Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken launched a diplomatic push in the Middle East on Monday for a deal that would end the war in the Gaza Strip and free hostages there, even as a drone struck a military base used by U.S. troops and the allied forces in eastern Syria.
Mr Blinken, making his fifth trip to the region since the October 7 attack on Israel, met in Riyadh with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the first stop of a trip that will also include meetings in Egypt, Qatar . Israel and the West Bank.
Speaking to the crown prince, the kingdom’s de facto leader, Mr. Blinken “underscored the importance of addressing the humanitarian needs in Gaza and preventing further escalation of the conflict,” the State Department said. He added that they discussed “a lasting end to the crisis in Gaza that provides lasting peace and security for both Israelis and Palestinians.”
Mr Blinken hopes to reach a deal that could temporarily halt the war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, secure the release of remaining hostages there in exchange for Palestinians held in Israeli prisons and allow more desperately needed help on the ground.
But even as Mr Blinken tried to defuse tensions in the region, a drone struck a base in eastern Syria housing US and allied troops, killing six Kurdish fighters, according to the official Syrian Democratic Forces media. guided group.
Maj. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, said no injuries were reported in the U.S. following the drone attack.
The Syrian Democratic Forces blamed the attack on a militia group linked to Iran, which would make it the latest in a series of raids by Iranian-backed militias since the start of Israel’s war against Hamas.
For the past decade, the Syrian Democratic Forces, which are made up of fighters from the local Kurdish ethnic minority, have been operating in eastern Syria with the support of a US-led international coalition that needed a local partner to fight Islamic State. Although ISIS has been largely defeated there, a limited number of US troops remain on the ground.
US forces in the region have come under repeated attacks from Iranian-backed militant groups in recent months, as the groups have targeted bases and troops in Iraq, Syria and Jordan, as well as US-owned ships in the Red Sea.
The United States and its allies have responded with several rounds of airstrikes, including some over the weekend against militias in Yemen in response to the ship attacks and on Friday against targets in Syria and Iraq in response to a drone strike that killed three American soldiers in Jordan.
The Biden administration has said it does not want to engage in direct military conflict with Iran. Iranian officials also said they wanted to avoid a wider war, while warning they would respond if attacked.
“Iran does not seek to increase tension and crisis in the region – we do not support tension and chaos,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said on Monday. “Iran has shown that it will react strongly to any threats to its sovereignty and will not hesitate to deploy all its capabilities for a response that will make them regret it.”
Analysts and US officials have said Iran exercises varying degrees of control over the armed groups it supports in the region. And analysts have warned that both sides risk head-on attacks spiraling out of control.
Amid fears of a wider war, Israeli forces are advancing Monday on Rafah, a southern Gaza city that is a major entry point for aid and shelter for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians forced from their homes earlier in the war.
On Monday, Yoav Gallant, Israel’s defense minister, called Rafah “Hamas’ last stronghold.”
“Every terrorist hiding in Rafah should know, they will end up like those in Khan Younis, Gaza or any other place in the Gaza Strip,” Mr Galland said, referring to other towns in the territory that have been bombed by Israeli airstrikes. forces. “Surrender or death – there is no third option.”
The move to Rafah could increase international pressure on Israel, including from its closest allies, for the safety and welfare of civilians.
At a news conference in Washington on Monday, Vedant Patel, a spokesman for the US State Department, pointed out that Rafah is an important humanitarian aid pipeline and a place where Americans and other foreign nationals have been able to leave Gaza and enter Egypt. He also noted that over 1 million people have taken refuge there.
“So, of course, we’d like any business going on in that area to take that into account,” he said.
Israel invaded Gaza after Hamas-led gunmen killed about 1,200 people in Israel and kidnapped another 240 in a cross-border attack on October 7, according to Israeli officials. Since then, more than 27,000 people in Gaza have been killed in Israel’s military campaign, according to the territory’s health ministry.
Israel has said its troops will continue to fight in Gaza until Hamas is defeated and the remaining hostages, believed to number more than 100, are freed.
As the war’s toll has mounted, American diplomats have tried to broker some sort of lull in the fighting, including with Mr. Blinken’s repeated tours of the region.
As of Monday afternoon, the United States had nothing to publicly announce about a hostage and cease-fire deal. A Hamas-affiliated Al-Aqsa television station reported on Sunday that the group was still considering the proposal, a week after it was made.
In Saudi Arabia, the Biden administration also hopes to push the country to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, a long-term goal the United States sees as important to stabilizing the Middle East.
Under a proposed deal, the United States would offer Saudi Arabia a defense treaty, help with a civilian nuclear program and increase arms sales, while the Saudis and Americans would, in theory, get Israel to accept terms for concrete steps towards the creation of a Palestinian state in exchange for recognition by Saudi Arabia.
But even as much of the world urged Israel to ease the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the United Nations moved to investigate the main aid agency for Palestinians in the territory, with Israel accusing 12 of the agency’s employees of being involved in the attack. of October 7 or consequence.
On Monday, the United Nations appointed Catherine Colonna, a former French foreign minister, to lead a review of the agency, UNRWA. Israel’s accusation led at least 12 countries, including the United States and Germany, the two biggest donors, to suspend funding to the agency.
The review will “assess whether the agency is doing everything in its power to ensure neutrality and respond to allegations of serious violations when they are made,” the UN said.
Leyli Nikunazar, Michael D. Shear and Aaron Boxerman contributed to the report.