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Blinken arrives in Saudi Arabia amid a surge in regional violence

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RIYADH — Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Saudi Arabia on Monday as the region braced for continued attacks between U.S. forces and Iranian-backed proxy groups.

The top U.S. diplomat carried a complicated message on his trip: Even as the United States targets militias in Syria and Iraq, it is ultimately seeking a de-escalation against the Iranian-aligned groups.

“The United States does not want to see the conflict escalated” and “will not escalate the conflict,” a senior State Department official told reporters on Blinken’s plane en route to the Saudi capital.

Blinken’s team says the launching of dozens of U.S. strikes on militia targets Friday was a proportional response to the Jan. 28 killing of three U.S. service members in Jordan. And even as the White House has vowed further retaliation in the coming days, “we do not see it as an escalation,” the official said.

“It is the response that we said would happen if American soldiers were killed, and that’s exactly what we’re doing,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic.

The United States has declined to strike targets inside Iran despite calls to do so by several Republicans in Congress. Such a move would probably prompt even bolder attacks on U.S. personnel in the region.

The Houthis in Yemen, an Iran-aligned group, have said they will continue to target commercial vessels and fire on U.S. assets until a cease-fire is agreed upon in Gaza, where more than 25,000 Palestinians have died after Hamas’s Oct. 7 cross-border assault in Israel that killed more than 1,200 people. U.S.-led strikes in Yemen over the weekend targeted weapons bunkers, missile launch sites and radars used by the Houthis to stage attacks in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, officials said.

The connection between the Israel conflict and the tit-for-tat attacks is not lost on U.S. officials, which is why Blinken is seeking to advance a potential hostage deal between Hamas and Israel. The effort would include a cessation of hostilities that Washington hopes could develop into a permanent cease-fire.

“It’s not a coincidence that we are going to the three countries that are involved in those talks: Egypt, Qatar and Israel,” said the senior U.S. officials, referring to the three next stops on the trip.

“Impossible to say if we’ll get a breakthrough, when we’ll get a breakthrough,” he added.

Hamas has yet to offer a formal response to a framework agreement developed in Paris between intelligence chiefs of the United States, Egypt and Israel in coordination with Qatar’s prime minister. The proposal involves a six-week cessation of hostilities in exchange for a phased release of hostages.

Hamas has previously said the next hostage deal must entail a permanent cease-fire — a condition Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected, vowing to continue fighting until “total victory.”

Blinken’s trip is his fifth to the Middle East since the Gaza war began. During his visits, he has tried to develop longer-term postwar planning that seeks to forge an agreement among Arab and Israeli officials around a unified, Palestinian-led governing body for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

If a cessation of hostilities is achieved and Hamas can be removed from power — a big if — Blinken will need Washington’s Arab allies to help put in place a new governance structure. That will require a complex set of steps, including a multibillion-dollar reconstruction effort bankrolled by energy-rich Gulf states; reforms to the Palestinian Authority, including an injection of younger leaders working alongside Mahmoud Abbas, the authority’s 88-year-old president; an agreed-upon pathway to a Palestinian state; and normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

“If we get a humanitarian pause, we want to be in a position to move as quickly as possible on the various pieces,” said the senior U.S. official.

The Israeli military is expected to expand its campaign in the southern city of Rafah, where more than 1 million displaced Palestinians have sought refuge in what the United Nations calls a “pressure cooker of despair.” campaign.

The Israeli military is expected to expand its campaign in the southern city of Rafah, where more than 1 million displaced Palestinians have sought refuge in what the United Nations calls a “pressure cooker of despair.”

Israeli officials had promised their U.S. counterparts to end “high-tempo” military operations by the end of January — a promise it hasn’t kept as fierce bombardments continue. The Biden administration has resisted calls to exert leverage over the Israelis by placing conditions on U.S. arms transfers or withholding military assistance. In the absence of such moves, U.S. officials say the best way to influence Israeli behavior is through face-to-face meetings.

“To get real breakthroughs … the secretary has to show up or the president has to get on the phone with the prime minister,” said the senior U.S. official. “So whenever we come to Israel, we come with a list of things that we’re trying to push.”

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