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The Region:  Special Passover, Ramadan, and Easter Edition, April 11, 2023

By Rania Kisar and Joel Rayburn 

  1. Holy Days Bring War to the Levant

The high days of Ramadan, Passover, and Easter this year brought regional military clashes not seen since 2006.  For three days last week, the Iranian regime–via its major militia proxies–entered into a series of strikes and counter-strikes with Israel on Lebanese, Palestinian, and Syrian territory.  The exchanges eventually wound down by April 8, but they left the region with fears that a broader regional conflict could erupt at any time.

The military clashes occurred against a backdrop of two stories:  the Israeli-Palestinian confrontations at the Al Aqsa mosque and the intensifying Israeli campaign against Iranian regime military targets in Syria. It is unfortunately not unusual for Ramadan to bring fierce clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinian worshipers. Although this year’s confrontations at Al Aqsa have been far more intense than normal, it is unprecedented for such clashes in Jerusalem to expand and include military strikes from neighboring countries. 

The Iranian-Israeli battlefront in Syria has been heating up since the beginning of the year but boiling over in recent weeks (For a fuller picture, see the Interactive Table of Israeli Strikes on 29 Iranian Targets in Syria, Jan-Apr 4, 2023). The most recent Israeli strikes on Iranian military sites in Syria destroyed seven IRGC-associated military bases, three defense systems and radars, and two warehouses for missile precision chips and ammunition.

Along with this infrastructure, the Israelis struck one moving target, later identified as Iran’s top long-range missile expert, who was hit on his way to a meeting in the Assad regime’s national security intelligence headquarters in Damascus.

It is clear now that Tehran saw a need to respond to this Israeli bombing campaign regardless of the events that unfolded at Al Aqsa. On April 5, 2023, Iran sent a letter to the United Nations Security Council and the UN Secretary-General, warning that Iran will not hesitate to act against Israeli threats and attacks. In addition, Iran’s leader Khamenei made public statements on Twitter encouraging a Palestinian uprising and said that he had received a report of Palestinians carrying out 27 attacks inside Israel (see the ACLS April 6 IRAN-LEBANON-ISRAEL CRISIS UPDATE). On the same day, clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian worshipers escalated at the Al Aqsa mosque. Arabic media broadcast images of Israeli officers beating females, firing tear gas, forcing Palestinian worshipers to leave the Al-Aqsa mosque, and escorting Israeli worshipers to Passover prayers. At the same time, from Lebanon, during a meeting with Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah, Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh said Hamas would not stay idle amidst the Al Aqsa Mosque crisis.

Haniyeh’s threat came shortly after IDF chief General Halevi warned Tehran that Israel was prepared to respond against any aggressive move, even if it meant striking Iran directly and without US support if necessary (The Early Phoenix, April 5). Iran’s commander of the Iranian Army, General Abdolrahim Mousavi, mocked Halevi’s statement by saying that Israel is “too tiny to be regarded as a danger” to the Islamic Republic and cautioning Israeli officials not to “hasten the demise of the Israeli regime.”

On the day of Passover, April 6, Hamas fired 34 rockets into Northern Israel, using firing points from areas in far south Lebanon under Hizballah’s control.  Israel’s Iron Dome intercepted twenty-five of the 34, but the barrage was still the most intense flare-up between Israel and Lebanon since 2006. 

Political statements quickly followed the rocket attack. Fars News, an Iranian regime media platform, reported that the Palestinian Islamic Jihad Movement endorsed the missile strikes. Jordan’s foreign minister, meanwhile, called the Lebanese border strikes on Israel a reaction to the Al-Aqsa clashes.  The following day, Turkish President Erdogan also seemed to blame Israel’s actions at Al Aqsa for the escalating military situation.  In a phone call with Iranian President Raisi on April 7, Erdogan told his Iranian counterpart that the “Islamic world should be united against Israel’s attacks in Palestine.”

Later on the evening of April 6, Israel’s military retaliated by conducting air strikes on Hamas targets in Gaza and southern Lebanon (The Early Phoenix, April 6). Although it is implausible that Hizballah was not involved in the decision for Hamas to launch such a provocative attack from Hizballah’s territory, the Israelis chose not to include Hizballah targets in Lebanon in their military response, though they did strike Iranian targets in Syria on the night of the 6th.

