged through Qatari and Egyptian mediators. Israeli society is divided between those who want to prioritize negotiations to release the hostages and those who want to prioritize the elimination of Hamas.

Israel achieved an important symbolic success with the apparent targeted killing of Hamas deputy leader Saleh al-Arouri in Beirut on January 2. Though Israel has not formally claimed responsibility, there is little doubt it was behind the killing.

Could the Israel-Gaza war spark a wider conflict involving the US, Iran or others?

Rajan Menon and Daniel R DePetris

Soon after Hamas’s 7 October attack and Israel’s retaliatory bombing campaign in Gaza, pundits began debating the odds of escalation. For its part, the Biden administration has tried to prevent the fighting between Hamas and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) from spreading to other areas of the Middle East, if only to spare the roughly 45,000 US troops based there from another ill-fated war.

“Escalation” lacks a singular meaning. For some, it connotes a vast increase in death and destruction after at least one warring party starts using weapons that are far more powerful than it had employed previously. For others, escalation refers to wars that spread because additional countries or armed groups decide to join the fighting.

Israel’s war in Gaza has already escalated in both these respects, albeit only to a limited extent.

The magnitude and scale of the firepower that the IDF has used in Gaza has increased substantially, even before its ground invasion began at the end of October. According to a recent estimate, 70% of Gaza’s homes and half of all other buildings are damaged or demolished. More than 22,000 residents have been killed and 85% have been displaced from their homes – and within 90 days. The magnitude of the devastation has prompted comparisons to the Allied bombing of Dresden and Hamburg during the second world war.

The Israel-Hamas war has also expanded to other places. There are daily skirmishes along the Israel-Lebanon border between Israel and the Iran-aligned Shia militia Hezbollah. Approximately 150,000 people have fled northern Israel and southern Lebanon, and, despite American attempts at mediating a solution that would push Hezbollah further away from the border, the firefights continue.

Furthermore, the IDF has been attacking Iranian proxies in Syrian-controlled territory, targeting air defense systems, weapons depots and even senior Iranian generals. In Yemen, the Houthis, another Iranian-linked militia, have attacked Red Sea shipping lanes more than two dozen times, prompting the US to create an international maritime coalition to maintain freedom of navigation and, along with 11 other nations, to issue a warning: cease or face the consequences.

The Hezbollah Wildcard

Burcu Ozcelik

The Israeli strike on Hamas’s political leadership on Tuesday threw wide open a new stage of escalation in the ongoing Israel-Gaza conflict. Among the dead was Saleh al-Arouri, an agile strategist, one of the founders of the Qassem Brigades, and a significant liaison to Iran’s wider network of fighters committed to fighting Israel. The scope and timing of the response to the targeted assassination by regional proxies, chief among them Hezbollah, will influence the evolving redlines of the belligerents in the coming days and weeks.

Over a few fateful days, the balance of deterrence between Israel and Iran-backed armed proxies has tipped to the brink. On January 1, Iran dispatched IRIS Alborz to the Red Sea, threatening the U.S.-led maritime coalition deployed to stop Yemen-based Houthi attacks on one of the world’s most critical shipping lanes. A day later, a targeted drone strike killed al-Arouri in a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut, violating Lebanon’s state sovereignty and dealing a blow to both Hezbollah and Hamas. On January 3, over 103 were killed—hundreds more injured—at a memorial ceremony in Iran marking the fourth anniversary of the U.S. killing of Revolutionary Guards general Qassem Suleimani in Iran. While the Islamic State terror group has claimed responsibility for the attack, the high death toll has shocked the country and will only raise the stakes in a region on edge. Iran has refrained from entering a direct confrontation with the United States and Israel to date. While top Iranian officials have vowed revenge for the twin bombings in the city of Kerman, “strategic patience” rather than saber-rattling is more probable in the short term.

Despite the flare-up, major players embroiled in this war—Israel, the United States, and Iran—are in no haste to greenlight a major escalation that would drag them and their allies into a war with no end. However, the pace and pitch of recent provocations may mean that any misfire or miscalculation could bring forth unintended consequences.

As Hezbollah likely plots its response to Saleh al-Arouri’s killing, it undoubtedly has disruptive, lethal means of violence in its arsenal. But its options are not limitless. In 2010, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates commented that Hezbollah possesses “...far more rockets and missiles than most governments in the world.” The stockpile has expanded significantly in the intervening years, mainly sourced from Iran via Syria. Yet a retaliation against Israel that crosses a new redline may not serve Hezbollah’s ultimate interests.

Is Israel Winning the War in Gaza?

