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Israel-Iran conflict escalates

What happened: In three days, between Saturday night and early Monday morning, Israeli aircraft reportedly bombed multiple Iranian-affiliated military targets in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, including:

  • A military unit — led and equipped by Iran’s IRGC Quds Force — preparing to launch a “suicide drone” attack on northern Israel from a base near Damascus. Two Hezbollah operatives were reportedly killed in the attack.
  • A media centre in the heart of Beirut’s Dahiyeh neighbourhood, a renowned Hezbollah stronghold
  • A Popular Mobilization Unit (PMU) Shiite militia convoy in Western Iraq. A senior Shiite militia commander was reportedly killed in the attack
  • A base belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC) in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, near the border with Syria. This was purportedly the first direct Israeli strike inside Lebanon since the end of the 2006 Israel-Lebanon War.

Context: Israel has repeatedly made clear its intention to stop Iran and its proxies from building up military bases and importing advanced weapons systems close to Israel’s borders, through what is called in Israeli military circles the “campaign between wars.”

  • Israeli officials have admitted that Israeli aircraft have bombed Iranian affiliated targets inside Syria hundreds of times since 2017. But reports of Israeli attacks on Iranian affiliated Shia militias in Iraq is a relatively recent development and a consequence of Iran’s strategy to send long range missiles to Shia militia bases in Iraq to build up an alternative centre of operations.
  • Iran attempted to directly attack Israel on three separate occasions: In February 2018 with an armed drone flown from an air base in Syria and in May 2018 and January 2019 with missiles fired from Iranian bases in Syria.
  • What is new is the rapid increase in Israeli strikes across three countries and the Israeli willingness to now launch strikes deep inside Lebanon.

Looking ahead: In a fiery speech on Sunday afternoon, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah threatened to retaliate directly against Israel from Lebanon or Syria at the time of his choosing. Israel is taking such threats seriously and the Israel Defence Forces have been placed on high alert. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “We will not tolerate aggression against Israel from any country in the region.” Nasrallah knows that an extensive retaliation could trigger a new, extremely destructive war with Israel. Yet his very public rhetoric about recent events, combined with the pace of Israeli attacks, all point to a significant Hezbollah response that still attempts to keeps things contained.