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Hezbollah leader's remarks heighten fear of the Israel-Gaza war spilling over

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

We're officially one month into the war in Israel and Gaza. According to the Gaza Health Ministry, almost 10,000 Palestinians in Gaza have died, and tens of thousands of civilians have been displaced as the Israeli military intensifies its offensive in the strip. This comes after Hamas fighters killed over 1,400 Israeli civilians and troops and kidnapped over 200 on October 7. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with regional leaders last week, hoping to carve a path forward, one that avoids a wider regional conflict. And on Friday, Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah, a political and armed group, gave a speech in which he stopped short of declaring war on Israel.

EMILE HOKAYEM: Nasrallah indicated that, no, he would not mobilize Hezbollah for an all-out regional war.

RASCOE: That's Emile Hokayem. He's the director and senior fellow at the International Institute of Strategic Studies. We spoke to him right after Nasrallah's speech, and he explained that this gives us an idea of how Iran is thinking about this conflict.

HOKAYEM: Iran itself is unwilling to risk a regional war. It worries that if it does so, it would expose Hezbollah, which is its most formidable instrument of punishment and deterrence against Israel, while it should be preserved for a war that would threaten Iran's or the Iranian leadership's own existence. So this was definitely a step back in terms of regional escalation. It does not mean that a regional war will not happen. Much will depend on the trajectory of the fighting inside Gaza. It also does not mean that Hezbollah may not reconsider its posture.

RASCOE: So when we hear warnings from top U.S. officials saying they do not want a regional war, what are we talking about here? And does the statements coming out of Hezbollah mean that there is less concern about a regional war?

HOKAYEM: The U.S. is very concerned about a regional war because it would completely overturn U.S. priorities. It would force the US to dedicate significant political attention and military resources to the region. It would risk damaging very seriously U.S. relations with a number of regional states. And it would affect the trajectory of relations with Iran. The U.S. has tried to contain and deter Iran, especially from developing a nuclear weapons capability. That objective may be threatened in case of an all-out war. The U.S. has sounded quite careful in recent times. It has both sought to deter Iran and Hezbollah by deploying significant assets to the eastern Mediterranean. But it also, in conversations with the press and in public speeches, indicated that they don't think that Iran was - had ordered the October 7 attack and that the U.S. does not think that Iran itself is interested in a regional conflict.

RASCOE: And so if there were a regional war, what countries and militant groups would likely be involved?

HOKAYEM: It would be quite complex. Those that would be primarily involved would be Israel, Iran, Syria, the U.S. But in addition to that, you would have an array of militias in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon that would likely jump into the mix.

RASCOE: And Israel and Syria continue to exchange rockets, but this has been happening for years. So far, they're not saying this is related to Israel's operation in Gaza. But what do we need to understand about these two countries' very fraught relationship?

HOKAYEM: Well, those two countries have fought several direct wars, you know, over the years. But since the Syrian civil war and the weakening of the regime of Bashar al-Assad - and Iran has sought to build a military presence inside the country to have another front against Israel, if need be. So Israel has been keen to destroy that infrastructure over the years. And this is a front that could well ignite, should there be a regional war.

RASCOE: Iran is often named as the supporter of Hamas, but there are others. Key Hamas leaders are based in Doha, Qatar, which is a U.S. ally. And the group also received support from Turkey, which is a NATO ally, even though sometimes, they have tense relations with the U.S. So could an expanded conflict have repercussions beyond the region?

HOKAYEM: At the moment, there is no evidence, no suggestion, that Qatar or Turkey help Hamas militarily or were aware of the October 7 attacks or are complicit in, you know, Hamas' strategy. In fact, Qatar has sought to distance itself from Hamas. That said, yes, if there were a regional war, there would be significant repercussions. You know, Qatar itself will continue to have and wants a very strong relationship with the U.S. Turkey is a NATO member and, you know, is - for all the barking that comes from Ankara at times, is not yet ready to break ties with its Western partners.

But the point is that if a regional war starts in earnest, there will be surprising effects. And this is why, you know, Western diplomacy, Arab diplomacy and other are mobilized to try to contain it to Gaza at the moment. The question is, if the fighting in Gaza becomes so bloody, so costly in human lives and generates this massive humanitarian crisis, are those efforts condemned to fail because they will inflame the region regardless?

RASCOE: That's Emile Hokayem. He is with the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. Thank you so much for joining us.

HOKAYEM: Thank you very much. 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.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.