Tehran, Tel Aviv Exchange Displays of Power During Gaza Conflict

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei stands before the coffins of seven Revolutionary Guard officers killed in the Iranian consulate strike in Syria. (EPA)
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei stands before the coffins of seven Revolutionary Guard officers killed in the Iranian consulate strike in Syria. (EPA)
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Tehran, Tel Aviv Exchange Displays of Power During Gaza Conflict

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei stands before the coffins of seven Revolutionary Guard officers killed in the Iranian consulate strike in Syria. (EPA)
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei stands before the coffins of seven Revolutionary Guard officers killed in the Iranian consulate strike in Syria. (EPA)

Since the start of the Gaza conflict following Hamas’ attack on Israel on October 7, Iran has been visibly involved in the regional crisis. This involvement spans its support for allied militant groups in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, as well as political, diplomatic and military actions under President Ebrahim Raisi.

Two hundred days into the war on Gaza, tensions between Tel Aviv and Tehran have intensified. This escalation signals a shift from years of a shadow Iranian-Israeli conflict towards a potentially direct confrontation, primarily driven by Iran.

In the early days of the war, Iranian officials hinted at their ability to escalate the conflict and confront Israel by unifying fronts if Gaza continued to be targeted. This was seen as a political maneuver.

While Iran implied involvement in the confrontation, Western reports, especially American ones, differed on Iran’s role in Hamas’ Oct. 7 Al-Aqsa Flood Operation that sparked the war.

In the blame game and attempts to involve international parties, based on Israeli sources, some Western newspapers accused Iran of orchestrating the attack. On the other hand, media outlets and agencies turned to Iranian sources to challenge the Israeli narrative.

As Iran tried to leverage Israel’s surprise over the Al-Aqsa Flood, Iranian Revolutionary Guard leaders sent a strong message. They mentioned Iran’s motives for the attack, including revenge for Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani’s killing in a US strike in early 2020. Yet, Iran swiftly denied any direct link to Hamas’ attack to avoid upsetting the delicate balances it has achieved in the region.

Diplomatic moves

Iran has been quick to amp up its regional diplomacy under Raisi, aiming to improve ties with neighboring countries and counter its international isolation, especially after the Ukraine conflict complicated efforts to revive its nuclear deal with Western powers.

Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian’s recent statement at Tehran University, suggesting that Iran must be consulted for any Palestine agreement, has meanwhile raised eyebrows.

Abdollahian’s visits to Jeddah, Geneva, and New York for Palestine-related conferences have sparked questions in Iranian media about the authorities’ delayed actions on pressing domestic issues, including nuclear negotiations to lift US sanctions.

However, the aftermath of the war has somewhat eased Western pressure on Iran’s nuclear program, with Western powers avoiding turning to the UN Security Council or issuing condemnations of Iran because they don’t want to deepen the crisis with Tehran amid the Gaza conflict.

Iran has highlighted its ties to powers around Israel while pursuing diplomacy. It continues to support Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, with top Iranian officials, like the foreign minister, visiting Doha, Beirut, and Damascus to coordinate with the two groups.

Iran also backs armed groups linked to Tehran, such as Lebanese Hezbollah, the Houthi militias in Yemen and Iraqi armed factions.

The Iranians see the Gaza war as the greatest evidence of coordination between diplomacy and field activities by the Revolutionary Guard and allied groups. However, Tehran officially denies direct involvement in decisions or operations of these groups, though it still supports their actions.

Maritime developments

In early November, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei called for disrupting Israel’s key supply routes by blocking maritime access for energy, food and trade.

Following his statement, the Houthi militias in Yemen began attacking commercial ships in the Red Sea.

These attacks sparked renewed tensions at sea. The US and UK responded with strikes on Houthi positions to deter further assaults. Meanwhile, Western and regional powers formed maritime alliances to safeguard navigation routes.

The Revolutionary Guard further heightened tensions by announcing Iranian naval escorts to the Red Sea and threatening to block key waterways like the Bab el-Mandeb and the Strait of Gibraltar, as well as disrupting navigation in the Mediterranean.

They also formed a “Naval Basij” unit comprising maritime units of groups loyal to Iran.

Israel strikes back

As tensions rose in the Red Sea and Iran-aligned factions targeted US forces, Israel launched two precise airstrikes in December. The first, in Damascus on December 2 killed two Revolutionary Guard officers: Brigadier Generals Panah Taghizadeh and Mohammad-Ali Ataie Shourcheh.

They were reportedly killed during “advisory operations” at a military base in the Sayyida Zainab area.

On December 25, Razi Mousavi, the logistics chief for the Revolutionary Guard in Syria and Lebanon, was killed in an Israeli airstrike on his home in the Sayyida Zainab area. The strike came shortly after he left his office at the Iranian embassy compound.

The third strike occurred in the Mazzeh area on January 20, killing Brig. Gen. Hojjatollah Amidwar, the Revolutionary Guard’s intelligence chief in Syria, and four other Iranian officers.

Later, the Revolutionary Guard reported the deaths of three more officers in separate operations in Damascus, Homs and Deir Ezzor between February and March.

Losses and heightened tensions

As tensions rose, Damascus saw the deadliest blow to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard in the ongoing power struggle between Tehran and Tel Aviv.

The Iranian consulate in Mazzeh was struck, killing Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Zahedi, commander of the Revolutionary Guard forces in Syria and Lebanon, along with Hezbollah’s advisory council member and five other senior Guard officers.

Iran promised retaliation, sparking intense speculation, and Khamenei declared the consulate Iranian soil and pledged a response.

Israel remained quiet after all the attacks, while Iran launched over 300 missiles and drones two weeks later. Israel claimed to have intercepted most.

Khamenei stated Iran aimed to show its power.

In response, Israel threatened retaliation deep in Iranian territory. Western powers tried to discourage Israel, but it struck a military airport near Isfahan. Satellite images showed damage to the S-300 radar system protecting nuclear facilities.

The exchange continues, with its lessons likely to keep tensions high between Israel and Iran, even after the dust settles in the Gaza conflict.



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.