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Biden's boiling Middle East cauldron

The boiling cauldron that is the Middle East continues to churn and on Monday, it dangerously spilled over into Damascus when Israeli warplanes struck Iran’s diplomatic compound in the Syrian capital.

The strike in Damascus was the third and deadliest Israeli strike against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Syria.

Seven IRGC commanders were killed in the airstrike. In all likelihood, they were planning operations from inside the consulate building — a safe space, or so they thought. Three were senior generals belonging to Iran’s Quds Force, the military intelligence and operations wing of the IRGC, including Brig. General Mohammad Reza Zahedi.

Zahedi was Tehran’s key military liaison to Hezbollah’s leader in Lebanon, Hassan Nasrallah. While Zahedi was largely unknown in public circles, he was one of three original IRGC commanders advising Nasrallah. Now he is dead, alongside former Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani (killed by a U.S. airstrike in Baghdad in 2020), Ahmed Kazemi (died in a plane crash in 2006) and Imad Mughniyeh (assassinated in 2008).

These four and Nasrallah were once pictured together. Now, only Nasrallah remains alive. He likely got the message Jerusalem just sent him: IRGC leadership in Syria and Iranian proxies such as himself are next. Oct. 7 guaranteed an end not only to Hamas, but to all of Israel’s existential enemies, including IRGC leadership involved in the planning and execution of attacks against the Jewish state.

As we argued in January, Tehran’s day of reckoning is coming. Israel likely intends to bring the fight to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Jerusalem’s strike on Iran’s embassy in Damascus, technically an act of war under international law, was clearly intended as messaging to Khamenei as well.

President Biden has been stepping up criticism of and pressure upon Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his war cabinet to end its military operations in the Gaza Strip against a yet-to-be-defeated Hamas. Ironically, this might be hastening Jerusalem’s targeting of IRGC leadership, in order to fix Hezbollah forces in place.

Washington and Jerusalem clearly are not seeing eye-to-eye right now on Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. After Oct. 7, Israel views them as immediate existential threats, whereas the Biden administration continues to believe a diplomatic solution can solve the growing conflict. Israel chooses to attack the root source, whereas Washington will not.

Biden’s growing electoral difficulties in Michigan and among progressives will not deter Jerusalem from ending what it believes to be kinetic threats against its population and its economy. Tens of thousands of Israelis have been displaced in northern Israel, with significant economic disruption and GDP loss since Oct. 7.

In February, there were reports that the Biden administration “was concerned that Israel is planning a ground incursion into Lebanon that could be launched in the late spring or early summer.” Israel is intent on pushing Hezbollah away from its northern border with Lebanon and is seeking to impose a buffer zone, if not to destroy Hezbollah altogether.

By severing IRGC leadership, funding and training, Israel aims to render Nasrallah ineffective. Plus, by denying the IRGC of its leadership, Israel can fix Hezbollah forces in place, allowing Jerusalem to focus on eliminating Hamas.

Israel’s killing of seven World Central Kitchen volunteers attempting to deliver food and aid to beleaguered Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip has only further complicated the growing divide between the White House and Netanyahu’s government.

Despite Netanyahu’s admission that the Israel Defense Forces had “unintentionally” struck the humanitarian convoy, Biden sharpened his recent criticism of Israel issuing a statement Tuesday evening, saying he was “outraged and heartbroken by the deaths of seven humanitarian workers from World Central Kitchen, including one American.” Biden also noted that it was “not a stand-alone incident” and that “Israel has not done enough to protect aid workers.”

Certainly, the killing of innocent civilians is tragic and unacceptable. The Israelis have admitted as much. But war is hell, and Washington must not lose sight of who started this one.

Biden must also not gloss over who was probably behind it. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fingerprints are all over Oct. 7, and the IRGC’s involvement has been obvious from the start.

October 7 was part of Putin and Khamenei’s wider war against the West. Hezbollah is waiting in the wings to join Hamas in the fight against Israel. Biden, by compartmentalizing each conflict, is aiding and abetting Moscow and Tehran, whether or not he intends to.

The White House has lost sight of the fact that Hamas, the elected governing body of Gaza, is ultimately responsible for safeguarding Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip. Despite being charged with providing for their basic needs, the terror group hijacks humanitarian aid and deliberately places Palestinian civilians between themselves and Israeli forces.

Israel certainly has a moral imperative to facilitate as much humanitarian aid as possible and a moral and legal obligation to minimize civilian casualties. But Jerusalem did not choose this war or start it. Hamas could also end the conflict at any moment by surrendering.

Nowhere in Biden’s statement condemning Israel did he mention Hamas’s culpability in putting its citizens in harm’s way. Nowhere did he call for Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh, Yahya Sinwar and Mohammed Deif to surrender unconditionally and release the remaining hostages, including six Americans.

We are probably beyond any diplomatic settlement in the Middle East. The conflict is rapidly reaching an inflection point, in which Iran’s accelerating nuclear weapons program will play a major role.

Tehran vows retaliation for the killing of Zahedi. Earlier in February, the IRGC “simulated a strike on a major Israeli airbase,” according to a report in Al Jazeera.

Given increasing international pressure against Israel, and given Netanyahu political opponent Benny Gantz’s call Wednesday for new Knesset elections in September, Tehran’s response will likely continue to be asymmetrical, including the targeting of U.S. forces in Syria, Iraq, and Jordan.

In the unlikely event that Khamenei miscalculates and orders a massive direct missile strike against Israel, this boiling cauldron, made hotter by the Biden administration’s missteps, will explode, quickly devolving into a full-scale regional war.

After his State of the Union speech in March, Biden was caught on a hot microphone telling lawmakers he needed a “come to Jesus” sit-down with Netanyahu. Truth be told, it is Khamenei who needs the talk. And Biden’s priority should be to see Hamas defeated in the Gaza Strip and IRGC support to Hezbollah and Iranian backed militias neutralized. Anything less and a massive war could soon become unavoidable.

Mark Toth writes on national security and foreign policy. Col. (Ret.) Jonathan Sweet served 30 years as a military intelligence officer.

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