Khaled al-Jeratli | Hassan Ibrahim
The attention of observers is not only focused on the Israeli war on the Gaza Strip, but their eyes are also on the northern front, specifically on the border triangle with Lebanon and Syria, where armed skirmishes have been continuing for days in a controlled manner, as there is no escalation or lull.
While Iran denies its direct involvement in Operation Al-Aqsa Flood (or Deluge) that Hamas began on October 7, it does not hide its support for Hamas and threatens to move the fronts in response to the continued escalation in the Gaza Strip.
Experts and observers agree that Tehran will not risk a war with Israel and the United States and that it will often be content with using its tools in the region, including the Lebanese Hezbollah and the militias that it runs and funds in Syria.
Militarily and strategically, the interests of Iran and the Syrian regime conflict regarding attacking Israel, according to specialists interviewed by Enab Baladi, at a time when Israel threatened, through its senior officials, if Damascus were involved in an escalation decided by Iran, to liquidate Bashar al-Assad and overthrow his regime.
Developments do not stop at the borders of the “Al-Aqsa Flood,” as it will have consequences at the regional level, especially with regard to the continued Iranian expansion in Syria.
In this file, Enab Baladi discusses with experts and analysts the outcomes of the Israeli war on Gaza at the military level, their impact on the map of alliances and alignments in the Middle East region, and Syria’s position within it.
“October 7” re-organizes the region’s alliances
The willingness of Western countries to provide military support to Israel became apparent with the beginning of Operation “Al-Aqsa Flood,” and the leaders of the United States, Germany, Britain, France, and Italy issued a joint statement in which they expressed “steadfast and united support to the State of Israel, and our unequivocal condemnation of Hamas and its appalling acts of terrorism.”
With the first minutes of Operation “Al-Aqsa Flood,” attention turned to Iran as the mastermind and planner of the operation, and that it supports Palestinian “resistance” groups and movements, including “Hamas,” “Islamic Jihad,” and the “Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine,” offering about $100 million annually, according to a report by the US State Department in 2020.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian stated on October 13 that all options are possible if the “war crimes of the Zionist entity” do not stop, and if the crimes against the Palestinians continue, this will be met with a response from “the rest of the axes.”
Abdollahian said, “If the Zionist attacks do not stop, then all parties in the region are on the trigger, and there is cohesion among the leaders of the resistance factions, and they have planned for all scenarios, and the axis of resistance will respond at the appropriate time.”
Change in political alignment?
The possibilities of changing the balance of power and alliances in the Middle East, according to a study published by the Raman Center for Research and Consultancy, are linked to whether or not a ground military operation will be carried out in the Gaza Strip.
The study provided an overview of the future alliances based on the results of potential Israeli ground military operations in the Gaza Strip, the possibility of the survival or demise of the Hamas movement, and whether or not Iran will intervene.
The research center considered that the events represented opportunities for the formation of new poles and a threat to poles that benefited from the Palestinian cause, such as the “axis of resistance.”
Muhannad Salloum, a researcher specializing in analyzing government security policies and military and strategic studies, told Enab Baladi that the “Al-Aqsa Flood” will be reflected in the alliances in the region, but it will not bring about a radical change, especially with the historical backgrounds that led to the formation of these alliances.
He added that during the recent months that preceded the events in Palestine, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia conducted a re-evaluation of its relationship with Iran, the head of the “axis of resistance.”
Riyadh adopted a “zero problems” policy, approached Iran, and resolved some of the outstanding issues with it after negotiations that lasted for about two years in Baghdad at the level of intelligence officials.
In addition to the above, the change will not be radical, given that Riyadh was clear in its position on normalization with Israel, as it wanted to achieve something in return, according to the principle, “We cannot normalize while the situation remains as it is.”
Salloum believes that normalization for Saudi Arabia is different from what it is for the UAE, which normalized without any conditions, as its normalization was “free” on the political level, but it was “profitable” on the economic level.
The researcher attributed the difference in positions between Saudi Arabia and the Emirates to the fact that Abu Dhabi does not see itself as a politically active state like other Arab countries in the region. Rather, it sees itself as a commercial center or port, and it can transform into an international commercial and cultural port, which is the identity that the Emirates was working on more than 15 years ago.
