Additional strikes attributed to Israel were carried out in the area of Damascus and al-Qsair Military Airport west of Homs city. The al-Arabiya TV channel reported that the strikes hit Iranian air defense batteries and bases of Hezbollah’s aeronautics unit, which engages in development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in Lebanon.
A Syrian opposition-affiliated website reported that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) significantly increased the salaries of fighters and civilians serving within the pro-Iranian militias in eastern Syria. This stems from the growing competition between Iran, Russia and local militias in recruiting personnel in the area. Another Syrian report claimed that a delegation of members of pro-Iranian militias and Shia clerics have been recently engaging in efforts to re-open a road between the al-Seyyeda Zainab suburb in southern Damascus, home to a Shia shrine, to a number of towns in the region, in an effort to bolster tourism and real-estate investments in the area.
A Lebanese news website reported, based on a senior Iranian source, that Iran is willing to provide fuel to Lebanon and even prepared a contract that is awaiting the approval of the Lebanese government. However, Lebanon’s leadership is avoiding signing it due to fear of U.S. sanctions.
The Commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force, Esmail Qa’ani, declared during a ceremony in Tehran that Israel is in dire straits, and soon enough, the Palestinians will expel Israel from Palestine. He claimed that on a daily basis, between 40 to 50 operations are carried out against Israel in the West Bank alone and that the “Zionist regime” is under a great deal of pressure.
Iranian Involvement in Syria and Lebanon
On the night of December 19, the Syrian Arab Army reported that the Israeli Air Force launched missiles from a location northeast of the Tiberius Sea toward several positions in the environs of Damascus. According to the Syrian statement, the attack wounded two soldiers and caused damage to infrastructure. The Saudi al-Arabiya TV channel reported (December 20) that the Israeli strikes were aimed against an Iranian air defense battery recently deployed to the area of the Damascus International Airport. According to this report, the attack was carried out shortly after an Iranian cargo plane landed at the Damascus Airport. On December 22, the al-Arabiya channel reported that Israel struck bases of the Aeronautics Unit (Unit 127) of Hezbollah located at the al-Qsair Military Airport, an area bordering on Lebanon that is known to be under the control of Hezbollah. Syrian pro-opposition website reported that the targets hit were a storage facility at military airport in the area of Aqrabah, which has been used by pro-Iranian militias to store advanced weaponry and UAVs. Additionally, a target was hit in the area of Najha on the road leading to the village al-Bahdaliyah (Ayn al-Furat, December 20).
A Syrian opposition-affiliated news website reported that the IRGC significantly increased the monthly salaries of fighters and local civilians serving in the ranks of the pro-Iranian militias in Deir Ezzor governorate. According to this report, the salaries of civilians serving in the militias increased by 100,000 Syrian Pounds and now amount to 490,000 (about $74 at the current black market exchange rate), while the salaries of military personnel serving in the militias was increased by 50,000 pounds and now totals 350,000 Syrian Pounds (about $53). The main reason for the salary increases, the website alleges, is the growing competition between Iran, Russia and local pro-regime militias that are seeking to out-bid each other in recruiting local personnel, including the militia of Hossam al-Qaterji, which controls the trade of fuel from northeastern Syria, and the militia of Muhammad Hamsho, which is closely affiliated with the 4th Division of the Syrian Army (Deir Ezzor 24, December 16).
A Syrian pro-opposition website reported that in recent weeks, a delegation of members of pro-Iranian militias and Shia clerics visited the towns of Babila, Yalda and Beit Sahem south of Damascus. According to this report, the visits were focused on opening a road from the Seyyeda Zainab suburb to the town of Babila, which was shuttered a decade ago after rebels were able to gain control of the three towns during the early years of the civil war. The towns were recaptured by the Assad regime in 2018 after a prolonged siege. The members of the delegation met with the heads of the local councils of the three towns and with other dignitaries in the areas, to discuss the re-opening of the road, for the benefit of the local population, commercial activity, and religious tourism to the Seyyeda Zainab Shrine. The report claimed that traders working with Iran are buying up real estate along the road from Babila to the Seyyeda Zainab Shrine for the purpose of expanding the tourism and real-estate sectors there, with plans to build hotels and housing compounds that would be used by Shia foreign pilgrims visiting the area (Ayn al-Furat, December 21).
