The Commander of the Qods Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Esmail Qa’ani, arrived in Syria to oversee the Iranian efforts to assist the survivors of the earthquake and held a series of meetings, among them with the governor of Lattakia, and possibly with President Assad as well. Meanwhile, frequent Iranian flights are continuing to reach Syria, with dozens of cargo planes already landing in the earthquake-hit country.
On the night of February 18, Syrian state media reported on Israeli strikes in the area of Damascus, the first such attack since the earthquake affected the country. Iran’s official news agency reported, based on Iranian sources, that no Iranians were harmed in the strike. The spokesman of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the attack and called for a determined international reaction.
On February 14, U.S. forced stationed in Syria shot down an Iranian Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) flying over the Conoco Oil Field where U.S. forces are based in northeastern Syria. The Iranian al-Alam TV channel reported that the UAV was deployed in an effort “to test the defense systems of the enemy.”
In early February, the deputy Iranian foreign minister paid a visit to Beirut, during which he met with senior Lebanese officials and participated in a ceremony inaugurating the new building of the Iranian embassy in Beirut. Additionally, the senior Iranian officials met with the members of Hezbollah’s political council and leaders of Palestinian factions based in Lebanon. He also toured the area of Maroun a-Ras, near the border with Israel.
The Iranian trade attaché to Iraq stated that Iran’s exports to Iraq have persisted despite growing American efforts to restrict the volume of trade between the two countries, in part by imposing conditions on the transfer of dollars from Iraq to Iran. According to him, the volume of Iranian exports to Iraq is set to reach ten billion dollars by the end of the current Iranian year (March 2023).
On February 18, during a meeting with senior regime officials and ambassadors from Muslims countries, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, declared that Iran’s full-throated support for the Palestinians is the main cause of “Iranophobia” in the world. He stressed that Iran will continue to support the Palestinian people and aid them in any way possible.
Iranian Involvement in Syria and Lebanon
The Commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force, Esmail Qa’ani, who arrived for a visit to Aleppo on February 8th to oversee the Iranian aid operation to survivors of the earthquake, reached Lattakia on February 12th. Qa’ani met with the Governor of Lattakia, Amer Ismail Hilal, and other officials in the governorate, and discussed with them the humanitarian assistance provided by Iran to those affected by the quake. Additionally, Qa’ani toured areas impacted by the earthquake (Mehr, February 12). A Syrian opposition outlet reported that during his visit to Syria, Qa’ani also met with the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad. According to this report, whose credibility is unclear, this meeting was also attempted by senior commanders within the Popular Mobilization Units (al-Hashd al-Shaabi), the umbrella organization of pro-Iranian militias in Iraq, headed by Abu Fadak al-Muhammafaqi. According to the report, the meeting was held in the Iranian command center at the Aleppo International Airport (Thiqa Agency, February 13). On February 18, Qa’ani was documented back in Tehran, when he attended the meeting held by the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, with senior Iranian regime officials and ambassadors from Muslim countries on the occasion of a religious holiday (Mashregh News, February 18).
Meanwhile, Iranian cargo flights continue reaching Syria, with over ten such planes landing thus far. On February 14, Iranian media reported on the arrival of the seventh flight carrying humanitarian assistance from Iran to Syria since the major earthquake that affected Turkey and Syria on February 6. The Iranian embassy in Damascus reported that on February 13, the seventh plane carrying aid to survivors of the quake landed in Aleppo. According to the statement, the flight contained 30 tonnes of milk powder, tinned cans, oil and other products. On February 9, the sixths flight carrying aid landed at the Lattakia airport, carrying dates, dried milk, rice, mattresses, and tents (ISNA, February 14). Additional Iranian flights landed in Syria over the past week as well.
On the night of February 18, Syrian state media reported about Israeli airstrikes in the area of Damascus, the first such attack since the earthquake hit the country. An official with the Syrian Ministry of Health reported about the death of at least five people and injury of 15 others (al-Mayadeen, February 19). Heavy damage was caused to buildings in several neighborhoods in Damascus and its environs, including a building in the Kafr Sousseh neighborhood in Damascus. The Iranian state news agency, IRNA, reported (February 19) based on “knowledgeable sources” that no Iranians were harmed in the strikes. The spokesman of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the Israeli strikes and demanded immediate and determined action from the international community and UN Security Council (Tasnim, February 19). On February 21, the Saudi al-Hadath TV channel reported that the Israeli strikes were aimed at a number of sites linked to the former Hezbollah operative, Ali Assaf, who leads a militia established in Syria in 2017 under IRGC tutelage. According to this report, the targets hit included two storage facilities used by the militias, which included missiles transferred from Iran, as well as a logistics base and a large storage site used by the IRGC’s Qods Force, as well as a military site where an antenna was installed for the purpose of intelligence collection. The report also stated that the civilian building damaged in Kafr Sousseh, was hit by an air-to-surface missile fired by an Israeli jet.
A Syrian opposition-affiliated website reported (February 15) that representatives of the construction organization of the IRGC, Khatam al-Anbiya, has been operating in Aleppo since the earthquake and taking over buildings. According to this report, shortly after the earthquake, this corporation began destroying residential buildings in Aleppo’s eastern districts, claiming that they have been damaged by the earthquake and may collapse. The goal is to establish buildings in their stead that would be used by IRGC personnel and pro-Iranian militiamen. According to the report, the Khatam and al-Anbiya office, overseen by the engineer Abdolmohsen Mohammad Reza Zadmard, approached owners of homes that were damaged by the quake, to purchase from them the real estate for much lower sums than their real value. The Iranian organization is also pressuring real estate owners who refuse to sell their property, to enter in a partnership with the organization under a contract that allows the Iranian body to demolish the buildings, reconstruct them and possess them after providing financial compensation to their owners (Nedaa Post, February 15).
