Israel's Strike on Iran: Limited Hit, Major Message

Tensions had been simmering for years between Israel and Iran. ATTA KENARE / AFP
Tensions had been simmering for years between Israel and Iran. ATTA KENARE / AFP
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Israel's Strike on Iran: Limited Hit, Major Message

Tensions had been simmering for years between Israel and Iran. ATTA KENARE / AFP
Tensions had been simmering for years between Israel and Iran. ATTA KENARE / AFP

Israel's apparent strike on Iran was deliberately limited in scope but sent a clear warning to the country's leadership about Israeli abilities to strike at sensitive targets.
Tehran refuses to recognize Israel, and for decades the two countries have waged a shadow war marked by covert Israeli operations inside Iran, and Iranian backing for anti-Israel militant groups including Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
But while the surge in tensions over the past weeks has calmed for now, the shadow war has entered a new phase, carrying more than ever the risk of open conflict between the foes, analysts say.
The current escalation comes against the background of Hamas's October 7 attack on Israel followed by the Israeli bombing campaign in the Gaza Strip.
It began when Israel was blamed for carrying out an air strike on April 1 against Iran's consulate in Damascus, killing seven Iranian officials from the Revolutionary Guards.
Iran responded with its first-ever direct attack on Israel, involving hundreds of drones and missiles, though almost all were shot down by Israel and its allies.
Amid fears of a major Israeli retaliation to that attack, which could itself provoke another Iranian response, Israel instead chose a much more limited option in the face of US pressure.
'Remind Iran'
According to The New York Times, which cited Israeli and Iranian sources, the target was the radar system of a Russian-supplied S-300 missile defense system at an airbase in the central province of Isfahan, the region that hosts the Natanz uranium enrichment plant.
The origin of the strike is not entirely clear, but it included at least one missile fired from a warplane outside Iran and small attack drones known as quadcopters that could have been launched from inside Iran itself and were aimed at confusing air defenses, the reports said.
Israel, in line with its usual policy, has not confirmed or denied carrying out the strike on Iran or the April 1 attack in Syria.
"The purpose of the operation was precisely to remind Iran what Israel could be capable of," said Arash Azizi, senior lecturer at Clemson University in the United States.
"The choice of the airbase near Isfahan was significant because this is the main source of air defense support for all the nuclear installations in the province," he told AFP.
Israel is long believed to have carried out sabotage operations inside Iran through its Mossad espionage agency.
Most famously, according to US media reports, Iran's top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was assassinated in 2020 by Mossad using a machine gun that had been assembled close to his home by its agents and then fired remotely after they left.
According to some outlets, including television channel Iran International, Israeli agents have even captured and interrogated Revolutionary Guards inside Iran to obtain intelligence.
There have also been suspicions, after mysterious explosions around sensitive sites, that Israel has already carried out drone attacks inside Iran, but this has never been confirmed.
'Rubicon crossed'
Iranian officials have been at pains to almost laugh off the Israeli strike, with Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian telling NBC News the weapons used were at the "level of toys".
Iran's supreme leader Ali Khamenei, meanwhile, praised the country's armed forces for their "success".
But Alexander Grinberg, expert on Iran at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, said Israel's choice and designation of target was in itself indicative of the presence Mossad has inside Iran.
"Israel's message is 'We can strike anywhere in Iran' given that Isfahan is in the center of Iran, relatively far away, and Israel knows exactly where it can strike," he said.
Grinberg said it was logical that Iran has not confirmed that the air base was hit: "From the moment you recognize the true scale of damage, you admit the power of the enemy."
Holly Dagres, non-resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, said if Israel's attack involved small quadcopters, "these small drones were likely launched from inside Iran".
This would highlight "yet another instance in which Mossad has a presence on the ground and how Iran is its playground", she said.
While the current escalation phase appears to be over, Israel could yet launch more retaliation against Iran, and tensions may also surge again if Israel launches its long-threatened offensive on Rafah in Gaza.
"In some ways, we are now back to the pre-April 1 rules of operation: the realm of gray area and unattributable operations, sabotage," said lecturer Azizi.
"That suits both Iran and Israel well. But the rubicon crossed on April 1 still matters and makes the stakes higher," he added.



