On October 5, 2023, a drone attack of unidentified origin killed dozens of people at a military ceremony in Homs triggering a very violent retaliatory response by the Assad regime and its allies that, up to this moment, have been bombing the Idlib and Aleppo provinces. These savage retaliatory attacks have not been justified by any evidence and have killed many civilians and destroyed buildings and infrastructure.
“we’re witnessing one of the worst Middle Eastern and world crises of the last 50 years”
A few days ago, the world woke up to the news of Hamas launching an unprecedented attack on Israel that has so far caused the death of over 700 Israelis and has given way to a massive counteroffensive that risks causing the loss of thousands of Palestinians. It’s a war that could potentially involve other countries and whose outcome is still unpredictable. It is not unrealistic to state with a degree of certainty that we’re witnessing one of the worst Middle Eastern and world crises of the last 50 years. In a global world in which the fight for hegemony, power, and influence has become increasingly tight and ruthless, these two events can hardly be seen as coincidental and the reading key might be found not only in Iranian-Israeli-American relationships but also in the role Iran wishes to play in the region and in the world.
“The Suwayda demonstrations, whose dual purpose includes vehemently protesting against Iranian occupation, seem, at face value, to have been welcomed with favor by the US”
The last months in Syria
Last Spring, the US started getting more visibly involved in Syria. For the first time in years, the American base of Al Tanf facilitated and assisted in the delivery of humanitarian aid by the Syrian Emergency Task Force in Rukban Camp, and allowed the possibility of providing the camp with long-term assistance, thus de facto changing an almost 10-year long situation of extreme fatigue and dispossession. At the same time, the exchange of fire between the Syrian army and revolutionary groups intensified in the North West, whereas Arab tribes started an uprising against the SDF in the North East. In the south, the Druze population of Suwayda reignited their protests against the Assad regime due to the harsh economic and life conditions. These daily protests, especially on Fridays, which witness a large participation of women, have been growing in number and intensity in the past few weeks. The Suwayda demonstrations, whose dual purpose includes vehemently protesting against Iranian occupation, seem, at face value, to have been welcomed with favor by the US as the amicable interactions that occurred between the Druze sheiks supporting the protests and a few American political figures appear to confirm.
The base of Al Tanf
It was, however, the “observation” of the movement around Al Tanf base that sparked curiosity. Located in the Syrian desert at the crossroads with Iraq and Jordan, the American base of Al Tanf has not only played an important role in counter-ISIS operations since 2016 but sits on the highway connecting Damascus to Baghdad. Not far from Al Tanf, beyond the 55 km deconfliction zone set by the US, lies a plethora of Iran-backed forces controlling checkpoints in the area.
“allowing the entry of aid to Rukban might have been seen as a way for America to reaffirm the legitimacy of its presence and for the fighters”
During 2023, the already tense Iranian–American relations have been progressively deteriorating. Iran’s recent provision for Russian drones to use in Ukraine has certainly not been welcomed with favor in Washington. In addition to that, throughout the whole year, Iranian officials have been calling for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syrian soil. In August, Iran’s UN envoy told the Security Council that “Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity persistently endure grave violations, stemming from both the occupation of certain areas by illegal foreign forces and aggressions by the Israeli regime and terrorist groups.”
Therefore, besides being a necessary and long-awaited humanitarian operation, allowing the entry of aid to Rukban might have been seen as a way for America to reaffirm the legitimacy of its presence and for the fighters inhabiting the camp with their families a way to contribute in containing the advance of Iranian militias in the area.
The nuclear threat
Many elements seem to suggest that the latest developments in the Middle East have a lot to do with Iran, Iranian–American relations, and consequentially with the Iranian–Israeli proxy war that for many years has revolved around the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons that might potentially annihilate the state of Israel. It is for this reason that in the last 10 years, Israel has conducted many attacks on Iranian sites in Syria. Since the 1980s, Israel has on two occasions acted probably alone to destroy its enemies’ nuclear reactors: In Iraq in 1981, and in 2007 in Syria. Iran has always vowed revenge for these attacks.
Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) hasn’t made things any better. In making the deal with the JCPOA Iran had agreed to dismantle much of its nuclear program and open its facilities to more extensive international inspections. As a consequence of Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, and as a form of retaliation for his killing of Qasem Soleimani, Iran has since resumed its nuclear activities. On September 21, the website Iranian Watch declared that: “Iran’s nuclear program has reached the point at which, within three weeks, [it] might be able to enrich enough uranium for five fission weapons.”
“some Syrians claimed to have seen Iranian reconnaissance planes flying nearby. Some have even gone so far as to state that the drone attack might be Iran’s retaliation for Bashar Assad’s trip to China”
Joint military exercises
It is not by chance then, that Israel and the US have been deepening their security cooperation and conducting some of their biggest joint military exercises this past summer. As stated on the website of the US Department of Defense, Operation “Juniper Oak integrated U.S. and Israeli fifth-generation fighter assets […] and integrated unmanned aerial vehicles, strategic bombers, jet fighters, and precision fires.”
In light of this piece of information, what is now happening in Syria and Gaza seems like the culmination of a series of tensions between Iran, and the alliance of Israel and the US. The day the military academy in Homs was hit, some Syrians claimed to have seen Iranian reconnaissance planes flying nearby. Some have even gone so far as to state that the drone attack might be Iran’s retaliation for Bashar Assad’s trip to China. According to these rumors, Assad is trying to distance himself from Iran because of the Suwayda protests.
In the case of Hamas’ attack on Israel, the coordination with Iran has been openly declared. Iran is sending Israel and the region a clear message. While trying to prove to Israel its supposed superiority, Iran is also striving to show other countries that it has the upper hand in the region. Presenting themselves as the defenders of the Palestinian cause and of Al Aqsa Mosque, Iran and its allies (mainly Hamas and Hezbollah) are sanctioning their dominance in the region, especially in comparison with Saudi Arabia, which was instead ready to secure an agreement with Israel thus setting themselves up to be depicted as a traitor of Islamic values due to the accommodations they have made.
“many free Syrians who condemn the bombing of Idlib but for whom the Palestinian struggle remains the mother of all struggles, are also celebrating the Hamas attacks”
A matter of conscience
Regardless of all the aforementioned possibilities, one thing is sure: In Damascus, the bombings of Idlib are being celebrated as a victory just like the launching of rockets and the killing of Israelis by Hamas. On the other hand, many free Syrians who condemn the bombing of Idlib but for whom the Palestinian struggle remains the mother of all struggles, are also celebrating the Hamas attacks.
We live in a world in which freedom causes are not always compatible and it is heart-wrenching to acknowledge that those who are in these hours celebrated as ‘heroes’ of Palestinian resistance are allied with the same groups that for years have been actively engaged in slaughtering Syrians without hesitation. This clearly poses a problem of conscience and cognitive dissonance that is not easily circumventable. It’s the clash between the heart and the mind, between an insuppressible sense of justice and the harshness of cold facts, between the solidarity of brotherhood and the sense of self-preservation. It is, in the end, a personal choice that none of us can judge provided it’s made with awareness.