21 January 2024
By Gwynne Dyer
Not all that long ago, attacking another country’s territory was still seen as a big deal. It was, in legal terms, an ‘act of war’, liable to have unpleasant and potentially unlimited consequences including full-scale war. Very powerful countries occasionally made small, one-off attacks on very weak ones to ‘discipline’ them, but even that was relatively rare.
We have changed all that now. Launching a few cruise or ballistic missiles at another country as an expression of displeasure has become as routine in the Middle East as penalty shots on goal are in sports. Here are the latest examples.
Last Tuesday the United States and the United Kingdom made their first air strikes on Yemen, to punish the Houthi regime for attacking ships heading up the Red Sea towards the Suez Canal. Quite separately, Turkey made multiple air strikes against northern Syria.
Also on Tuesday, Iran launched missiles into Pakistan’s province of Balochistan (next to Iran’s own province of the same name). This was a new departure, since Iran had never struck Pakistani territory before.
On Wednesday Iran launched missiles into the Kurdistan province of northern Iraq, claiming (implausibly) that they were eliminating an Israeli spy site.
On Thursday Pakistan launched rockets and suicide drones against alleged terrorists in Iran’s border province of Balochistan, but it was really retaliating for Tuesday’s Iranian missile attacks on Pakistan’s own territory. And Jordan attacked targets in southern Syria. Something to do with drug trafficking, I think.
On Friday the United States and the United Kingdom made a second round of air strikes on northern Yemen including the coast. Israel and Hezbollah (which is part of Lebanon’s government) traded missile and drone strikes across the border, as they do every day.
On Saturday, Israeli missiles killed five senior officers of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard in Damascus, where they were acting as advisers to the Syrian army. Also five innocent bystanders. Can’t be helped.
On the same day, a number of cruise and ballistic missiles hit the Al Asad airbase in Iraq, causing “traumatic brain injuries” to “an unspecified number of US military personnel” who were based there with the agreement of the Iraqi government. The group that launched the missiles were probably Iraqi citizens, but openly acknowledge their links with Iran.
Just another working week in the Middle East, and I’ll have forgotten the details by next weekend. The players are all way past trigger-happy, and the reason is simple. There is no longer any serious penalty for acting crazy.
Yes, it’s the Middle East, which has always been readier to use violence than the rest of the world, but even there they didn’t used to act like this. None of these countries are actually at war with each other, but they are all using air and missile strikes to kill people in neighbouring countries with complete impunity.
That’s what is driving this steep rise in targeted cross-border missile strikes: the complete impunity. If there is any retaliation, it will be tit-for-tat at most, so if you want to ‘send a message’, what’s to stop you? Nothing.
Why is this only happening now? Technology, mostly. The missiles are now very accurate, so you can be reasonably confident – not certain, mind you – that your strike will kill your intended target, but won’t kill a lot of innocent people and give you a bad name.
Moreover, there’s no longer any risk of having a pilot bail out and get captured, which used to be a serious disincentive to dropping high explosives on other countries. The hi-tech Western militaries started using these weapons on weaker countries as soon as they became available – but now everybody in the Middle East has them, and they’re all using them.
This is obviously not a good thing, but is it worth worrying about if you don’t live in the Middle East? Not in the sense that it will inevitably spread to the rest of the world. The weapons have been widely available for at least a decade already, but there’s no sign that they are being used with impunity elsewhere.
However, they certainly raise the risk of miscalculation and escalation in the Middle East, which fills the same role of ‘cockpit of the world’ that the Balkans did before the outbreak of the First World War. When you’re launching missiles at somebody or other every week or so, it gets to be routine. You tend to forget what a huge risk you are taking.
Attacking another country, even if it’s just to kill a few generals or a few ‘terrorists’, is a momentous act with potentially huge consequences. Israel and Pakistan already have nuclear weapons, and thanks to Donald Trump Iran is only a few baby steps away.
Missiles are a really poor way of sending messages to your enemies. Traditional diplomacy is a lot better.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 14. (“On the same…Iran”; and “Moreover…using them”)