Economic collapse, social unrest and a global health crisis are pitting Lebanon and Syria into deeper levels of despair. In the latter, the situation worsens as armed conflict persists.
Tehran has entrenched itself in both countries, with its proxy Hezbollah backing the Lebanese government and providing military support to the Syrian regime, a staunch ally of Iran. In addition to Iran's breach of Lebanese and Syrian sovereignty, experts now fear that Israeli provocation and aggression will compound the long list of crises in both countries.
Several incidents in Syria over the last week are suspected to involve Israeli military forces. On Monday, a Hezbollah fighter was killed, along with four other foreign operatives, in an air strike near Damascus airport. The operation is widely believed to be Israel’s doing, although Tel Aviv has refrained, as it usually does in such incidents, from claiming responsibility.
In a separate attack on Friday, however, the Israel Defence Forces confirmed that its helicopters struck Syrian military targets in response to mortars fired towards the occupied Golan Heights.
In a series of threatening videos on social media, followers of Hezbollah have vowed revenge. In one of them, a supporter is seen gazing beyond the Lebanese-Israeli border. “I am picking a house in Palestine,” he tells the person taking the video, hinting at the imminent “liberation” of the country. Other social media users pointed out the irony of seeking to liberate the Palestinian people only to, in effect, occupy their land. This two-faced rhetoric has long been at the core of Iranian expansion in every country country it has sought to dominate. Hezbollah claims it is Lebanon's only line defence against Israeli aggression, and that it seeks to liberate the Shebaa Farms, a disputed territory claimed by the group, but that is historically Syrian. Yet Hezbollah's paramilitary force has undermined the state's authority and jeopardised Lebanon's security.
Tensions have risen at the tri-border area between Lebanon, Syria and Israel – a region that has become increasingly militarised and where Hezbollah has expanded its area of operations. The Israeli army announced on Thursday that it plans to reinforce its presence in the north and has repeatedly breached Lebanese airspace.
Israel has hit pro-Iranian targets in Syria since the early days of Tehran’s intervention in the civil war in support of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. Recently, Tel Aviv has also increased its air strikes in the lead-up to the US presidential election, due to take place in November.
US President Donald Trump is a close ally of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and his strategy of maximum pressure against the Iranian regime and its allies is also in line with Israeli security concerns. However, Mr Trump's political opponent, Joe Biden, seeks a more accommodating approach to Iran in US foreign policy. For instance, Mr Biden wishes to revive the defunct Iranian nuclear deal, from which Mr Trump has withdrawn. The deal has been decried by Arab countries as the agreement allowed Tehran to continue supporting its proxies in the region, while gradually lifting economic sanctions. Should Mr Biden win, Israel may have less American backing for its tough approach towards Iran and its Syrian and Lebanese proxies. It is also no coincidence that increased Israeli strikes in Syria coincide with a gradual withdrawal of US troops from the country over the past year.
Further escalation can only hinder the sovereignty of Arab nations as Iran and Israel settle their differences in Syria and Lebanon. This month, a Hezbollah plot to kidnap an Israeli soldier was uncovered by the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security agency. The failed abduction plan is especially worrying, given that in 2006, the abduction of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah caused a 34-day war in which more than 1,000 Lebanese were killed. The 2006 kidnappings were an attempt to deflect from the findings of a UN investigation into the assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, which pointed to the involvement of the Syrian regime and Hezbollah. The motive behind this month’s abduction plot is a similar desire to draw attention away from Hezbollah’s failings at home.
That Iran’s proxies and allies have been dealt a blow should be cause for cautious optimism. Yet the fact that it is Israel that struck Damascus and its backers brings no relief to Syrians oppressed by their regime. Tel Aviv's actions, much like Tehran's meddling, are both purely driven by their narrow, short-term interests, and only add to the suffering of the Syrian and the Lebanese people.