Hussain Abdul-Hussain

Iranian and Arab pundits, both radical and moderate (on state-run TV), seem to have reached a consensus that Israel is not winning in Gaza. Arab loyalists to Tehran go as far as to argue they see signs of mass Jewish emigration out of Israel. In their telling, all the land—from the river to the sea—will then become Palestine.

But while Israel cannot claim a conclusive victory yet, trends suggest the Jewish state is beating its enemies.

Every Israeli “has a second nationality and has his bag ready,” said Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, in Lebanon, on Wednesday—invoking the popular canard that there is no real Jewish people, only a collection of European settlers on Arab land. “Reverse [Jewish] migration has begun, hundreds of thousands” have already left, he said. “If you are an Israeli with an American passport, go to America, with a British passport, go to England, with a French passport go to France,” Nasrallah said. He added: “You Israelis have only this future, the land of Palestine from the sea to the river will be for Palestinians only.”

Not so fast. Israel has been killing top Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Hamas, and Hezbollah officers at such a rate that funerals and eulogies have sucked the oxygen out of its enemies’ public life.

Nasrallah delivered his remarks in commemoration of the fourth anniversary of America taking out top IRGC leader Qassem Soleimani. Nasrallah’s speech came two weeks after Israel assassinated IRGC’s Syria viceroy, Razi Mousavi, and six days after an Israeli airstrike allegedly killed 11 top IRGC officers. In Gaza, Israel has eliminated at least a dozen senior Hamas leaders.

The day before Nasrallah’s speech, Israel had surgically taken out Hamas’ number two, Saleh Al-Arouri, and six other Hamas leaders who were meeting in Beirut’s southern suburb, a Hezbollah stronghold.

Israel Plans for Next Phase of Gaza War, Defense Minister Says

Gordon Fairclough

Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, said the scale and severity of the Oct. 7 assault on Israel by Palestinian Islamist militant group Hamas deeply shook Israelis’ sense of security and profoundly altered the way they view the world around them.

“October 7 was the bloodiest day for Jewish people since 1945,” Gallant, a general-turned-politician, told The Wall Street Journal. “The world needs to understand. This is different.”

More than 1,200 people were killed after hundreds of Hamas fighters poured across the border from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel in a raid that included terrorist attacks on a music festival and small agricultural communities. More than 200 others were kidnapped. Scores are still being held hostage.

The gravity of the threat, Gallant said, underlies the ferocity of Israel’s response and its determination not only to destroy Iran-backed Hamas, but also to act with enough force to deter other potential adversaries allied with Tehran, including Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon.

In wide-ranging comments, Gallant staunchly defended Israel’s conduct of the war, which is entering its fourth month, and offered a stark assessment of the dangers he said his country is facing, signaling a potentially lengthy conflict in Gaza and an enduring shift in Israel’s defense posture.

“My basic view: We are fighting an axis, not a single enemy,” Gallant said. “Iran is building up military power around Israel in order to use it.”

Ahead of a visit to Israel by Secretary of State Antony Blinken of the U.S., which has urged Israel to do more to avoid civilian casualties, Gallant indicated Israeli forces would be shifting from what he called the “intense maneuvering phase of the war” toward “different types of special operations.”

China’s Game in Gaza

Mark Leonard

Over the past year, as Western diplomats shuttled frantically from one end of the world to the other in their struggle to contain an ever-growing succession of wars, crises, and other calamities—from Ukraine to Darfur to Nagorno-Karabakh to the Democratic Republic of the Congo—China leaned in to the disorder. Hamas’s October 7 attack and Israel’s military campaign in the Gaza Strip have presented Beijing with yet another crisis to exploit. While the United States discredits itself with the countries of the global South through its seemingly unqualified support for Israel, Beijing has carefully calibrated its response to the war, paying close attention to public opinion in the developing world.

Six months ago, I warned in Foreign Affairs that while the West is seeking to preserve the existing rules-based international order by tweaking some of its elements and inviting in a few additional actors, Chinese strategists are increasingly focused on surviving in a world without order. And they are offering to help other countries build their own sovereignty and freedom of maneuver as Western dominance recedes.

Since Hamas’s brutal attack, the Biden administration has tried to reconcile public support for Israel with private pressure to more carefully target its attacks in Gaza and to be more open to a political settlement with the Palestinians. Beijing, on the other hand, has been much less constrained by the need for balance. By calling for a two-state solution, refusing to condemn Hamas, and making symbolic efforts to support a cease-fire, it has taken advantage of global anti-Israeli sentiment in a bid to elevate its own standing in the global South. In its painstaking attempts to mirror global public opinion as closely as possible, China is following a broader strategy: embracing the global conflagrations that so bedevil Western policymakers.