Syrians in Lebanon Fear Unprecedented Restrictions, Deportations 

A Syrian refugee boy runs at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)
A Syrian refugee boy runs at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)
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Syrians in Lebanon Fear Unprecedented Restrictions, Deportations 

A Syrian refugee boy runs at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)
A Syrian refugee boy runs at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)

The soldiers came before daybreak, singling out the Syrian men without residence permits from the tattered camp in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. As toddlers wailed around them, Mona, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon for a decade, watched Lebanese troops shuffle her brother onto a truck headed for the Syrian border.

Thirteen years since Syria's conflict broke out, Lebanon remains home to the largest refugee population per capita in the world: roughly 1.5 million Syrians - half of whom are refugees formally registered with the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR - in a country of approximately 4 million Lebanese.

They are among some five million Syrian refugees who spilled out of Syria into neighboring countries, while millions more are displaced within Syria. Donor countries in Brussels this week pledged fewer funds in Syria aid than last year.

With Lebanon struggling to cope with an economic meltdown that has crushed livelihoods and most public services, its chronically underfunded security forces and typically divided politicians now agree on one thing: Syrians must be sent home.

Employers have been urged to stop hiring Syrians for menial jobs. Municipalities have issued new curfews and have even evicted Syrian tenants, two humanitarian sources told Reuters. At least one township in northern Lebanon has shuttered an informal camp, sending Syrians scattering, the sources said.

Lebanese security forces issued a new directive this month shrinking the number of categories through which Syrians can apply for residency - frightening many who would no longer qualify for legal status and now face possible deportation.

Lebanon has organized voluntary returns for Syrians, through which 300 travelled home in May. But more than 400 have also been summarily deported by the Lebanese army, two humanitarian sources told Reuters, caught in camp raids or at checkpoints set up to identify Syrians without legal residency.

They are automatically driven across the border, refugees and humanitarian workers say, fueling concerns about rights violations, forced military conscription or arbitrary detention.

Mona, who asked to change her name in fear of Lebanese authorities, said her brother was told to register with Syria's army reserves upon his entry. Fearing a similar fate, the rest of the camp's men no longer venture out.

"None of the men can pick up their kids from school, or go to the market to get things for the house. They can't go to any government institutions, or hospital, or court," Mona said.

She must now care for her brother's children, who were not deported, through an informal job she has at a nearby factory. She works at night to evade checkpoints along her commute.

A sign that reads "The return of the displaced is a right and a duty", is placed along a highway in Jounieh, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)

'WRONG & NOT SUSTAINABLE'

Lebanon has deported refugees in the past, and political parties have long insisted parts of Syria are safe enough for large-scale refugee returns.

But in April, the killing of a local Lebanese party official blamed on Syrians touched off a concentrated campaign of anti-refugee sentiment.

Hate speech flourished online, with more than 50% of the online conversation about refugees in Lebanon focused on deporting them and another 20% referring to Syrians as an "existential threat," said Lebanese research firm InflueAnswers.

The tensions have extended to international institutions. Lebanon's foreign minister has pressured UNHCR's representative to rescind a request to halt the new restrictions and lawmakers slammed a one billion euro aid package from the European Union as a "bribe" to keep hosting refugees.

"This money that the EU is sending to the Syrians, let them send it to Syria," said Roy Hadchiti, a media representative for the Free Patriotic Movement, speaking at an anti-refugee rally organized by the conservative Christian party.

He, like a growing number of Lebanese, complained that Syrian refugees received more aid than desperate Lebanese. "Go see them in the camps - they have solar panels, while Lebanese can't even afford a private generator subscription," he said.

The UN still considers Syria unsafe for large-scale returns and said rising anti-refugee rhetoric is alarming.

"I am very concerned because it can result in... forced returns, which are both wrong and not sustainable," UNHCR head Filippo Grandi told Reuters.

"I understand the frustrations in host countries - but please don't fuel it further."

Zeina, a Syrian refugee who also asked her name be changed, said her husband's deportation last month left her with no work or legal status in an increasingly hostile Lebanese town.

Returning has its own dangers: her children were born in Lebanon and do not have Syrian ID cards, and her home in Homs province remains in ruins since a 2012 government strike that forced her to flee.

"Even now, when I think of those days, and I think of my parents or anyone else going back, they can't. The house is flattened. What kind of return is that?" she said.