Eye on the Middle East | Why did Israel attack the Iranian Consulate in Syria? - Hindustan Times
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Eye on the Middle East | Why did Israel attack the Iranian Consulate in Syria?

Apr 04, 2024 10:17 PM IST

The longer and wider Israel’s war, the less sympathy it gets internationally, and the lesser the chances of Arab-Israeli normalisation coming back on track

On September 6, 2007, four Israeli F-16 jets flew deep into Syria, evaded Syrian air defences and struck what was purportedly an under-construction nuclear facility (Al-Kibar) in the Deir-al-Zour province, about 450 km north-east of Damascus. The Israeli strike (Operation Orchard) irreversibly damaged the facility which could have (if fully constructed) produced enough plutonium for “one or two weapons per year” according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

A satellite image shows the Iranian embassy and consulate following a suspected Israeli strike, in Damascus, Syria April 2, 2024 in this handout image. Maxar Technologies/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. MANDATORY CREDIT. DO NOT CROP OR REMOVE WATERMARK(via REUTERS) PREMIUM
A satellite image shows the Iranian embassy and consulate following a suspected Israeli strike, in Damascus, Syria April 2, 2024 in this handout image. Maxar Technologies/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. MANDATORY CREDIT. DO NOT CROP OR REMOVE WATERMARK(via REUTERS)

Eleven years later, Israel officially claimed responsibility for the 2007 strike as the Islamic State took control of key areas where the facility had existed. Now, another Israeli strike in Syria has sent ripples in a region already gripped by the fallout of the Gaza war. On April 1, Israeli F-35 jets struck Iran’s consulate in Damascus killing seven, including two senior officials of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). One of them, Mohammad Reza Zahedi, was the senior-most IRGC official killed in an air strike since Qassem Soleimani in 2020. Iran’s vow to “decisively” respond has triggered fears of escalation to the level of full-fledged hostilities. However, there is more to it.

Syria is Israel’s old battle-ground

The Syrian Arab Republic is among Iran’s oldest and strongest allies in the region. Both states have long found a common purpose in militating against Israel and the United States, right from the inception of Iran as an Islamic Republic in 1979. In the first war-ridden decade of Iran’s existence, Arab Syria was strongly allied with Persian Iran, against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

The mutual trust and strategic ties nurtured in that decade have only grown since. The dynamics of this older relationship evolved further in the 2010s with Syria’s Bashar-al-Assad depending heavily on Iran to sustain it as Syria descended into a Civil War (with the momentum of the Arab Spring) mixed with the rise of an unprecedented territory-seeking jihadist force in the form of the Islamic State. Iran’s support of Assad manifested in a larger role for its IRGC (especially its Quds Force) in Syria.

While Syria itself has long been in direct conflict with Israel, the increase in Iranian presence in Syria has supplied greater rationale for Israel to conduct more air strikes against Iranian interests in Syria, like the strike in 2007 which was directed as a message against potential Iranian nuclearisation. While it has kept up such attacks across the decade, in 2023 alone, Israel carried out about 20 strikes in Syria, principally targeting Iranian presence. Members of the IRGC rank and file have regularly featured in the casualty list, with an Israeli strike in December 2023, killing a senior IRGC adviser in Syria.

The Netanyahu gambit

While Israel’s attacks against Iranian targets in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq have waxed and waned in recent years, it has come closest to striking Iran proper with the attack on the Consulate (whose inviolability the UN has affirmed). The increase in Israel’s skirmishes with Iran-backed Hezbollah at its northern border, as well as an earlier attack on the Red Sea port of Eilat by Iraqi militias, have largely been taken by media reports to be the immediate triggers for Israel to strike Iranian targets directly.

This is in line with recent shifts in Israeli attitudes — in December 2023, former Israeli PM Naftali Bennett outlined at least two operations he had ordered against Iran when he was premier, in an article for the Wall Street Journal. This went against the pattern of Israel not claiming official responsibility for such attacks (evident again in April) and was part of a growing Israeli desire to take the fight directly to Iran in return for proxy strikes.

However, the position that the current Benjamin Netanyahu-led government finds itself in arguably added a new tactical layer of objectives to an old strategic layer. Given the centrality of the Gaza war to Netanyahu’s political survival amidst unprecedented international and domestic pressure, drawing Iran into full-scale hostilities with Israel would fundamentally change the dynamics of the war. On one hand, it would transform one state’s counter-terrorism-focused campaign against an armed non-state actor in Gaza (notwithstanding its grossly disproportionate nature), into full-scale inter-state hostilities.

On the other hand, the variables which pushed the United States to scale down its diplomatic support for Israel’s Gaza war, might possibly be superseded by those which would require it to support a campaign against Iran; this is especially true as the Iraqi militias which Israel has accused for the Eilat attack, have principally targeted the American military in the region across the past year.

Iran’s options and priorities

Given the unprecedented nature of the Israeli strike, Iran has vowed a response, with Khamenei promising that “Israel will be punished”. Israel, which has begun preparations for war (such as by cancelling all military leaves), is expecting an Iranian attack - reportedly after warnings from American intelligence, Reuters reported. While Iran's response could very well be a scale-up of time-tested proxy attacks, even a direct response might be expectedly restrained. This is for two reasons, principally.

First, the longer and wider Israel’s war, the worse its own international position gets (with adverse ICJ rulings and UN resolutions), and the lesser the chances of Arab-Israeli normalisation coming back on track. Moreover, Washington’s own position vis-a-vis Iran and Israel has been shifting. On one hand, there have been no Iran-backed proxy attacks on US forces/bases in Iraq and Syria since February 4 when the United States retaliated for the Tower-22 attack in Jordan. A Financial Times report in March showed active Oman-based back-channels between Washington and Tehran, with officials of the former believing that Iran had actually reined in Iraqi militias. Essentially, the United States is actively seeking de-escalation with Iran to contain the effects of the Gaza war. On the other hand, while Washington’s ties with Israel have been subject to new strains, fresh stressors appeared after an Israeli strike in Gaza killed a number of aid workers from the World Central Kitchen Workers, including one America, drawing a strong reaction from President Biden who asserted that Israel’s investigation into the incident must be “swift…and its findings must be made public”. Washington has conveyed strongly to Iran through existing back-channels that it had no prior knowledge of the Israeli attack, as one United States Institute of Peace report has shown. More interestingly, the US Representative to the UN asserted that diplomatic missions had to be protected especially in times of armed conflict, showing the decreasing diplomatic latitude that Washington is ready to give Tel Aviv.

Second, Iran’s current focus remains as much on its economic health as much as it does on regional power projection amidst deepening Arab-Israeli fault lines. In his customary address to the nation on the occasion of Nowruz, Khamenei’s 2024 speech focused especially on economic issues, indirectly (and surprisingly) blaming President Ebrahim Raisi’s administration for its policy failures. On March 20, Khamenei also asserted that measures at the “global level” were the only resolution to economic issues, evidently a reference to getting sanctions relief. Hence, Iran has enough reason to avoid a conventional war, no matter how much Israel punctures Iranian deterrence in the short term.

Note that even when Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s star General, was assassinated in 2020, Iran’s preferred response was to use its proxies against US bases. Iran’s desire to avoid direct losses was further evident in its significant reduction of IRGC presence in Syria in early February 2024. However, should Israel continue such attacks or increase hostile rhetoric, the chances of pragmatic decision-making in Tehran giving way to the need for a reprisal attack to preserve deterrence, only grow.

Bashir Ali Abbas is a research associate at the Council for Strategic and Defense Research, New Delhi, and a South Asia Visiting Fellow at the Stimson Center, Washington DC. The views expressed are personal.

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