Op-edIran tries to sow discord between the US and Israel

Beyond Israel’s borders: Iran runs amok as Israel’s neighbors continue to face crises

In this round-up of current challenges facing the Mideast, Iran attacks Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan while Lebanon’s leadership calls for peace – but is unable to control Hezbollah

Ksenia Svetlova

Executive Director ROPES (Regional Organization For Peace, Economics & Security); Senior non-resident fellow Atlantic Council; former member of Knesset (Hatnua)

A civil defense team carries out search and rescue operations in a damaged building following a missile strike launched by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on Arbil, Iraq, on January 17, 2024. (Safin HAMID / AFP)
A civil defense team carries out search and rescue operations in a damaged building following a missile strike launched by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on Arbil, Iraq, on January 17, 2024. (Safin HAMID / AFP)

Iran showed off its military capabilities last week by attacking Iraq and Syria before moving on to Pakistan with little concern for retaliation or escalation from any military force.

While Pakistan responded by recalling its ambassador from Tehran and attacked targets in the Islamic Republic’s territory on Thursday, Syria would not dare react in any way because of its dependency on Iranian aid to the government for the civil war. The same is true for Iraq where protests were held by activists in the country calling to boycott Iranian products, but the nation is still reliant on Iran in many ways.

Last week, there were also reports that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was responsible for attacking Israeli ships in the Red Sea at the beginning of January.

Meanwhile, Iran also tried to sow discord between the United States and Israel. Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Iranian Foreign Minister Hussein Amir Abdollahian said that Israel was holding the US hostage and that if Israel kept its distance, Iran would be more likely to reach a good deal with the US regarding nuclear weapons.

Iran seems to believe that the US is not interested in expanding the war between Hamas and Israel beyond Gaza and that the US wants to prevent it from reaching Lebanon where the US is warning Israel against expansive military operations against Hezbollah. Regarding Yemen, the 11-country coalition set up by the US is aimed at safeguarding ships from being attacked by Houthis and is working carefully to contain rising tensions in the Red Sea.

With the absence of a credible “responsible adult” who can threaten Tehran with a war that will end the Islamic regime — or at least significantly damage its infrastructure — Iran is free to provoke Israel, its Arab neighbors, and other countries like Pakistan or even the US.

Houthi fighters and tribesmen stage a rally against the US and UK strikes on Houthi-run military sites near Sanaa, Yemen, on Sunday, January 14, 2024. (AP Photo)

It seems like no one in the world currently has a solution for Iran as it continues to enrich uranium and race toward a nuclear bomb, while doing its best to maintain its proxy in Gaza in the form of Hamas, which the Islamic regime has funded and trained for years.

Lebanon: High-stakes diplomatic efforts

As Israel continues to fight its war in the South against Hamas while simultaneously holding off and responding to attacks from Hezbollah in the North, Lebanese interim Prime Minister Najib Mikati told Arab interviewers at the Economic Forum at Davos last week that he and his nation are “choosing peace,” adding that “everyone loses in war, and everyone gains in peace.”

In other interviews, Mikati praised Hezbollah, who he said was being “wise,” in a supposed attempt to convince the world that there is a chance for diplomacy in Lebanon and that a war with Israel leading to severe irreversible damage can be prevented.

Before these interviews, Mikati had sent a letter to the United Nations in which he stated that his country is willing to apply Resolution 1701 which states that only the Lebanese army is allowed to be active in the south of Lebanon.

Senior Adviser to US President Joe Biden, Amos Hochstein, left, meets with Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, in Beirut, Lebanon, January 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

However, Hezbollah, which is not Lebanon’s military, has consistently violated the terms of the resolution. Since October 8, a day after Hamas went on a killing spree in southern Israel, Hezbollah has engaged in cross-border fire on a near-daily basis, launching rockets, drones and missiles at northern Israel in a campaign it says is in support of Hamas.

The attacks forced most residents within several kilometers of the border to evacuate. Israel has responded with its own strikes on Hezbollah targets and has warned it will not be able to tolerate the terrorists’ continued presence on the border.

The problem is that Mikati, who is unable to control Hezbollah, cannot ensure the application of the resolution, and Lebanon’s lack of a president makes the situation all the more complex. After former president Michel Aoun ended his term in October 2022, the country found itself facing a power vacuum as more than 10 rounds of voting in over a year have failed to produce a clear winner between Hezbollah-backed Sleiman Frangieh and Jihad Azour, who is the favorite amid Hezbollah’s opposition.

