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The War in Gaza and the Risks of U.S. Entanglement

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A virtual roundtable was held under the Chatham House Rule on Jan 17, 2024. It convened approximately 20 experts from academia, think-tank and policy communities to discuss the war in Gaza and the risk of U.S. entanglement in the region. Here is a summary of the discussions:


Since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, Washington has signaled its shift away from the Middle East as a region of priority. However, the eruption of war in Gaza has caught the U.S. off guard, and the past month has seen significant escalation in the wider region. What do we make of the U.S. response so far? What do we think the U.S. policy should be? And what are the risks of the conflict escalating or broadening to further entangle the U.S. in the region?

U.S. Interests in the Middle East

To provide some context for continued U.S. presence in the Middle East, participating experts agreed that the main U.S. interests in the region are as follows:

  • Open waterways: Guarantee the free flow of commerce.
  • Open energy markets: Keep oil prices stable.
  • Combat terrorism: Limit the influence and spread of terror groups.
  • Regional balance: Prevent the emergence of a regional hegemon.

Although Washington has had a special relationship with Israel, the discussants agreed that U.S. interests in Israel, specifically, are limited. Freedom of navigation in the Red Sea remains a top priority, as is the transfer of technology. Historic ties, not concrete interests, connect the two states.

Moreover, the key U.S. objective of instrumenting Israel-Saudi rapprochement seems fundamentally incompatible with Washington’s simultaneous push for a two-state solution for Palestine.

An Assessment of U.S. Strategy

Participants noted that the U.S. foreign policy has historically undermined its own strategic interests in the region, and continues to do so in confronting the current Israel-Gaza war and the wider regional tensions it has caused. Generally, the participants felt that the American approach to the Middle East since the invasion of Iraq has been counterproductive.

There was a debate as to how central a role the U.S. played in bringing about the Abraham Accords. While some argued that this was an organic development that simply formalized regional strategic alignments, others noted that the additional American pressure was key to moving the negotiations forward. In either case, the push for Saudi-Israeli normalization should have been predicted to potentially motivate Hamas and other Iran-backed proxies to take drastic action against Israel to block further normalization deals.

Lastly, domestic policy plays an important role in U.S. foreign policy and is another major consideration in how the U.S. has handled the Middle East. Foreign policy has become a major concern for the American public, and polls suggest many are worried about the escalatory risk of the Israel-Hamas war. In the 2024 U.S. presidential race, we are likely to see foreign policy play its biggest role in more than 40 years.

Risks of Escalation and U.S. Involvement

While neither the U.S. nor Iran have indicated that they want a wider war with one another, in the current state of heightened tensions in the region the risks of inadvertent escalation is high. In addition, other players — both state and non-state actors— may desire an escalation and continuation of the conflict which they think benefits them.

U.S. intervention, particularly in a wider regional conflict, would pose the following risks:

  • Risk of backlash: Countries, many in the Global South, already feel the U.S. is directly implicated in the Israeli military campaign by its strong support for Israel.
  • Loss of U.S. credibility: So far, for instance, U.S. military attacks against the Houthi militants has been ineffective. The Red Sea continues to be closed especially to Western shipping as the Houthis have said that they are not targeting Chinese and Russian vessels.
  • Cost and sustainability of personnel: deploying forces and resources to the region could hamper security ambitions elsewhere, such as in the Indo-Pacific.
  • Weak diplomacy: Israel’s military approach, and Washington’s support of it, could be considered self-defeating and cause Washington reputational damage around the world.

Possible Recommendations for Future U.S. Strategy in the Middle East


The U.S. should prioritize diplomatic engagement in the region in the short and long term.

Diplomacy needs to be the first course of action, in Gaza and now in Yemen. There can be no lasting military solution to the Palestinian issue. Addressing the root causes of the war requires finding a long-term political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


Washington needs to broker a ceasefire in Gaza.

It was suggested that the only way to contain the conflict in Gaza and now Yemen, and to prevent future spillovers, is to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. In addition to this being in the Americans’ and Palestinians’ interest, a ceasefire may well be in Israel’s interest, too. A protracted mobilization, coupled with the potential for an expanded war on multiple fronts, would impose significant costs and economic implications on Israel, making it not in its best interests.


The U.S. should offload some regional security commitments and reduce troop presence in the long term.

It was recommended that the U.S. should seek to offload security obligations in the region. While it should maintain a minimal presence, the U.S. does not need to, and cannot, be the centerpiece of a regional security architecture. To mitigate the risk of the U.S. being drawn into regional conflicts, Washington should avoid making additional security commitments in the region.

Finally, it was suggested that American troop presence — currently sitting at 50,000 — could be significantly reduced. This would allow the U.S. to effectively pivot its resources towards the Indo-Pacific region. Washington should still pursue a policy of regional capacity building, but to do so through a (much-reduced) and efficient presence in fewer bases.

Written By:
Tatiana Velickovic
Tatiana Velickovic is a Research Assistant at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy
Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor