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The Israeli raid on Damascus, an ‘unprecedented’ escalation of tensions

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Among the victims of Monday’s air strike in Damascus against the Iranian consulate was Mohammad Reza Zahedi, a high-ranking member of the Revolutionary Guards, his deputy Mohammad Hadi Hajriahimi, and five other officers. While Iran has blamed Israel for the attack and vowed to retaliate, some analysts suspect that Iran remains unwilling to provoke a full-scale war.

Iran has vowed to avenge the deaths of several high-ranking officers of the Quds Force, the elite unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who were killed in an air strike that hit the Iranian consulate in the Syrian capital on Monday.

Israel has not claimed responsibility for the attack, the first on an Iranian diplomatic building in Syria. But the New York Times reported on Tuesday that Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israel had carried out the strike.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Wednesday that 16 people were killed in the attack, including two civilians – a woman and her son – along with eight Iranians, five Syrians and one member of Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group, all of them fighters.

A loss ‘comparable to that of Qassem Soleimani’

Israel has repeatedly targeted Iranian interests in Syria in the past. The most high-profile victim at the Damascus consulate was General Mohammad Reza Zahedi, a veteran of the IRGC and a leading Iranian military adviser in Syria.

“This is the most important Iranian official killed since the war triggered by the Hamas attacks on Israeli soil on October 7,” notes Ahron Bregman, a political scientist and specialist in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at King’s College London.

“For Iran, it’s a loss comparable to that of Qassem Soleimani, the former commander-in-chief of the Quds Force, killed by an American drone in 2020,” adds Shahin Modarres, Iran specialist at the International Team for the Study of Security (ITSS) Verona.

Zahedi joined the IRGC in 1981, just two years after the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He served in many roles until his death at the age of 63, including as commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ ground troops and air force.

Zahedi “was particularly close” to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, says Clive Jones, a specialist in Israel and the Middle East at Durham University in the UK. Zahedi had been subject to sanctions by the United States, which has accused him of being in charge of supplying Hezbollah with Iranian missiles.

Zahedi was the Quds Force’s military attaché in Syria and Iraq, and had also been stationed in Lebanon. He thus played a “central role in coordinating the various Islamist groups supported by Iran”, notes Modarres, including Hamas, Hezbollah, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Houthis in Yemen.  

The Iranian officials killed in Damascus on Monday all played a common role, says Modarres.  

“They were all responsible, in different capacities, for relations with Iranian-affiliated groups, particularly Hamas and Hezbollah,” he says.

If the attack was indeed of Israeli origin, it had a “preventive dimension – Israel wanted to minimise Iran’s ability to coordinate with all these groups in anticipation of a possible extension of the conflict”.

By attacking some of the most prominent members of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, Bregman says the Israelis “want to make Tehran understand that they also consider Iran to be responsible for what’s happening in Gaza and on the border with Lebanon”.

“It’s a way of making it clear that they won’t just try to strike Iran’s satellite groups,” he says.

Filippo Dionigi, a specialist in Islamist movements and the Middle East at the University of Bristol, agrees that Monday’s air strike could indicate that Israel is ready to escalate the conflict with Iran. “This is an unprecedented escalation of tensions since the start of the war against Hamas,” he says.

According to Jones, the Damascus strike is linked in particular to Israel’s strategy for dealing with the clashes on its border with Lebanon, which have increased since the war in Gaza began. “There is a strong sense among most Israelis that something must now be done against Hezbollah, given that most of the towns and villages on the Israeli side of the border remain evacuated and around 100,000 Israelis are internally displaced. In short, Israel has raised the stakes to see how Iran will respond.”

But Israel didn’t just want to send a message to its enemies, says Jones – the strike was also a way of sending a signal to the United States. Washington and Tehran have been trying to lower tensions since January. “This attack would suggest that Tel Aviv places its own security first and foremost,” saying to the Americans: “We will not allow our freedom of action to be limited by your concerns.”

“I can imagine that the White House, once again, will be having sharp words with the Israelis behind the scenes,” he adds.

The assassination of Zahedi, an attack that seriously undermines the Revolutionary Guard Corps, is likely to result in exactly what the United States fears: an Iranian retaliation.

“Mohammad Reza Zahedi’s death deprives the organisation of an element that had very good tactical knowledge and great experience in the field,” Modarres notes.

The retaliation dilemma

Zahedi will, of course, be replaced, says Dionigi, but he notes that the attack “risks shaking the faith” of pro-Iranian militant groups in Iran’s “ability to foil Israeli plans”. By succeeding in killing seven Iranian officials gathered in the same place, “Israel is proving that its intelligence services are very well-informed”, Dionigi says.

For Iran, a forceful retaliation would be a way of proving its strength to its affiliated armed movements.

Tehran has accused Israel of targeting its consulate in Syria, a move that Iran will likely feel necessitates a response. The Israeli army has so far only been willing to comment on the location of the strike, insisting it was a military building and not a diplomatic outpost. The nuance is significant: “Consulates are considered to be extensions of national territory. So under international law, Israel would have struck Iranian soil with its missile strike in this case,” Dionigi explains.

“Israel has taken a very risky gamble with this operation, which could lead to a conflagration,” he says. Israel is counting on the fact that Iran cannot react robustly to the attack without triggering a regional war, which Tehran is seeking to avoid.

After the killing of Soleimani in 2020, “Iran promised to take revenge on the United States and Israel”, Modarres says. But “nothing of note happened”.

This time, given the context of the war between Israel and Hamas – a group backed by Iran –Tehran “will have to react”, says Bregman. This could mean ordering an intensification of attacks against Israel by Hezbollah or the Houthis.

France’s former ambassador to Syria, Michel Duclos, agrees. “Tehran is undoubtedly obliged to retaliate, but I think it will be of a symbolic nature, avoiding further escalation.”

“Iran seems to fear an open conflict with Israel,” he told FRANCE 24. Tehran could instead “target Israeli diplomatic representations elsewhere in the world, which would be symmetrical with the fact that it was a consulate that was hit”, Duclos says.

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