On the third Friday of Ramadan, April 7, 130,000 Palestinians prayed in the Al-Aqsa Mosque despite the alleged Israeli aggression. Later that evening, Prime Minister Netanyahu mobilized Israeli police and army reserves after a Palestinian from central Israel with no previous criminal record rammed a car into a group of tourists, killing an Italian citizen and wounding five others in Tel Aviv.

Among the targets hit by Israel on the night of April 6 were two Iranian military sites in Damascus and Homs. In response, forces presumably associated with Iran launched three rockets from Syria toward Israeli-held territory on Saturday evening, April 8:  the Iron Dome defenses intercepted one, the second fell in empty fields south of the Golan Heights, and the third in Jordan. Whether by design or accident, the fact that these strikes did no damage to Israel gave room for the real crisis to wind down. In the final strikes in the series of exchanges, Israel carried out more strikes at around 5 am on Sunday on two Iranian military sites and radars near Damascus. 

The military escalation repaired the rifts within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet that seemed just days ago to threaten the fall of the government. Faced with a serious external threat, the fractious Israeli government joined ranks. On Monday, Netanyahu announced that he was fully reinstating Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, a step that hundreds of thousands of Israeli protesters had taken to the streets to demand just two weeks ago.  

  1. The Supreme Leader’s Geopolitical Maneuvers:  Breaking the Israeli-Gulf Arab Front, with China’s Backing

While Iranian proxies were attacking Israel on one side of the Middle East, the Iranian regime was winning a diplomatic achievement on the other side. On the same day that missiles were launched from southern Lebanon, the Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers were in Beijing to formalize the normalization agreement between the two countries brokered by China.  

Building on the Beijing deal, Riyadh and Tehran are taking steps to defuse tensions between them.  Preparations for reopening embassies between Iran and Saudi are moving along, and leaders from the two countries are expected to meet in Mecca before the end of Ramadan next week. In addition, Iranian officials ordered the removal of a provocative street signpost outside the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. The Iranians several years ago renamed the street on which the embassy lies in honor of Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, a Shia cleric and critic of the Saudi government, who was beheaded in Riyadh in 2016.

These steps have extended to the conflict in Yemen, which has been the most significant tension between Iran and the Saudis.  After over eight years of war, Saudi officials visited Sana’a this Sunday to begin formal peace talks with the Houthis. The Saudi-led coalition military lifted restrictions on imports headed for Yemen’s southern ports less than 72 hours after the Iranians and Saudis met in Beijing. Iran’s foreign ministry announced its blessing for an open-ended ceasefire in Yemen. 

Despite the public spectacle of Saudi-Houthi meetings in Yemen, it is not clear that the Iranians mean to settle the Yemen conflict on any terms but their own.  The Chinese-brokered deal nearly collapsed before the ink dried when the Houthis unleashed a barrage of drone and missile attacks on one of Saudi Arabia’s liquefied natural gas plants and another Yemeni city, Marib, just days after the Saudi-Iranian meetings in China.

In actuality, Tehran’s normalization deal with Riyadh is less an opening to a peace deal in Yemen or the region than it is a deft maneuver by Supreme Leader Khamenei to block the emergence of an Israeli-Gulf strategic alliance against him. By punching Israel with one arm and embracing Riyadh with the other, Khamenei is demonstrating that he is free and emboldened to pursue an aggressive campaign against Israel without Gulf Arab interference. And indeed, as the week ended, the Wall Street Journal reported intel leaks from US officials indicating that Iran aims to carry out attacks in the region soon. 

China was a significant beneficiary of last week’s events, which maximized Beijing’s interests by combining Iranian animosity towards the US with Riyadh’s deepening frustration with the current US administration. But the past week’s events also indicate that Beijing is probably not capable of becoming the Gulf’s security guarantor because the Iranian regime has ambitions that are too grandiose and too threatening to the rest of the region for China to underwrite. As the Times of Israel explained, China’s ally Iran wove a significant achievement out of this week’s bundle of tensions by lowering tensions with Sunni Arab states to focus on building an “anti-Great Satan” (American) axis backed by China. The moment the Gulf states perceive that China is enabling Iranian hegemony at their expense, China’s role as a security interlocutor will be useless for them. This may be the reason that Beijing, citing concern over jeopardizing its frayed ties with Washington, is still unwilling to release Iran’s frozen oil revenues worth between $22 and $30 billion, suggesting that even Tehran’s close ally would not pay back its debts.

