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All the tangled conflicts in the Middle East, explained

The Israel-Hamas war has shaken up the Middle East. Who’s on whose side?

An armed soldier in front of a poster depicting a burning tank adorned with an American flag.
A member of the Iraqi’s Popular Mobilization Forces (Hashed al-Shaabi) stands guard during the funeral of the 16 members killed in US airstrikes on February 4 in Baghdad, Iraq.
Ameer Al-Mohammedawi/picture alliance via Getty Images
Joshua Keating is a senior correspondent at Vox covering foreign policy and world news with a focus on the future of international conflict. He is the author of the 2018 book, Invisible Countries: Journeys to the Edge of Nationhood, an exploration of border conflicts, unrecognized countries, and changes to the world map.

The October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel and the subsequent war in Gaza have upended Middle Eastern politics and created an escalating and increasingly complex security crisis that threatens to engulf the entire region.

But these events did not occur in a vacuum. In the past week, Hamas and Israel appeared to edge closer to a ceasefire, even as the US on February 3 launched attacks on Iranian-backed militias in retaliation for a drone strike that killed three American troops at the end of January.

Even prior to Hamas’s attack and Israel’s response, longstanding alliances and regional political dynamics in the broader Middle East were in a state of unusual flux. Major players including Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United States are all reconsidering their interests in the region.

What follows is a look at where the region’s various power players — the combatants, those watching from the sidelines, and the groups and countries that fall in between — stand at the moment.

Tier 1: Active combatants

Israel

Goals: Israel’s two primary goals in the war in Gaza are the destruction of Hamas and the release of the over 240 hostages taken on October 7. But there are increasing doubts both from its allies and figures within the Israeli establishment about whether these two goals are compatible — and whether the first one is even feasible.

Prior to October 7, Israel’s main foreign policy priority had been normalizing relations with Arab governments, particularly Saudi Arabia, with whom it shared economic interests and a common enemy in Iran. This process had been supported by both the Trump and Biden administrations. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose government includes a number of far-right pro-settlement parties, had hoped to do this without making major concessions on Palestinian statehood — a strategy that appeared possible in part because the Palestinian issue had seemingly begun to lose salience for many Arab governments. While Israel had fought several previous wars with Hamas, the group was thought to be contained, and, to a degree, its ongoing rule over Gaza was tolerated and even supported by Netanyahu’s government.

October 7 changed all that, but even as the war in Gaza rages — bringing growing international condemnation upon Israel — Israel has also been locked in an increasingly violent confrontation with Iran-backed Hezbollah on its northern border with Lebanon. This border presents the greatest risk of the war spreading into a region-wide conflict.

Friends: The United States

In between: The Palestinian Authority

Rivals: Hamas, Iran, and the Iran-backed “Axis of Resistance” militia groups, particularly Hezbollah

Hamas

Goals: The extremist military group, which originated in the 1980s as a spinoff of the Muslim Brotherhood, has a long-term goal of combating Israel. Its shorter-term goal, in launching the October 7 attacks, was to disrupt the process of normalization between Israel and Arab governments and to put the Palestinian issue, which had languished in recent years, back on the global agenda. It has succeeded in the latter goal, albeit at a horrific cost to the Palestinian people, with over 25,000 dead so far in the war with Israel, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry. And with some leaders already eliminated by Israeli forces, it’s not clear how much of Hamas will be left in Gaza after the war is over.

Hamas is a longtime rival of Fatah, the party that dominates the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and the two even fought a brief war in 2007. But PA officials have floated the idea of the two sides working together to govern post-war Gaza.

Hamas’s political leadership is based in Qatar, which provides it with financial support, and the group has a presence in Lebanon and the West Bank as well. It has received significant financial backing from Iran since the 1990s, but US intelligence agencies believe Tehran had no advance notice of the October 7 attacks.

Friends: Iran and the Axis of Resistance, Qatar

Rivals: Israel, the United States

United States

Goals: The Biden administration has been the staunchest backer of America’s longtime ally Israel during the war in Gaza, providing billions of dollars in military aid and publicly defending the country’s right to defend itself, even as a growing chorus of countries have condemned Israel’s prosecution of the war. The US has also acted as a diplomatic shield for Israel, vetoing several motions calling for a ceasefire in the UN Security Council.

At the same time, as the death toll in Gaza and public criticism of the war in the United States has grown, senior officials, including Biden, have been increasingly willing to criticize Israel’s apparent disregard for civilians and lack of a plan for the day after in Gaza. Biden has also issued an executive order slapping sanctions on West Bank settlers involved in violence against Palestinians, an issue that has worsened since October 7.

