Consulate attack could trigger direct confrontation between Iran and Israel

Binyamin Netanyahu has long advocated war with Iran with the intention of drawing in a reluctant US

Israel’s air strike on Monday that killed seven Iranian military officers and staff at Tehran’s consulate in central Damascus marked both a major escalation and an expansion of regional violence driven by Israel’s war on Gaza.

Fearing regional war, Iran has so far not responded to Israel’s hundreds of routine missile and drone strikes in Syria against pro-Iranian militiamen and Lebanese Hizbullah fighters who have defended the Syrian government from armed opposition groups.

In response to Monday’s attack, however, Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, said: “This unjust crime won’t go unanswered.”

Striking the consulate amounted to an attack on Iran itself, drawing Tehran into direct confrontation with Israel after years of remote engagement between Iranian proxies and Israeli forces. Since 2019, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu has openly advocated war with Iran with the intention of drawing in a reluctant US.

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The consulate attack also involved a qualitative shift for Israel as the targets were not middle-ranking officers and fighters but Mohammed Reza Zahedi, a senior commander of the elite Quds force in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps. He was the highest-ranking Iranian officer to be assassinated since the US killed Gen Qassem Suleimani in January 2020.

Zahedi was reportedly involved in providing Lebanon’s Hizbullah with Iranian-made arms, some of which may be used in current Hizbullah cross-border exchanges with Israeli forces. Hizbullah activated this front after Israel launched its war on Gaza in retaliation for the Hamas-led attack on October 7th.

Hizbullah and Israel began by carefully calibrating these exchanges to avoid escalation and expansion. Iran’s foreign minister Hossein Amirabdolahian has made repeated visits to Beirut to urge restraint although Hizbullah has lost 257 combatants while only 14 Israeli soldiers have been killed. Both sides are also under popular pressure to end the violence, which has driven 100,000 civilians from their homes and villages in southern Lebanon and 90,000 from settlements, kibbutzim and towns in northern Israel. However, Israeli chief of staff Lt Gen Herzi Halevi has said the Gaza war has provided an opportunity to eliminate Hizbullah as well as Hamas.

Israel began escalating its attacks in Lebanon in January by taking out Hamas leader Saleh Arouri in Beirut, making him the first victim in an assassination campaign Israeli officials have initiated in connection with the Gaza war. In February, Israel killed Hizbullah commander Ali Mohammed Debs and his deputy in the town of Nabatiyeh, more than 20km from the border with Israel. In March Israel carried out attacks on an alleged Hizbullah warehouse and surveillance centre near the ancient city of Baalbek, 100km from the border. Israel has also killed a number of Hizbullah unit commanders in the border zone.

On March 29th, Israel married the Lebanese and Syrian fronts by bombing a weapons depot in a suburb of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 36 Syrian soldiers, seven Hizbullah fighters and a Syrian member of an Iran-backed group were killed and dozens wounded, making this the deadliest Israeli strike on Syria in recent years. Sources in Beirut predict an Israeli offensive in Lebanon around April 15th.

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