According to the researcher, the “Al-Aqsa Flood” put Iran in an embarrassing position regarding its “narrative of the resistance axis,” It also placed Saudi Arabia in the same position regarding its path to normalization with Israel, as Riyadh was demanding Israel’s return to the 1967 borders, so what will it demand after today’s events in Gaza?
Salloum considered that no party, from the United States to Saudi Arabia, could put pressure on the Israeli occupation to return to the 1967 borders, approved by the UN Security Council, and that this could only be achieved by military action to impose it by force, which is unattainable.
Last week, Reuters quoted two sources familiar with Riyadh’s thinking as saying that Saudi Arabia is putting U.S.-backed plans to normalize ties with Israel on ice, signaling a rapid rethinking of its foreign policy priorities as the war escalates between Israel and Palestinian group Hamas.
The conflict has also pushed the kingdom to engage with Iran. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took his first phone call from Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi as Riyadh tries to prevent a broader surge in violence across the region, according to Reuters.
Salloum considered that Saudi Arabia’s reaction to the events in Gaza and its lack of bias towards the American narrative shows that it is actually “not sorry for sabotaging normalization with Israel, considering it is not a strategic issue for the Kingdom.”
Researcher Muhannad Salloum believes that the events in Palestine affecting the entire Middle East region have put all Arab countries in an embarrassing position, as a state of restlessness emerged, starting in Cairo, where Salloum believes that President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi would not have allowed protests there had it not been for the great popular pressure created by the events.
This restlessness will not push Arab countries to reconsider their alliances with the United States because they have been built in the region over the years and need “more than the ‘Al-Aqsa Flood’ operation to change,” according to the researcher, especially since political alliances between countries do not usually change easily, but it can naturally be weakened by certain events.
But the closest description to reality in this case is that American influence on US allies in the Middle East has weakened as a result of the events and may weaken further if they continue for a longer period.
Resistance; Mutual interests
Iran and the parties on its side have always lived on the narrative of “resistance and opposition” and have established their relations with countries and non-governmental armed groups based on this narrative, including Syria.
Researcher in international relations and Middle Eastern affairs, Mohamed Abadi, told Enab Baladi that the Iranian narrative, which made the liberation of Jerusalem a central issue and for which alliances and axes were launched, is now at stake in light of the escalation.
He added that the stage has become critical for the “axis of resistance,” as it has two options: to remain steadfast in the face of the challenge and implement some of the threats it has made over the course of half a century or for the efforts to “go with the wind.”
Abadi ruled out that Iran would engage directly in the conflict, contenting itself with moving its agents on multiple fronts within low-risk skirmishes that do not allow the ignition of a comprehensive war.
Iran may work to ignite angry demonstrations in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Iran, and Syria and surround Western embassies and consulates with civilian demonstrators while not allowing direct contact, but it will not harm its enemies, according to the researcher.
For his part, Salloum told Enab Baladi that Iran constitutes the center of the “axis of resistance,” considering it derived from the concept of “exporting the revolution” adopted by “the first supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ruhollah Khomeini when he overthrew the regime in Iran.”
He believes that the narrative of “resistance and opposition” put Iran in open confrontation with all countries in the region, meaning that its ideas, in short, were based on “overthrowing corrupt governments and thus liberating Palestine.”
Returning to the link between current events and the narrative of “resistance and opposition” adopted by countries and militias in the region, including the Syrian regime, the Lebanese Hezbollah, and Iraqi and Yemeni militias, their relationship with the axis is one of “mutual benefit” and nothing more.
Peace history is not complete
Israel and the United States behind it sought to bring about new alignments in the region with regard to the Palestinian issue before the start of “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood.” These efforts went through stages that changed with the change of American administrations, but their goal was the same, which was to implement peace that would stop attempts to exclude Israel from the region.
In 1993, Israel and America, during the administration of US President Bill Clinton, experimented with the Oslo Accords, which was officially called the “Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements,” and it was the first peace agreement between Israel and the “Palestinian Liberation Organization” led by Yasser Arafat.
The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) is committed to the right of the State of Israel to live in peace and security and to reach a solution to all basic issues related to permanent status through negotiations, and that this Declaration of Principles is the beginning of an era free of violence.
Israel, in turn, decided through its Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, that in light of the PLO’s commitments, it would recognize it as the representative of the Palestinian people, and negotiations would begin with it.