The Central Command of the US armed forces (CENTCOM) announced on its Twitter account (February 15) that on February 14, American forces stationed in Syria shot down a UAV made in Iran, which was hovering over the military base at the Conoco Oil field in eastern Syria, where American forces are stationed. The Iranian al-Alam TV channel reported, based on a senior Iranian military adviser based in Syria, that the downed UAV was a small one, deployed to test the defense systems of the enemy. He added that the launch of the UAV achieved all its goals. The speaker sarcastically remarked that the cost of the UAV does not exceed $1,00, while the Americans had to shoot it down using a missile costing hundreds of thousands of dollars (al-Alam, February 15).
On February 7, the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister, Ali Bagheri Kani, arrived for a visit in Beirut during which he met with the Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, Nabih Berri, and participated in a ceremony inaugurating the new building of the Iranian embassy in Beirut. The ceremony was also attended by the President of the Hezbollah parliamentary bloc, Mohammad Raad (al-Alam, February 8). During a press conference with the speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, Bagheri Kani declared that Iran will continue to stand by Lebanon and support its stability and resistance against its enemies. During his visit to Beirut, Bagheri Kani also met with the commanders of Palestinian factions based in Lebanon, and insisted that most of the public in Muslim countries opposes the establishment of ties with “the Zionist regime.” He added that the unity between the Palestinian factions and several Muslim countries ought to become a strategy for the struggle against Israel (SNN.ir, February 8). On February 9, Bagheri Kani visited the office of Hezbollah’s Political Council and met with its members, chief among them its chairman, Ibrahim Amin al-Seyyed, and updated them concerning developments in the nuclear negotiations between Iran and Western powers (Tasnim, February 9).
On February 10, the Iranian deputy foreign minister visited the area of Maroun a-Ras, near the Israeli border, and was given an overview about Hezbollah’s combat against the Israeli Army during the 2006 Lebanon War. He declared that the stability and security of the region depend on the strength of “the resistance.” During the visit, Bagheri Kani planted a tree after the name of Qasem Soleimani, and received a campaign shield from a representative of Hezbollah, which was made from the remains of an Israeli Merkava-class tank destroyed during the 2006 war (al-Ahd, February 10).
Iranian Involvement in Iraq
On February 21, the Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, arrived for an official visit in Baghdad. The Spokesman of the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ahmad al-Sahhaf, announced that Abdollahian will meet with senior Iranian officials and discuss bilateral relations and bolstering cooperation between the two countries so as to improve security and stability in the region (Iraqi News Agency, February 21).
On February 21, the former Prime Minister of Iraq, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, arrived for a visit in Tehran. During his visit to Iran, al-Kadihmi met with senior Iranian government officials, including Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian (ISNA, February 21).
The Iranian Trade Attaché to Baghdad, Abdol Amir Rabihavi, reported that Iran’s exports to Iraq are continuing apace despite the American sanctions and Iranian efforts to limit the volume of trade between the two countries. He remarked that the five border crossings between Iran and the Arab regions of Iraq and the seven border crossings to the Kurdish regions of Iraq are operating as usual. He added that the all goods can be exported from Iran to Iraq, as previously, and the only problem is related to the transfer of foreign currency between the two countries, and this problem will soon be solved. Addressing the volume of Iranian exports to Iraq, Rabihabi reported that during the last ten months (March 2022 until January 2023) the volume of Iranian exports to Iraq rose by 23 percent compared to the same period the year prior, reaching a total of almost nine billion dollars. According to him, by the end of the current Iranian year (March 2023), the volume of Iranian exports to Iraq will reach ten billion dollars (Fars, March 14).
On February 16, a meeting of a working group concerning security cooperation between Iran and Iraq was held in the city of Mashhad. During the two-day meeting, representatives from the two countries discussed matters related to border security, combatting terrorism, smuggling of weaponry and drugs, and organized crime. The Iranian Deputy Minister of Interior for Security Affairs, Seyyed Majid Mir Ahmadi, stated at the end of the meeting that both countries agreed to set up a joint operational headquarters for the border provinces in Iraq and Iran, as party of the preparation for the pilgrimage to the shrine of Imam Hussein in Karbala (“Arbaeen”). Additionally, representatives of the two countries discussed the possibility of Iranian pilgrims reaching Iraq by train (Tasnim, February 16).
Iranian Involvement in the Palestinian Arena
On February 18, during a meeting of senior Iranian regime officials with ambassadors of Muslim-majority countries held in Tehran, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, declared that the main reason for “Iranophobia” is the unconditional and explicit support of the Islamic Republic for Palestine. Khamenei also proclaimed that the Palestinian cause is one of the weaknesses and major wounds of the Muslim nation, and that while the Palestinian people are subjected to daily and endless oppression, Muslim countries are not doing enough, despite their wealth and capabilities, and some of them are even cooperating with the “bloodthirsty regime” [Israel]. He added that if Muslim governments adopted a steadfast position against Israel, the situation in western Asia would have been different today, and the Islamic nation would have been more unified and stronger in many respects. Khamenei stressed his country’s support for the Palestinians, declaring that the Islamic Republic will continue to openly support the Palestinian people and assist them in every way possible (Tasnim, February 18).