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Will U.S. strikes in Iraq, Syria and Yemen lead to more fighting in the region?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

President Biden says he wants to avoid a wider war in the Middle East.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

But over the weekend, the U.S. military carried out retaliatory airstrikes against militias in three countries, adding to fears of a broader conflict. This follows an attack that killed three U.S. soldiers in Jordan. Against this backdrop, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will be crisscrossing the region again this week.

FADEL: For a closer look, we're joined by NPR's Greg Myre in Tel Aviv. Hi, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So, Greg, let's talk about the why here. Why has the Israel-Hamas war really roiled the region and led to these armed groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen getting involved?

MYRE: Yeah. So whenever the Israeli-Palestinian conflict heats up, it inflames passions in the wider region. And inevitably, you see these various players act to show solidarity with the Palestinians in their quest to end the occupation and achieve statehood. So this has been building for months. In Yemen, the Houthi militia keeps firing on commercial ships in the Red Sea. In Iraq and Syria, militias have been firing at U.S. bases and killed these three American soldiers we just mentioned. So despite Biden's reservations, these American deaths prompted him to order the airstrikes against the militias in Iraq and Syria on Friday and the Houthis in Yemen on Saturday. And once again, here we are. The U.S. is very much involved in a Middle East conflict.

FADEL: So the U.S. strikes in these three countries, will this escalate or de-escalate the current fighting?

MYRE: So the aim is to de-escalate. The message the U.S. is trying to send is that it will use serious firepower in an attempt to make these attacks stop. But that's not necessarily how the message will be received, especially in Iran, which supports all these militias we've just mentioned.

I spoke about this with Paul Salem, who heads the Middle East Institute in Washington.

PAUL SALEM: It's quite clear that Iranians are willing to fight to the last Arab. Their proxies get hit. That doesn't really affect them directly. I think Iran will continue in this medium level of on-and-off escalation.

FADEL: OK, but what are the chances that we see direct confrontation between the U.S. and Iran if this continues?

MYRE: Yeah, Leila, that's certainly the big worry, the bright red line that neither the U.S. nor Iran is prepared to cross so far. The U.S. has not hit Iranian territory, even though the U.S. holds Iran responsible for providing these militias with weapons, money and training. And Iran is calling these U.S. strikes a strategic mistake, but it's not threatening to attack the U.S. at this point. So right now, the U.S. and Iran are being careful to avoid direct confrontation, but it's a very dangerous game.

FADEL: Now, Israel and Hamas are discussing a possible cease-fire, maybe temporary, hostages-for-prisoner swaps, the fighting stops. Would this lower the temperature in the wider region?

MYRE: You know, Paul Salem thinks so. Here he is again.

SALEM: I think the Biden administration is well aware that the best way to de-escalate wider conflict in the region is to get to a temporary, and then eventually permanent, cease-fire in Gaza.

MYRE: Of course, getting to that cease-fire, even a temporary one, is far from certain. Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu says his goal is destroying Hamas. Hamas wants a permanent cease-fire and the withdrawal of Israeli troops.

And I'll just end on a cautionary note from CIA director Bill Burns, who just wrote an essay saying, quote, "I have spent much of the last four decades working in and on the Middle East, and I've rarely seen it more tangled or explosive."

FADEL: Wow. NPR's Greg Myre in Tel Aviv. Thanks, Greg.

MYRE: Sure thing, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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