Just as an artificial intelligence model improves its response to a prompt with each new batch of data it is trained on, each new global crisis has given China a further opportunity to hone its rhetoric toward the global South. In this light, comparing China’s response to the war in Gaza with its response to the war in Ukraine is instructive.

Watch: Fiery Explosion Rocks Gaza City as Israeli Troops Blow up Underground Terrorist Tunnel Network

Zachary Rogers

Israel Defense Forces released video on Sunday showcasing its troops discovering and destroying a tunnel system said to be used by terrorists.

Members of IDF’s Yeftah Brigade are said to have cooperated with their nation’s armor, intelligence, and engineering forces to raid terrorist infrastructures in the Shejaiya neighborhood of Gaza.

They were searching for tunnels used by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist organization, according to a release from the IDF.

The destroyed tunnel is just one of several discoveries made by IDF troops, according to the release.

In the eastern part of the neighborhood, IDF troops discovered a shaft that led to a tunnel system. A missile launcher was near the entrance. Then, in the northern part of Shejaiya, IDF says that a combat team located shafts near the home of the terror group’s tunnel project director, Ahmed Samra.

IDF troops found “many weapons, training booklets of the terrorist organization, a battle register for the Oct. 7 attack and a book by Hitler” in the area of Samra’s home, the release says.

At one point during their search of the area and tunnels, IDF troops were attacked by terrorists. The terrorists had apparently planned to set off their own bombs to thwart the IDF and prevent the destruction of the entire tunnel system, but were engaged and eliminated before they could do so, the IDF says.

Troops also say that they destroyed a dozen buildings that were being used by the terrorist organization, along with the tunnel system.

One lieutenant colonel is quoted in the IDF’s release saying that the team’s work has “brought to an end the operation of the Islamic Jihad” in the area.

Many Questions Remain About the Afghan Fund, and Its Frozen $3.5 Billion

Catherine Putz

A recent response from a U.S. government watchdog to a Congressional request for a report on the Afghan Fund underscores considerable barriers surrounding the future of the fund’s $3.5 billion, half of the $7 billion in Afghan central bank assets seized by the United States in the wake of the Afghan Republic’s collapse in August 2021.

In a January 4 report made public on January 8, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) replied to a March 2023 inquiry from Congressman Michael T. McCaul, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The inquiry, among other things, sought a report from SIGAR on the Afghan Fund.

The Switzerland-based Fund for the Afghan People was created in September 2022 with a mandate to to disburse $3.5 billion in assets belonging to Afghanistan’s central bank (Da Afghanistan Bank, or DAB) in support of Afghanistan’s macroeconomic stability. The Fund’s board consists of just four people: two Afghan nationals — Dr. Anwar ul-Haq Ahady and Dr. Shah Mehrabi — along with U.S. Under Secretary of the Treasury for International Affairs Dr. Jay Shambaugh and Ambassador Alexandra Baumann, the head of the prosperity and sustainability division at the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA). The two Afghan nationals were selected (State, in its response to SIGAR prefers the terms “identified” and “certified”) by the U.S. State Department.

The Fund’s purpose, per its articles of association are to “receive, protect, preserve, and disburse” the assets it holds “for the benefit of the Afghan people.” Precisely how, when, and to what ends remain unanswered questions. To date, no disbursements have been made.

SIGAR’s report notes that at present, “[The U.S. departments of] Treasury and State are not currently willing to support a return of funds to DAB.”

Chinese Official Meets Myanmar Junta Chief as Rebels Capture Key Town

Sebastian Strangio

Since late last week, senior Chinese officials have held a flurry of talks with Myanmar’s military administration focusing on border security, after an ethnic armed group completed its capture of the Kokang region in northern Shan State.

According to a statement from China’s Foreign Ministry, Vice Foreign Minister Sun Weidong visited Myanmar during January 4-6, and met with junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the South China Morning Post reported.

Sun’s meeting with Min Aung Hlaing on Friday, which was reportedly attended also by Ambassador Chen Hai and regional special envoy Deng Xijun, saw the two sides discuss topics including border stability and on online scam operations.

“The two sides will jointly maintain peace and stability on the China-Myanmar border, cooperate to combat cross-border criminal activities such as telecommunications fraud, and jointly promote regional peace, tranquility, development and prosperity,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement, the South China Morning Post reported.

The same day, China’s minister of public security, Wang Xiaohong, also held a video call with Lt. Gen. Yar Pyae, the junta’s home affairs minister, the ministry added.