Another main US priority has been preventing the Gaza war from spilling over into a wider regional conflict. The US, which maintains a substantial military presence in the region, is leading an international naval coalition to combat attacks by the Houthis in Yemen on shipping in the Red Sea. US troops in the region have also come under direct attack more than 150 times by Iran-backed militias, including a January 28 drone strike that killed three US troops. These counterattacks — which raise the risk of further escalating conflict in the region — could just be the beginning, with national security adviser Jake Sullivan telling CNN on February 4 that “there will be more steps to come.”

Friends: Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia

Rivals: Hamas, Iran, the Axis of Resistance

Iran

Goals: Since the October 7 attacks, Iranian leaders have publicly supported Hamas, but also made clear they will not intervene directly in the war.

But that doesn’t mean Iran has stayed on the sidelines. Tehran has responded by activating the networks of proxy groups it has built up throughout the Middle East, known collectively as the Axis of Resistance, which have carried out attacks against Israel and US targets. Israel has responded with strikes against Iran-linked targets in Syria, including one that killed a senior leader in its Revolutionary Guard Corps in December.

The proxy strategy gives Iran a level of plausible deniability and allows it to impose costs on Israel and the US without giving them pretext to attack Iran itself. Iran seems intent on avoiding an all-out war with Israel and the United States and reportedly pressured the militant group Kataib Hezbollah to call off future attacks after the US suggested it was responsible for the killing of three US soldiers in late January.

Though it has acted mostly through proxies, Iran’s military has launched a few direct strikes in recent weeks, including one on what it described as an Israeli spy facility in northern Iraq and another on a separatist group based in Pakistan, though the latter appeared unrelated to the Gaza conflict.

Relations between the US and Iran have fallen to their worst levels in years, despite a prisoner exchange deal last year and several abortive attempts by the Biden administration to revive the Obama-era nuclear deal. While the US has been careful to avoid striking Iran itself, this is the closest the US and Iran have come to direct conflict during President Biden’s time in office. On February 4, a spokesperson for Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the US attacks in Yemen were “stoking chaos, disorder, insecurity and instability.”

Friends: Axis of Resistance, Hamas

In between: Qatar

Rivals: Israel, the United States, and, traditionally, Saudi Arabia, though relations have recently improved

Axis of Resistance

Goals: Since the early 1980s, Iran has cultivated a network of mainly Shiite militant groups throughout the Middle East. They’ve been employed to attack Israeli and US targets in the region and further Iran’s geopolitical goals, such as providing backing for Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria during that country’s civil war. These militant groups have varying degrees of independence from their patrons in Iran.

The most notable of these groups is Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based political party/armed group which is estimated to have around 20,000 active personnel, a substantial arsenal of rockets and drones, and which fought an all-out war with Israel in 2006. Though Hezbollah proclaimed victory in that conflict, it took heavy losses, as did Lebanon’s civilians. Hezbollah has been trading fire with Israeli forces since October 7, even as its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has stopped short of formally declaring war, perhaps looking to avoid a repeat of 2006.

The biggest surprise of the conflict so far may be the Houthis, the Shia rebel group that currently controls the capital of Yemen. The Houthis were best known for rebelling against their own government in a civil war that began in 2014, which led to a war against a Saudi-led military coalition that has claimed more than 300,000 lives. Since October, though, they have globalized their ambitions, launching missile attacks against Israel as well as against shipping passing through the Red Sea, causing a massive disruption to global trade. The US and its allies have carried out several airstrikes on the group but have so far failed to deter it.

Iran-backed militant groups in Iraq and Syria, most prominently Kataib Hezbollah, have also carried out dozens of attacks on US military targets, including the one that killed three US troops last month.

Friends: Iran, Hamas

Rivals: Israel, the US, and Saudi Arabia, despite recent Houthi-Saudi peace talks

Tier 2: On the sidelines — for now

The Palestinian Authority (PA)

Goals: In the immediate aftermath of the October 7 attacks, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned Hamas’s actions, but that criticism was later scrubbed from the official Palestinian news agency website. It’s a sign of the delicate position the deeply unpopular government in the West Bank finds itself in after October 7. According to a recent poll, 88 percent of Palestinians want Abbas to resign.

Many international observers, including the US government, have promoted the idea that the PA could take the lead in the governance of post-war Gaza. This would present immense challenges, given that the PA is having trouble governing the territory it already controls and would have an immediate legitimacy problem if it took power in Gaza on the back of Israeli tanks. It doesn’t help that the Israeli government itself is skeptical, with Prime Minister Netanyahu ruling out a “Fatahstan” on the strip, referring to the political party that governs the PA. Still, PA officials have suggested they might be up for it, though they have not ruled out including longtime rivals Hamas in their government — which would be another obstacle to Israeli buy-in.