On December 18, the Iranian Ambassador to Syria, Mehdi Sobhani, met with the Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Faisal Mekdad. According to the statement of the Iranian embassy, the two discussed relations between the two countries (ISNA, December 19). Meanwhile, the website Middle East News reported (December 18), based on a source within the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that Ambassador Sobhani will soon conclude his term in Damascus, and instead of him, Hossein Akbari will be appointed as Iran’s new ambassador to Syria. Akbari previously served as Iran’s ambassador to Libya and is considered an expert on the Arab world.
On December 25, Amr Nazir Salem, the Syrian Minister of Internal Trade and Consumer Protection, met with a delegation of the Iranian-Syrian Friendship Association, and discussed ways to expand trade between the two countries and establishment of joint investment projects with the participation of the Ministry of Internal Trade and the Friendship Association. Both sides agreed to create mechanisms at the start of the next year to complete the steps needed to carry out joint investment project. These steps are intended to bolster cooperation in the economic, trade and investment fields between the two countries. Prior to this, the Prime Minister of Syria, Hussein Arnous, met with Hassan Akhtari, the Chairman of the Iranian-Syrian Friendship Association, and discussed ways to expand economic, trade, cultural and societal ties between the two countries, to be able to face the challenges and economic sanctions imposed on both countries (IRNA, December 25).
A delegation of Syrian media personalities, headed by the Syrian Deputy Information Minister and Head of the Syrian Film Fund, Ahmed Dhawa, met in Tehran with the Iranian Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Mohammad Mehdi Esmaili, and discussed expanding cooperation between the two countries in the media sphere. The Iranian minister of Islamic guidance stressed the importance of cooperation between the two nations, especially in light of the campaign he alleged is being waged by Western media against Iran and Syria. The members of the delegation also met with the Iranian Deputy Minister of Culture for Cinematic Affairs, Mohammad Khazaei, and discussed ways to cooperate in joint production of films and TV shows (SANA, December 24).
The Lebanese news website al-Nashra published a report (December 19) based on a senior Iranian source, alleging that Iran is willing to provide fuel to Lebanon, and even prepared a contract awaiting the approval of the Lebanese government, but the government has avoided signing onto it due to fear of American sanctions. According to this report, Iran is prepared to send 600,000 tonnes of fuel to the Lebanese government, and that the issue was handled by the Iranian ambassador to Lebanon. The source also claimed that Iran is not intervening in the election process of the next Lebanese president because it has allies in the country, including Hezbollah and Amal, which know the situation in the country better than Tehran, and make decisions on their own regarding this matter.
Iranian Involvement in Iraq
On December 18, the Director of the Iranian Tourism and Automobile Club, Mohammad Hossein Sougi, met with the Iraqi Ambassador to Tehran, Nasser Abdul Mohsen Abdullah, and discussed ways to decrease the cost of travel by car from Iran to Iraq, and the need to bolster cooperation in the sector of ground transportation. The Iraqi ambassador stated in the meeting that his country is willing to act to decrease the costs for pilgrims visiting Iraq, and to facilitate the movement of travelers between the two countries. The meeting was intended to further measures to encourage tourism and pilgrimage visits between Iraq an Iran (ISNA, December 20).
On December 21, the Iranian Ambassador to Baghdad, Mohammad Kazem Al-e Sadegh, and the Iranian Cultural Attaché in Baghdad, Hojjat-ul-Islam Sholamreza Abazari, met with the Iraqi President, Abdul Latif Rashid. During the meeting, the Iranian representatives gifted the Iraqi president with a copy of a two-volumed book, which includes interviews with senior Iraqi politicians, religious leaders, cultural figures, experts, and commentators, about Qasem Soleimani, the former Commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force, and the leader of the pro-Iranian Shia militias, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who were assassinated in early January 2020 by the United States (IRNA, December 21).
Iranian Involvement in the Palestinian Arena
The Commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force, Esmail Qa’ani, declared during a ceremony commemorating the late Iranian Ambassador to Yemen, Hassan Irlou, that Israel is in a grim state, and the day will soon come when the Palestinians will expel the humiliated Israelis from Palestine. Qa’ani claimed that every day, between 40 to 50 operations are carried out against Israel I the West Bank alone, and that the “Zionist regime” has become hopeless and is under great duress. He added that when Israel and the United States intensify their pressure on Iran, they find themselves under double that pressure (Tasnim, December 20).