The Oslo Accords did not bear fruit over time, as the Israeli occupation found itself faced with a series of attacks and arms smuggling operations from Egypt to Gaza, which destroyed what the American efforts to bring about “peace” had built.
According to what was stated in the book “Iran’s Race for Regional Supremacy,” which dealt in large part with the stages of transformation of the conflict in the region, the George Bush administration did not understand the transformations taking place in the Middle East, when it invited Arab countries to the “Annapolis Peace Conference” alongside Israel.
The United States assumed that the Iranian threat was shared among them and that it might form a unified front against Iran, according to what retired Israeli General Moshe Yaalon said.
Dr. Dore Gold, a specialist in American affairs who worked as an American diplomat in Israel, mentioned in the same book that in 2008, after the failure of the Bush administration’s efforts to achieve a new peace, the Arab Gulf states were not interested in speaking with the then US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice.
The Arab countries wanted to know what Washington would do to stop Iranian expansion in the region, meaning that Iran was a priority for them, not the peace process, according to the book.
American efforts continued until September 2020, when the administration of US President Donald Trump adopted what is known today as the Abraham Accords Declaration, which was signed by the UAE, Bahrain, and Israel to normalize relations with Israel.
Trump said, “Israel, the Emirates, and Bahrain will establish mutual embassies and work together, and this will open the door for Muslims to pray in Jerusalem,” noting that this agreement is the first peace agreement with Israel and Arab countries after more than a quarter of a century, pointing out his expectation that other countries will normalize relations later.
Since the middle of this year, the United States has sought to normalize relations between Israel and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which has political weight among the Arab countries, but the events of the “Al-Aqsa Flood” and its repercussions have hampered these efforts.
Syria is in the eye of the storm
On October 9, two days after the start of Operation “Al-Aqsa Flood,” Yedioth Ahronoth said that Israel had sent a warning to the Lebanese Hezbollah via France that it would strike Damascus, similar to the strikes it directed against the Lebanese southern suburbs, if it intervened in the war. The Israeli warning also included that the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, and his regime “will be in danger.”
The same threats are not strange to the Syrian regime, as it was previously exposed to similar threats in 2018, and American threats came from former US President Donald Trump in September 2020, saying that he was about to assassinate al-Assad, but his Minister of Defense prevented that.
The Syrian regime’s official activity was limited to five phone calls made by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Faisal Mekdad, with his counterparts in “friendly” countries, during which he condemned the Israeli escalation in Palestine, and three more phone calls made by the President of the regime, Bashar al-Assad, with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and another phone call with his Iranian counterpart and a phone call with the President of the UAE.
The Syrian regime held Israel and its Western allies responsible for the escalation and called for it to stop, in addition to Arab meetings attended by Mekdad in this regard, during which he presented the same speech.
With the bombing of the Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in Gaza, in which nearly 500 people were killed, the Syrian Foreign Ministry announced a three-day mourning period, during which flags were flown at half-mast on Syrian territory and in embassies and diplomatic bodies outside it.
Borders and airports
Three days after the “Al-Aqsa Flood,” the Israeli artillery targeted various sites in southern Syria between the Daraa and Quneitra governorates against the backdrop of shells being launched from Syrian territory towards the occupied Golan Heights.
The Israeli army spokesman, Avichay Adraee, said on the social media platform X that the launching of mortar shells was detected from within Syrian territory towards Israel, and they apparently landed in open areas.
Adraee added in a separate post that the Israeli forces responded with artillery shelling and mortar fire towards the sources of the fire inside Syrian territory.
A source in southern Syria told Reuters that a Palestinian faction had fired three rockets toward Israel.
On October 12, Israel targeted Aleppo and Damascus international airports with simultaneous missile raids, which led to their airstrips being damaged and out of service.
Two days later, Israeli aircraft again targeted Aleppo International Airport with an attack that put it out of service again, and then the two airports returned to work.
Commenting on the bombing of the two international airports, the regime’s Defense Ministry said that the “aggression” is part of the ongoing approach to supporting “extremist terrorist groups that the Syrian army is fighting in the north of the country.”
The statement added that the “Syrian Army” will continue to pursue and strike groups in northern Syria “until the country is cleansed of them” in response to the Israeli bombing.