This statement was given an ironic inflection by events late Thursday, when the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) completed its reconquest of the Kokang Self-Administered Zone (SAZ) in northern Shan State. The fall of Laukkai, the zone’s capital, saw the surrender of 2,389 soldiers, including six brigadier generals. The MNDAA governed Kokang until it was driven out of power by the Myanmar military in 2009.

According to the surrender agreement, the junta forces were granted safe passage to Lashio, some 186 kilometers to the southwest, along with 1,601 family members, after giving up most of their weapons. The MNDAA’s recapture of Kokang, undertaken as part of Operation 1027, which the group launched with its two allies in the Three Brotherhood Alliance in late October, marks the most significant defeat for the military junta that seized power in February 2021. One prominent observer described it as “the largest surrender in the history of Myanmar’s military.”

Good Rebels or Good Timing?: Myanmar’s MNDAA and Operation 1027

Yaolong Xian

The Chinese idiom, “times make heroes,” aptly captures the current situation of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), a Chinese-speaking rebel group in northeastern Myanmar. This ethnic armed organization (EAO) has tended to attract less attention than some of its peers, such as the well-equipped United Wa State Army and the long-standing Karen National Liberation Army. Even when it is mentioned, the focus has typically been on its negative aspects. However, over the past two months the MNDAA has gained renewed prominence as the spearhead of Operation 1027, the biggest military operation against Myanmar’s military regime since the 2021 coup.

Bad Rebels

Based in the Kokang region of Myanmar’s Shan State, known also as Special Region No. 1, the MNDAA was one of four groups that formed after the collapse of the Burmese Communist Party in 1989, and subsequently brokered a ceasefire agreement with Myanmar’s central government. This came to a halt in August 2009, when the Myanmar military occupied the Kokang region after several days of fighting, expelling the MNDAA, which had earlier refused a demand from the military to become a Border Guard Force. Since then, the MNDAA has been eager to regain control of the Kokang region, which under its new junta-aligned leadership is known as the Kokang Self-Administered Zone (SAZ).

For a long time, this rebel group faced significant challenges to its reputation. First, the group was notorious for its heavy involvement in drug production and trafficking. After the initial peace agreement with the central state in 1989, drug production became the backbone of this insurgent group’s sustenance. The group’s founder, the late Peng Jiasheng, was identified by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency as a major trafficker, leading the U.S. government to describe the MNDAA as a narco-insurgency. Although the MNDAA officially banned opium cultivation in 2002, this regulation was not strictly enforced in practice. The Myanmar military’s assault on Kokang in 2009 was ostensibly justified on these grounds. Even after the group retreated to the mountains, allegations regarding its involvement in the drug trade persisted. For instance, a U.N. report in 2022 asserted that the MNDAA continued to be implicated in the illicit drug trade.

Myanmar: Ethnic Army Overruns Junta Command Center In Kokang Region

Ethnic rebels have overrun a key military command center in northern Myanmar, taking control of the city of Laukkai and accepting the surrender of hundreds of soldiers, in what analysts called a stunning blow to the junta’s grasp on power in the region.

Fighters with the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, or MNDAA, stormed the junta’s Kokang regional command center, the largest base in northern Shan state near the Chinese border late on Thursday, prompting soldiers in the facility to lay down their arms, despite the military’s attempt to defend the facility from afar with artillery fire and airstrikes.

Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington and an adjunct at Georgetown University who writes commentaries to Radio Free Asia, called the MNDAA’s occupation of the Laukkaing Regional Operation Command “a significant development” in the conflict between the military and anti-junta forces.

“This was the regional operational command headquarters, and that [the military] surrendered in the end without a shot being fired is both very significant and telling that the regime could not support them beyond airstrikes,” he said in comments emailed to RFA.

The MNDAA seized control of the facility in Kokang’s capital Laukkai despite military assets that included heavy weapons, armored vehicles and a vast stockpile of arms and ammunition, as well as soldiers from the junta’s 55th Division. The division was recently mobilized to contend with an ethnic offensive that has made significant gains in Shan state since its launch in late October.

A source close to the command of the junta’s Laukkaing Department, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to security concerns, confirmed to RFA Burmese on Friday that the MNDAA is now in complete control of Laukkai.

There are seven military battalions under the Regional Operation Command in Laukkai, and sources estimate that up to 2,000 soldiers and pro-junta militia fighters were based there.

Philippines turns to hackers for help as US warns of China cyber threat


While recent tensions in the South China Sea have highlighted the Philippines’ maritime vulnerabilities, the more insidious risk of state-sponsored cyberattacks – and a lack of resources to handle them – may be the country’s bigger challenge.

