The strike on Iran’s consulate in Syria could be the spark that ignites the Middle East

Israel’s attack signalled a shift in its strategy towards Iran. Tehran’s response and the US promise of ‘ironclad’ support for Israel risks escalation of this transnational conflict.

Expert comment Published 12 April 2024 Updated 22 April 2024 4 minute READ

The suspected Israeli attack on Iran’s consulate in Damascus on 1 April marks an unprecedented escalation by Israel against Iran in Syria. The killing of Iran’s top soldier, Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Zahedi, among other Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commanders, is the clearest signal yet of Israel’s determination to shift the conflict’s rules of engagement – moving beyond simply preventing arms supplies to Hezbollah or pushing Iranian-backed groups away from its border, to directly eliminating Iranian leadership in Syria.

There is a real risk that Iranian-backed groups will intensify their targeting of US forces and Israel in response to this latest attack, leading to heightened escalations in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and possibly Jordan. This, along with US President Biden’s promise of ‘ironclad’ support for Israel in the case of a reprisal attack, presents a major risk of even greater escalation.

Previous strategies from Tel Aviv and Tehran

For over a decade, Israel’s transnational approach to its conflict with Iran has included a so-called ‘campaign between the wars’ in Syria. Even before the term was coined, Israel’s strategy in Syria was aimed at containing Iranian-backed groups, notably Hezbollah, without provoking full-scale war.

Initially, Israel prioritized halting the cross-border flow of Iranian weapons to Hezbollah… and appeared to avoid, whenever feasible, killing Hezbollah or Iranian operatives during these operations.

Initially, Israel prioritized halting the cross-border flow of Iranian weapons to Hezbollah, particularly those passing through Syria. This involved intercepting weapons shipments in transit or targeting storage facilities where weapons were stockpiled. Importantly, Israel appeared to avoid, whenever feasible, killing Hezbollah or Iranian operatives during these operations.

In addition to seeking alternative routes to those exposed, Iran intensified its efforts to shorten the transportation distance in its arms supply chain to Hezbollah. This involved developing its missile technology in Syria and utilizing it to supply its affiliates. Similarly, Iran expanded its foothold close to the Israeli border in southern Syria to establish a new leverage point in its deterrence strategy.

In response, Tel Aviv increased its attacks on Syria, with the number doubling in some years and tripling in others compared to 2017. The objective was to restrict Iranian entrenchment on Syrian soil and disrupt Iran’s missile projects.

Moreover, Israel deliberately targeted regime assets, including ports, airports, defence and air force capabilities, as well as research and military facilities, to convey a message to the Assad regime about the costs of cooperating with Iran. During this phase, Israel had seemingly moved away from its initial plan to avoid casualties, especially among Hezbollah and Iranian operatives.

Amidst these developments, Iran directed more resources towards strengthening its presence and influence in Syria, simultaneously fortifying security by attempting to construct its air defence system on Syrian soil.  

In addition to sending thousands of foreign Shia militia fighters to Syria, Tehran focused on establishing local military groups affiliated with it to reduce costs and ensure sustainability.

A key moment came in May 2018 when Iran fired 34 rockets into the Israeli Golan Heights, and in response Israel struck Iranian military infrastructure in Syria. Tehran refrained from further retaliation, reportedly at the Syrian regime’s request to avoid more Israeli strikes, but Iran’s affiliates later targeted US forces in Syria in attempts to deter Israeli action.

Since the war in Gaza, the use of Iranian affiliates has increased further, and they have frequently attacked Israel directly using missiles and suicide drones.  

A shift in Israel’s strategy and Iran’s response

The change in Israel’s transnational strategy – from merely targeting Iran’s affiliates to directly eliminating Iranian leadership in Syria – was prompted by the 7 October attacks and Israel’s apparent dissatisfaction with the limitations and failures of its containment strategy.

The new approach became evident with the assassination of Sayyed Razi Mousavi, a high-ranking Iranian general, in Damascus on 25 December 2023. The direct targeting of the IRGC in Syria continued, culminating in the killing of Iran’s top soldier, Zahedi, with another seven Iranian commanders in a building annexed to the Iranian consulate.

Iranian officials have signalled that its response will be significant enough to deter Israel. 

After the assassination of Mousavi, Iran escalated its transnational responses, increasing its attacks on Israel from Syria. In addition, alongside Hezbollah and affiliated Palestinian groups, the Islamic Resistance in Iraq also initiated assaults against Israel from both Syria and Iraq.

While Iran deliberates on its response to the consulate attack, its Syrian affiliates have wasted no time in launching retaliatory actions. On 2 and 4 April, cruise missiles and Katyusha rockets were fired towards the occupied Golan Heights. Moreover, since the consulate attack, US forces intercepted two drones in Syria, suggesting that the lull in attacks against them since early February may have ended.

Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said that the attack on the Iranian consulate ‘will be punished’, and Iranian officials have signalled that its response will be significant enough to deter Israel from repeating or escalating such attacks. This could mean attacks inside Israel or the targeting of its assets abroad.

Iranian affiliates in Syria have already shown their ability to strike the resort city of Eilat, 400 kilometres from Syria’s borders.

There is also an assumption that Iran itself, rather than its affiliates, will carry out the response to ensure a more impactful message. However, Iran is also signalling, through interviews given by officials and through backchannels, that the retaliation will be limited and aimed at deterrence to avoid triggering a direct conflict with Israel.

Navigating this delicate balance is difficult, and any action by Iran or indeed Israel risks an escalation of violence across the region.

The challenges of containment

The current reality is challenging for Tehran: there is no longer a safe haven for IRGC commanders in Syria. Consequently, Iran and its allies must adjust their tactics. 

The ‘axis of resistance’ is likely to continue targeting Israel from Syria, possibly transitioning from primarily targeting unpopulated areas to inflicting significant damage within Israel. Iranian affiliates in Syria and Iraq have already shown their ability to deploy suicide drones and strike the resort city of Eilat, 400 kilometres from Syria’s borders.

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Imagining how such an escalation could be contained within Syria is equally difficult. The participation of the Islamic Resistance in Iraq in attacks against Israel might lead Tel Aviv to view Iraq as a crucial part of its containment strategy, akin to how Syria became an extension of the battlefield with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Recently, the ‘axis of resistance’ has even begun to involve Jordan, with the Islamic Resistance in Iraq declaring its readiness to arm tens of thousands of ’resistance fighters’.

Moreover, further escalation in Syria will likely lead to heightened tensions with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Recently, the axis of resistance has even begun to involve Jordan, with the Islamic Resistance in Iraq declaring its readiness to arm tens of thousands of resistance fighters’ in Jordan.

The latest phase of Israel’s containment strategy risks further escalation of an already highly combustible transnational conflict.  Meanwhile, Iran’s anticipated response could serve as the spark that ignites Syria and jeopardizes the fate of the entire region.

It is clear that resolving the conflict in Gaza is key to defusing tensions and preventing further escalation. In the light of this, regional actors must redouble their efforts to pursue a diplomatic resolution. Doing so not only holds the key to easing immediate tensions but also serves as a critical step towards averting a broader conflict.