American bases under fire
On October 19, the al-Tanf garrison on the Syria-Iraq border and the Koniko base, east of Deir Ezzor, where the US-led International Coalition forces are stationed, witnessed explosions believed to be the result of targeting from an unknown source, according to Enab Baladi’s local correspondent.
The US Department of Defense also announced that its military bases in Syria and Iraq were subjected to several drone attacks.
The official spokesman for the Pentagon, General Pat Ryder, said in a press conference on October 19 that early in the morning of Wednesday, the 18th of the same month, Syrian time, the al-Tanf base in Syria was targeted by two drones.
US and coalition forces engaged and destroyed one drone, according to Ryder, while the other drone crashed into the base, causing coalition forces to sustain minor injuries.
A statement issued by the US Central Command (Centcom) on October 18 said that the US army “defended against three drones” that targeted its forces in Iraq.
Mustafa al-Nuaimi, scholar and expert in Iranian affairs, believes that targeting American bases in the region is an available option against escalation in Gaza, as Iran has broad influence and has the element of surprise and shock to American bases in eastern Syria, on the Iranian corridor.
Al-Assad between Abu Dhabi and Tehran
There were warnings from the US administration to al-Assad not to engage in the war, conveyed by the UAE, which normalized its relations with Damascus and also has relations with Tel Aviv and Washington.
Will the regime bargain for money?
Andrew J.Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in a brief analysis that to restrict Iran’s options and avoid expanding the scope of the crisis resulting from the conflict across Syria, Washington must send a direct warning to Bashar al-Assad not to enter the war and to restrain the Iranian militias along the Golan borders.
Tabler expected that the regime would exploit Abu Dhabi’s mediation in the crisis it is experiencing to demand more advance funds from the Arab Gulf states, which had previously made concessions to al-Assad without return.
The Gross Senior Fellow in the Linda and Tony Rubin Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute believes that sanctions on the regime in Syria should not be eased in any way without obtaining clear evidence that it restricts the options available to Iran in the face of Israel, Jordan, and other allies of the United States in the region.
The Syrian regime was moving in continuous steps to achieve Arab and regional normalization more than a decade after the start of the Syrian revolution, and was able to restore relations with the Emirates and Bahrain, and also regained its seat in the Arab League, and the regime’s president, Bashar al-Assad, attended the recent Jeddah Summit, amid efforts to resume all relations with Saudi Arabia.
Can Iran’s key ally make a U-turn?
In the absence of the possibility of refuting the hypothesis of al-Assad’s bargaining with Abu Dhabi, his strong relations with Tehran and its penetration into many aspects of the Syrian state, especially security and military, cannot be ignored.
Tehran asserts its presence in Syria and Lebanon through a group of militias supported by it, most notably Hezbollah and factions of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, and it owns 570 military sites in Syria.
If a clash occurs with militias on Syrian territory, it will be more fertile ground for conflict than Lebanon, according to Iranian affairs researcher Mustafa al-Nuaimi, because it has been an area of open operations for 12 years, and there are international forces still there.
Israel also does not want to open a front or incursion from the Lebanese side because it will place many of the settlements under sources of Hezbollah fire and attacks.
Siba Abdul-Latif, a research assistant fellow at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, told Enab Baladi that Iran’s tools in the region that may target Israeli security cannot be ignored despite the lack of strong evidence indicating Iran’s direct involvement between Hamas and Israel.
Abdul-Latif added that Tehran does not want a direct war with Israel and will rely on its local militias that have been strengthened since 2017 and operate within the Syrian regime forces. Iran may also intervene indirectly through Hezbollah, pointing out that most of Iran’s movements were for political purposes.
Iranian military intervention in the conflict would not be in the interest of the Syrian regime, as it is going through a recovery phase and needs the international and material support provided by Tehran. Therefore, it would not be a good idea for an ally like Iran to be preoccupied with another file, especially at this time when the regime’s other ally, Russia, is also in an unstable situation due to the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Siba Abdul-Latif – A Research Assistant Fellow at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies
Dr. Ahmed Atawneh, Director of the Vision Center for Political Development, believes that Syria cannot change its position on the map of alliances in the region, as it cannot leave the umbrella of the forces supported by Iran.
Atawneh attributed this to the fact that the Syrian regime is aware that it is still living in an unstable period, open to all possibilities, especially with the presence of many regional and international powers on its territory, which makes it difficult to move from one square to another.