The Palestinian Authority receives funding from the United States, the European Union, and from several Arab governments, though this funding has been reduced in recent years.

Saudi Arabia

Goals: Saudi Arabia has never formally recognized Israel, but it’s been an open secret for years that the two countries have had substantial coordination on security and intelligence issues — particularly when it comes to their shared rival, Iran. Business ties have been growing between the two as well.

Before October 7, the biggest geopolitical story in the region was the possibility of a US-brokered normalization deal between the Kingdom and the Jewish state. Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the country’s de facto head of state, was reportedly more interested in a deal while, according to the New York Times, his father, King Salman, interceded to ensure that there would be “significant concessions” for the Palestinians as part of any deal, something that would likely have been a deal-breaker with Israel’s current government. That process is on hold for now, though neither side has ruled out that it could still happen.

For years, geopolitics in the Middle East has been largely driven by tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the region’s main Sunni and Shiite powers, respectively, but in 2023, the two signed a deal, brokered by China, to restore diplomatic ties. Even amid the wider crisis in the region, the two governments have continued to hold regular talks.

The Saudis have also called for restraint from the US and other countries in fighting the Houthis, the Yemeni group with which the Kingdom has fought a bloody war for about a decade. That war has been in a state of uneasy ceasefire for the past two years, with regular peace talks between the two sides.

Saudi Arabia remains an important US ally in the region, though relations have been strained over a number of issues including US criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as Saudi Arabia’s refusal to cut ties with Russia over the war in Ukraine.

Qatar

Goals: Though it is also an energy-rich, Sunni monarchy like Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, Qatar has always pursued a more independent foreign policy. As a result, it has often angered its neighbors by doing things like maintaining cordial relations with Shia Iran, backing Islamist political movements throughout the region, and funding the TV network Al Jazeera, which gave notably favorable coverage to the Arab Spring protests that threatened so many Middle East leaders.

Qatar is well accustomed to playing both sides: It hosts both the largest US military facility in the Middle East and the political leadership of Hamas. It was also a major funder of the Hamas-led Gaza government before the war.

The US and Israel have mostly tolerated this dual role from Qatar, seeing it as a useful interlocutor for talks with the group. During the war, Qatar brokered deals that led to the release of hostages last fall and is closely involved with ongoing negotiations over a more long-term ceasefire.

But Netanyahu has recently called Qatar’s relationship with Hamas “problematic,” and it remains to be seen whether the country will continue to be able to straddle these divides.

Egypt

Goals: Egypt signed a historic peace treaty with Israel in 1979, and while relations between the two have never been exactly warm, there are close economic ties between the two. President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who took power after overthrowing a Muslim Brotherhood-led government in 2013, also views Hamas (historically linked to the Brotherhood) as a threat. Since Sisi came into power, Egypt has worked with Israel to effectively blockade Gaza and destroy the smuggling tunnels that run under the Egypt-Gaza border.

Since the war began, one of the main priorities for Egypt — which already hosts a substantial refugee population from several other conflicts — has been to prevent a mass exodus of Gazans over the Egyptian border. Relations between Egypt and Israel have been strained by calls from some Israeli government officials to relocate Gazans into Egypt and to put the Gazan side of the border under Israeli military control. The two governments have also traded blame over the smuggling of weapons into Gaza.

Despite the government’s more ambiguous stance, there is significant pro-Palestinian sentiment among Egypt’s population. That has forced the government to crack down on anti-Israel protests, which can sometimes morph into broader expressions of discontent with the Egyptian regime itself.

The Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea have dealt a significant economic blow to Egypt, which brought in $9 billion in transit fees through the Suez Canal last year. But, possibly due to the potential political backlash, Egypt has notably not joined the US-led naval coalition.

Jordan

Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, ending an official state of war between the two neighboring nations dating back to Israel’s founding. Relations since then have been peaceful, if frequently strained. Jordan also hosts 2.3 million Palestinian refugees, a fifth of its total population, and officially serves as the “custodian” of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem.

Since the war in Gaza began, Jordan has been the site of major pro-Palestinian demonstrations. The country’s leaders and the royal family, particularly Queen Rania, have been unusually sharp in their criticism of Israel over civilian casualties in Gaza. Jordan has cut off a proposed energy and water exchange deal with Israel, while the country’s foreign minister has criticized Israel for having “not upheld” its end of the 1994 peace agreement.

Like Egypt, Jordan has made clear it will not change its policy of not admitting additional Palestinian refugees. The country also found itself in the crosshairs of the escalating conflict between the US and Iran on January 28, when Iran-backed militants attacked a base in northern Jordan where US troops had been based as part of the ongoing mission to combat the Islamist militant group ISIS.

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