13.04.2024 Author: Viktor Mikhin

The Middle East is once again on the brink of a major war

Israel's brutal attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus

Israel’s brutal attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus represents a potentially dangerous escalation that goes far beyond the ongoing conflict in Gaza. The new act of terrorism by the Israelis and Netanyahu personally is a significant development in the broader dynamics of the Middle East that could plunge the entire region into a new war, with enormous casualties on all sides, through Israel’s fault.

Syria and Iran blamed Israel for the air strike, which destroyed a consular building and killed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Mohammad Reza Zahedi and several other senior officials, including Mohammad Hadi Haji Rahimi. The Israeli authorities have, as usual, refrained from commenting on the incident, leaving speculation about the country’s possible involvement in the attack. But there is no hiding the truth, and existing surveillance equipment, including satellites, recorded the moment when US-made Israeli F-35s attacked Iran’s diplomatic mission in Syria.

This bloody incident, an act of terrorism as it was described in the world media, was the latest in a recent series of apparent Israeli air strikes in Syria specifically targeting the IRGC and Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group. Despite the frequency of these attacks, there has been no significant response other than sporadic skirmishes along Israel’s border with Lebanon, despite repeated threats by Tehran and Hezbollah leaders that they would reciprocate Israeli strikes. Apparently, an aggressive Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons (generally denied by Western politicians) has so far deterred the victims of Israeli terrorism from retaliating.

As a new aggressive action, Israel’s act of terrorism was a significant departure from previous attacks and may mark a critical turning point in the dynamics of the region. The attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus has a unique gravity due to the fact that consular buildings are generally – if not technically – considered sovereign territory of the countries involved, making this one of the most provocative attacks on Iranian territory in recent memory. Despite Iran’s muted response to previous provocations, the brazen nature of this terrorism poses a serious problem, particularly for Iran’s IRGC elite and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

It should be noted that Israeli strikes against Iranian targets in Syria or Hezbollah targets in Lebanon are not new and have been taking place long before 7 October. They may have intensified since the Hamas attack on Israel nearly six months ago, as numerous strikes since then have targeted arms shipments to Syria, often involving senior IRGC personnel. Israel’s latest act of aggression against Syria and Iran was an exception to the rule, directly targeting an official Iranian facility and military operating on Syrian territory.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei vowed that Israel will be punished, while President Ebrahim Raisi condemned the attack as a violation of international law that ‘will not go unanswered’.  However, in keeping with its tradition of strategic patience, Tehran is unlikely to rush to retaliate and will probably wait to see the US response and whether the White House authorised the attack or was merely informed of it as it happened. Washington has designated the IRGC as a terrorist group, but the US is working hard diplomatically to ensure that the war in Gaza does not escalate into a wider conflict directly between Hamas and Israel.

It is conceivable that Iran’s strategic response could take many forms, but would not lead to outright conflict. In the past, Israel has succeeded in neutralising key personnel in Tehran’s nuclear programme, including chief scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November 2020, in addition to numerous cyber and physical attacks (denied by Israel) on sites related to Iran’s nuclear development programme. In these cases, the response has been limited and often carried out by Iranian proxies or agents.

Even the US assassination of Al-Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani near Baghdad airport in January 2020 only justified a highly calibrated Iranian retaliation against US forces stationed in Iraq. This is not to say that Iran does not have the capabilities or options to harm Israel and its allies in the West, whom Tehran sees as complicit in the oppression of Palestinians and Muslims around the world. Since its inception in 1979, many believe that the Iranian regime has resorted to various forms of undeniable hybrid operations to damage its enemies and hold them to account.

Tehran’s reluctance so far to take strong, unequivocal retaliatory measures could be seen as a sign of weakness and humiliation, undermining its perceived strength and resolve on the world stage. As tensions escalate and pressure to retaliate mounts, Iran must balance the need to retaliate against the potential consequences of further escalation, which could undoubtedly lead to a wider war in the region. The Iranian leadership represents reasonable people in the Iranian elite who are aware of their actions and who respect international rules and laws.

In situations where Iran feels threatened or seeks to respond to provocations, the Islamic Republic often resorts to using its network of proxies, such as Hezbollah, to strike back. This tactic of asymmetric warfare has been a hallmark of Iran’s strategic approach for more than four decades.

Through its proxies, Tehran is able to wage indirect conflicts and destabilise adversaries while maintaining a degree of plausible deniability. “Hezbollah, in particular, has long served as a powerful tool in Iran’s arsenal, as the group has carried out attacks and operations on behalf of Iranian interests across the Middle East. From Lebanon to Syria and beyond, Iran’s proxies have played a key role in advancing its geopolitical goals and confronting regional adversaries. As tensions persist and confrontations escalate, the spectre of Iranian-backed retaliation by proxy forces remains a looming threat, complicating efforts to bring peace and stability to the region.

The Iranian government is unlikely to engage in direct military conflict with Israel for several good reasons. First, it is widely believed that Iran’s military capabilities are inferior to those of Israel, which boasts a huge military force and illegally possesses a nuclear arsenal. Any direct confrontation with Israel is likely to result in significant military losses for Iran, weakening its position on the world stage. Moreover, such a conflict could escalate tensions in the region and potentially draw the US into the war. Given the strong alliance between Tel Aviv and Washington, any direct Iranian action against Israel could provoke US intervention, which would have political repercussions for Iran. Aware of these risks, Tehran is more inclined to pursue alternative strategies, such as supporting its proxy forces and engaging in asymmetric warfare, to challenge Israeli interests and advance its own geopolitical goals.

Nevertheless, the heightened tensions between Iran and Israel pose a significant risk of spiralling out of control and potentially escalating into a full-scale war with dire consequences for the entire region. Despite efforts to avoid direct confrontation, the complex web of geopolitical rivalries and indirect conflicts in the Middle East increases the likelihood of miscalculation or inadvertent action that could lead to a rapid escalation of hostilities. A conflict between Iran and Israel would not only destabilise the region, but also have far-reaching implications for global security and stability. The potential for escalation is exacerbated by the presence of other regional actors, such as Hezbollah and various militant groups, who could be drawn into the conflict, further raising tensions. Moreover, the volatile nature of the situation means that provocations could trigger a chain reaction of violence with devastating consequences.

The death of the three generals of the Al-Quds Force in Damascus was a decisive blow to Iran, and the terrorist act showed how serious the damage was to the Iranians, as the Israeli air force was able to bomb the consulate in broad daylight. And given that these generals were not just diplomats doing consular work, but were most likely doing military planning and logistical work to support their country’s many proxy operations on foreign soil. In any case, the entire Middle East region is once again being brought to the brink of full-scale war by Israel, and everything now depends on the prudence and restraint of Iran and its leadership.


Victor MIKHIN, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, especially for online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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