What is the future of the region?
Muhannad Salloum, a specialist in government security policies, believes that the decision to expand the scope of confrontations in the region and to extend them to neighboring countries in terms of governmental or non-governmental entities supported by Iran is “a completely Iranian decision.”
Salloum added that the collapse of the Syrian regime, or the threat of the presence of militias such as the Lebanese Hezbollah or others in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, will not threaten the entire “axis of resistance and opposition,” given that Iran constitutes the center of this axis.
On the other hand, Iran’s involvement in a confrontation that threatens its existence would constitute a danger to the axis in general, for the same reasons which Tehran cannot allow.
The researcher believes that Iran relies on the “threat of escalation” strategy, but this threat can also be interpreted as a direct escalation, and it can be dealt with on this basis.
Target for a target
Muhammad Abadi, a researcher in international relations and Middle East affairs, believes that the limit of escalation between Hezbollah and Israel will be limited in the first stage to the Shebaa Farms and the Kafr Shuba Hills, which are occupied Lebanese lands, target for target, bombing for bombing.
He told Enab Baladi that this is an option that suits both parties, as Israel does not want to open two fronts, and Hezbollah has internal complications that prevent it from engaging in a destructive war, except under extreme pressure.
Dr. Atawneh ruled out direct Iranian involvement in a confrontation with Israel and the United States, considering that intervention remains dependent on the extent of Israel’s persistence and escalation on the ground.
The director of the Vision Center for Political Development told Enab Baladi that the talk revolves more around the intervention of Hezbollah and some Iranian-backed groups in various Arab countries, whether in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq.
He pointed out that the United States could interpret the intervention of these groups as Iranian involvement, and thus, the Israeli alliance could respond to Iran.
Analyst Abadi believes that Iran’s diplomatic efforts will continue along two paths. The first is traditional, which is to join Arab-Turkish efforts to establish a truce or ceasefire and send humanitarian aid.
The second Iranian path is based on Tehran’s international allies, such as Russia and China, to work towards calm by exploiting their weight in the United Nations in order to balance the American rush to return to the Middle East, which will affect the interests of these countries in the region.
This path is based on supplying Russia with more weapons, such as missiles and drones, to intensify pressure on the Ukrainian front, which may reduce the American focus on the Middle East.
However, in the end, Iran will not, under any circumstances, engage in a battle against Israel, even if it requires sacrificing an agent here or there.
Bilal Salaymeh, a scholar in international relations, believes that the American administration, the Iranian regime, and Hezbollah are not interested in escalation or entering into a direct confrontation.
Salaymeh believes that the messages sent by Hezbollah are a type of controlled escalation or escalation under control by allowing the targeting of the Shebaa Farms, which are originally Lebanese lands.
The scholar told Enab Baladi that the American statements that Iran was not involved or planning the “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood” indicate that Washington does not want Iran to get involved in this war.
He explained that the leaking of this information from the American side was a message to Iran, indicating that Washington is not interested in escalation, pointing out that the US aircraft carriers that arrived in the eastern Mediterranean were also a message of deterrence.
On the ground
Middle East affairs analyst Muhammad Abadi believes that full involvement in the war will depend on the results of the ground invasion and the extent of Hamas’ ability to repel and disrupt Israeli forces.
According to Abadi, inspiration can be drawn from the experience of Hezbollah in 2006, which stopped the ground invasion in Wadi Hujair in what was known at the time as the “Merkava Cemetery.” Despite the open geographical nature of Gaza, which represents an additional burden in the confrontation, the tunnel networks and street warfare may be Hamas’s bet to repeat Hezbollah’s experience in 2006.
The American news site Axios, citing American officials (which it did not name), said that “Hezbollah joining the war would dramatically escalate the Middle East’s worst conflict in decades — raising the likelihood of mass civilian casualties in Israel and Lebanon and possibly drawing in the U.S.”
Axios said that the “Israeli military — now focused mostly on Gaza — would have a significantly more difficult time fighting on two fronts simultaneously while missiles rain down on its bases and Israel’s population centers.”
Given the risks surrounding the Syrian regime in this regard, the chances of it entering into any military confrontation in support of the Palestinian resistance, on which the political regime’s discourse has always been based, have decreased.
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