In a November report, a Chinese group known as Stately Taurus was blamed for an attack that had compromised a Philippine government agency for five days earlier in 2023, coinciding with clashes between the two countries’ ships in the South China Sea. Stately Taurus’s operations “align with geopolitical topics of interest to the Chinese government,” according to Palo Alto Networks, the U.S. cybersecurity firm that produced the report.

Philippine officials say it is difficult to pin any cyberattack on one specific country. Still, online security breaches in the Southeast Asian nation are widespread. Over 60,000 user accounts were compromised in the third quarter of last year, according to cybersecurity company Surfshark, putting the Philippines among the world’s 30 most-attacked countries. In September, state insurer Philippine Health Insurance Corp. suffered a huge data leak.

Hackers defaced the website of the country’s House of Representatives just weeks later.

“Cyberattacks are a bigger threat than the firing of water cannons,” said Sherwin Ona, a cyberdefense consultant to the National Security Council and an associate professor at De La Salle University in Manila.

The government’s cyber response team has 35 members. The group is so understaffed that it is sometimes forced to work with anonymous “black hat” hackers, who may have previously attacked government websites but are willing to offer tips on looming threats, said Jeffrey Ian Dy, undersecretary at the Department of Information and Communications Technology.

Conflict, competition, and containment will shape the contours of the MENA region in 2024

Alistair Taylor

With the war in Gaza and its regional reverberations dominating news coverage, international fora, and policy discussions about the Middle East over the past several months, it’s easy to forget that for most of the year the prevailing trend shaping the region was a broader shift toward de-escalation, rapprochement, and normalization of ties. Driven in part by a widespread perception of growing US disengagement from the Middle East and Washington’s increasing unreliability, regional actors took steps to address their own concerns. The March 2023 normalization agreement between long-time regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran was perhaps the clearest illustration of this (even if the deal was nominally brokered by Beijing). This trend was also evident, however, in the Turkish rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and (fleetingly) Israel; the controversial push by some Arab states to bring Syria’s Bashar al-Assad back in from the cold following the country’s 12-year-long civil war; and the ongoing talks between Saudi Arabia and the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen.

At the same time, throughout much of 2023 there was a strong countervailing trend as tensions persisted between certain key actors and in some cases spiked. The civil wars in Yemen, Libya, and Syria dragged on, even if they remained largely frozen. But a new conflict broke out in Sudan in mid-April, pitting the Sudanese Armed Forces against the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces. Often forgotten in Washington, the civil war in this key northeast African state has, to date, seen more than 12,000 people killed and 6.6 million forcibly displaced, both internally and within the region. Further afield, Russia’s war on Ukraine continued to impact the Middle East and North Africa as well, especially in terms of regional food security, even as Iran grew closer to Russia, ratcheting up its material support for Moscow’s war effort.

How Houthi Attacks in the Red Sea Threaten Global Shipping

Noah Berman

Since mid-November 2023, the Yemen-based, Iran-backed Houthi rebel group has attacked dozens of commercial ships in the Red Sea, with no signs of slowing down. An exodus of shipping companies from the region now threatens to scuttle supply chains and increase consumer prices just as global inflation begins to ebb. The United States has announced an international security initiative to protect commercial vessels, but some experts say the effort falls short of the necessary deterrence, and others worry a forceful response could propel the region into wider conflict.

Why are the Houthis attacking ships in the Red Sea?

The Houthis say their strikes are directed at boats with Israeli interests, and that the attacks will continue until Israel ends its war in Gaza. But in practice, the Houthis have targeted ships indiscriminately, experts say. Shipping is notoriously opaque, with vessel ownership and operation, crew nationality, and flag of registry often differing. Fearing attacks, major shippers including global leader A.P. Møller-Mærsk have announced plans to avoid the Red Sea and the Suez Canal—diverting some $200 billion in trade.

Where Ships Are Being Targeted

Reported incidents of Houthi targeting of vessels between November 19, 2023 and January 2, 2024

How could Houthi attacks affect the global economy?

The Red Sea is one of the most important arteries in the global shipping system, with one-third of all container traffic flowing through it. Any sustained disruption in trade there could send a ripple effect of higher costs throughout the world economy. This is particularly true of energy: 12 percent of seaborne oil and 8 percent of liquified natural gas (LNG) transit the Suez Canal.

Avoiding the Red Sea means abandoning one of the most common global shipping routes from Asia to Europe. Indeed, 40 percent of Asia-Europe trade normally transits the sea. Ships shunning the Red Sea will have to instead sail around the Horn of Africa, which can cost $1 million more round trip in additional fuel costs. Still, more than one hundred fifty commercial ships have chosen the longer route since November. On the other hand, insurance premiums for ships using the Red Sea have shot up nearly tenfold since the attacks began.