A diplomatic resolution between Israel and Hezbollah would likely require the involvement of a Lebanese president who could get Hezbollah to withdraw from the South of Lebanon. For this to be achieved, a president would have to be elected who isn’t reliant on Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s support and has widespread public approval.

Even then, Hezbollah would be unlikely to withdraw further than the Litani River, which runs parallel to and 29 k.m. (18 miles) from the Israeli border, but as American negotiator Amos Hochstein suggested, the terrorist organization would likely opt for 7-8 k.m. (4-5 miles) away from the border.

An IDF soldier wearing a patch on the back of his flack jacket showing Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah as a target, stands in front of an artillery howitzer in Upper Galilee in northern Israel on January 4, 2024. (jalaa marey / AFP)

At the moment, however, even this achievement seems to be impossible for the foreseeable future, and in the meantime, Hezbollah’s attacks on Israel are preventing tens of thousands of Israelis from returning to their homes up north.

Gaza: Palestinians must pay a fortune to leave

Meanwhile, many Palestinians in Gaza are also desperate to get out of the line of fire as the Israel-Hamas war wages on, and according to a Bloomberg report, they are forced to sell all their belongings, take out loans, and pay thousands of dollars to Egyptian smugglers and Hamas to leave Gaza. Some of them are even using crowdsourcing websites to be able to afford the exorbitant prices.

Even in peacetime, leaving Gaza through the Egyptian Rafah comes at a high price. Many Gazans have said they have had to bribe Hamas officials for a permit to leave. To get out of Gaza, the residents need a foreign passport, an entry visa to the US or one of the Arab countries, and influence that could help get them and their families onto lists that are approved by Hamas, Egypt, Israel, or the US.

Palestinians in Gaza peer through the border fence with Egypt, in Rafah, on January 14, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

One of the people who had no trouble getting the required approvals is Wael Dahdouh, one of the senior reporters at the Qatari publication Al-Jazeera. At the beginning of the war, Dahdouh’s wife and some of his kids were killed in Israeli airstrikes, and about a week ago, another son, who was seemingly a Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist, was also killed.

Dahdouh was able to cross the border to Egypt last week and was flown from there to Qatar. In the eyes of the Gazan public, Dahdouh is a hero who lost his family to the struggle against Israel.

For years, Al-Jazeera has been a Hamas mouthpiece in Gaza and has even aided the terrorist organization in spreading its propaganda and gaining support, both within the Strip and from outside of it. Today, while many Gazans are trapped there and are suffering the consequences of Hamas’s war, Dahdouh gets special treatment and has been flown to Qatar while many others, who also lost their families and suffered injuries, cannot fund the means to get themselves out and have no choice but to stay.

Syria: Farmers are forced to leave the fields

In Syria, civil war and ISIS are forcing farmers to leave their land alongside climate-related issues like heatwaves, and drought. Since the civil war began in Syria in 2011, the rural population in the country has been reduced by half.

Many of them have become refugees and escaped from Syrian President Bashar Assad’s army or ISIS terrorists. Others have been forced to neglect their agricultural work as conditions of heavy heat and decreasing rain have made farming unbearable.

Drought and low water levels in the Euphrates River in the western countryside of Tabqa in Syria’s Raqqa governorate, on November 22, 2022. (Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP)

The Raqqa area in the northern part of Syria has always been considered the country’s bread basket. Now, many farmers are abandoning their families’ fields because of the severe neglect and a lack of investment from the ruling regime as well as a lack of water and quality pesticides among other difficulties.

Many of the farmers are leaving their villages and moving to the big cities and they usually do not come back. Meanwhile, the West has slapped many sanctions on Syria, and as long as Assad and his regime continue to control the country, they will not be canceled. Therefore, Syria needs more domestic industry to support its people.

However, because of the sanctions, it cannot import the machines needed to aid the farmers in dealing with climate change. The politics in Syria are stalling the farmers and will eventually lead to a rise in the cost of living and maybe even famine in the destroyed country that is ruled by a cruel dictator.

The writer, a former member of Knesset, is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council and executive director of ROPES. Times of Israel staff contributed to this report. 

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