  1. The Assad Family Crosses Israel’s Redlines

Following the escalation between Iranian proxies and Israel in both Lebanon and Syria, Israeli media revealed that in an attempt to convey a warning message to Bashar al-Assad for allowing concurrent attacks on Israel from areas under his control, the Israeli military carried out strikes against a site in the Yafour area of north Damascus that serves as the headquarters of the Syrian Army’s 4th division, the unit associated with Bashar’s brother Maher al-Assad.

Though the Assad regime issued no formal statements on the April 6 missile attack launched from Lebanon, regime media provided live coverage detailing alleged Israeli losses. Regime media did not cover Syria’s errant three-missile strike on the Golan Heights, but the regime-associated Al Akhbriya reported on the Israeli retaliatory strikes the next day.

Israeli media noted that Assad is playing a dangerous game by enabling regional instability, with Israel having been attacked three times from Syrian territory in a few days. The first was a drone attack launched on April 1, followed by the last two attacks on April 8 and 9. According to the Jerusalem Post, these incidents prove that the Assad regime continues to foster a plethora of armed groups:  “The regime wants to portray itself as in charge of the country. However, simultaneously, the regime enables instability through incidents like the rocket fire on Saturday night and Sunday morning.” On April 10, Prime Minister Netanyahu stated, “If the Assad regime continues to allow rocket and drone attacks against Israel from its territory, it will pay a heavy price.”

To bolster Assad’s resolve to allow the IRGC to continue to use Syria as an attack base against Israel, the Iranian regime reached out to the Syrian dictator at a senior level.  IRGC Quds Force Commander Ismail Qaani visited Syria, while Assad received a phone call from Iran’s President Raisi. Although the details of Qaani’s visit were not revealed, Iranian media said that Raisi told Assad that signs of collapse appeared within “Zionist society.” 

  1. Turkiye Warns America and the Talabanis in an Attack on America’s Syrian Allies

This week’s second significant Syria-related event was the Turkish drone attack on the commander-in-chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces, Mazloum Abdi, and the head of the Syrian Democratic Council, Ilham Ahmed, at Sulaimaniyah International Airport in Iraq.  The two leaders were traveling in a convoy accompanied by US military personnel when a Turkish drone fired a missile that narrowly missed them. PUK leader Bafel Talabani, who has close ties to Mazloum, accused the rival KDP of conducting an espionage operation leading the Turks to the whereabouts of Mazloum. 

It is also quite possible, however, that the drone strike was intended as a Turkish warning to Talabani himself due to Talabani’s relationship with the SDF.  Ankara’s frustration with Talabani has boiled over in the aftermath of the crash of two helicopters that crashed in Iraqi Kurdistan on March 15 while carrying SDF troops between Sulaymaniyah and Syria. Turkish foreign minister Cavusoglu in a statement on Monday, April 10 claimed Talabani’s PUK had received helicopters from France and given them to “terrorists,” and he also noted that the United States controls the airspace in that region and thus must be aware of these flights. CavasogluInteractive Table said Turkish military operations in Iraq will continue and called upon the Iraqi government to cooperate in joint operations.

For the United States, the Turkish strike against the SDF is part of a combination of rising pressures against the US presence in northeast Syria, coming close on the heels of a series of Iranian-sponsored militia attacks to which the United States responded with airstrikes.  The latest of those Iran-backed attacks came on April 11 when the small US base at the Conoco oil field near Deir ez Zour came under fire by an armed drone.  The US military presence in northeast Syria is therefore under intensifying pressure from both north and south.

  1. Worshipers in Israel, Syria, and Iran

Despite the security tensions and violent surges in Jerusalem and on Israel’s borders, worshipers of all three religions were able to pray in Jerusalem this weekend: thousands of Israelis gathered at the Western Wall, thousands of Christians prayed at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and more than 25 thousand Palestinians prayed the Evening prayers, Tarwih, at the Al Aqsa Mosque. Despite the hardline stances of some of the new Israeli government’s ministers concerning the Temple Mount complex, Israeli media report that the government will maintain the long-held policy of barring Jews from visiting the Temple Mount during the last ten days of Ramadan

In Syria as well, the religious holiday went ahead normally.  Syrian Christians celebrated Easter in several provinces, including Damascus, Aleppo, Qamishli, Latakia, Suwayda, Tartous, Homs, and Al Hasakah

By contrast, the Iranian regime prohibited Iranian Jews from celebrating Passover.  The regime forced Jews instead to join the al-Quds Day demonstrations, an anti-Israeli activity Iran imposes yearly.

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