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Risks of Chaos

Iran's options for responding to the targeting of its consulate in Damascus

08 April 2024

On the evening of Monday, April 1, Israeli F-35 aircraft conducted an air strike on the Iranian consulate and the home of the Iranian ambassador in Damascus, as reported by Iranian media. The attack resulted in the destruction of the embassy building and the ambassador's residence, causing the death of everyone inside. It is estimated that 11 people were killed, including eight Iranians, two Syrians, and one Lebanese, all of whom were military personnel. Several others were injured. 

In response to this incident, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard issued a statement confirming the deaths of two of its commanders, Mohammad Reza Zahedi and Mohammad Hadi Haji Rahimi, along with five accompanying officers. According to the New York Times, the strike targeted a covert meeting between Iranian intelligence officers and leaders of the Palestinian Jihad movement. The operation took place after the departure of the Iranian consul. When asked about the attack, an Israeli army spokesperson stated, "we do not comment on reports in foreign media," which aligns with Israel's typical policy of not acknowledging its involvement in attacks carried out in Syria.

Significance of Attack

The recent targeting of the Iranian consulate offices in Damascus carries significant implications, particularly in the following areas:

1- Unprecedented nature: 

This incident marks the first time that Israel has been accused of attacking an Iranian diplomatic building in the history of the conflict between the two nations. Such an attack has the potential to escalate tensions on both sides. It is worth noting that Israel has previously limited its strikes to specific military or strategic targets, whether inside Syria or within Iran. While the victims of this recent incident were Iranian Revolutionary Guard officers, it is important to acknowledge that the strike was directed at a diplomatic headquarters. It is unusual for political assassinations to occur in targets' homes or cars, as has happened in similar circumstances before. In this case, Israel seems to have intended to convey two messages to Iran through the attack. Firstly, it aims to confirm that its pursuit of military objectives in Syria will not spare even diplomatic headquarters. Secondly, it seeks to embarrass Tehran by targeting its consulate in Damascus. This is based on Tel Aviv's belief that Tehran will not engage in direct confrontation, which has been Iran's strategy since the start of the Gaza war on October 7, 2023.

2- A response to Iranian proxies: 

There has been a recent increase in the frequency of attacks by pro-Iranian militias and groups against Israel itself, rather than just its interests. This shift in strategy indicates a significant change in the tactics employed by these militias. For example, on March 20, 2023, these militias used drones to target Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. The following day, the so-called "Islamic Resistance in Iraq" used drones to target a Tel Aviv power plant. The attack on the Iranian consulate building in Damascus occurred just hours after the "Islamic Resistance in Iraq" claimed responsibility for violent attacks on a naval base in Eilat. Israel alleges that the strike was carried out by Iranian drones and directed by Tehran, sending a message from Tel Aviv to Iran that endangering Israeli territories will come at a high cost.

3- A focus on targeting military leaders: 

This attack may confirm Israel's strategy of targeting senior Iranian Revolutionary Guard leaders in Syria. Previously, Israeli strikes had focused on equipment, weapons, and ammunition stocks. However, over the last two months, Israel has been accused of launching raids that resulted in the deaths of many Revolutionary Guard officers in Syria.

For example, a raid on the outskirts of Damascus resulted in the assassination of Revolutionary Guard leader Razi Mousavi. Mousavi was in charge of coordinating the Guard's military alliance with militias in Syria and Lebanon and was second in command after former Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani. Another raid killed Sadiq Omidzadeh, the Quds Force intelligence chief in Syria, along with others.

The attack on the Iranian consulate underlines the ongoing targeting of Revolutionary Guard officers, whether they are located in secret or diplomatic headquarters. It is worth noting that Mohammad Reza Zahedi represented senior leadership with considerable experience inside the Revolutionary Guard. He was also in charge of the Quds Force, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's overseas wing, in Syria and Lebanon for many decades. Zahedi, who frequently moved between Damascus and Beirut, was in constant contact with Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary-General of Lebanon's Hezbollah.

4- Undermining the outcome of the Syrian Defense Minister's visit to Tehran: 

The attack on the Iranian consulate occurred shortly after Syrian Defense Minister, Major General Ali Mahmoud Abbas, visited Tehran on March 16. Prior to the visit, Iran and Syria had been coordinating on military and security matters, specifically regarding Israel's repeated attacks in Syria. Tel Aviv may have interpreted this visit as the start of a new phase of collaboration between the two countries, especially considering that Iran had announced its intention to provide Syria with defense systems. These systems include the Arman anti-ballistic missile system, the Azarakhsh low-altitude air defense system, and potentially the Khordad 15 air defense system. Israel is aware that these defense systems could help mitigate the impact of strikes targeting Iranian groups within Syrian territory.

5- Targeting preference: 

Israel is focusing on the selectivity of its targets inside Syria to convey messages to Syria that it is unconcerned about these attacks. This is also a warning to Damascus not to interfere with the targeting of Iranian presence, which Israel sees as a security threat. While the attack on the Iranian consulate was condemned by the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and described as a "terrorist" attack by Minister Faisal Al-Miqdad, Damascus's concerns about Iran's extensive military and intelligence presence inside Syria may still remain. It is now evident that Iran wants to establish a long-term presence in Syria to confront Israel, which puts the Syrian regime in an awkward situation.

6- The US’ denial of involvement in the assault: 

The US National Security Council spokesman stated that Washington explicitly informed Tehran that it "had no role in the [Israeli] strike and was unaware of it." This statement came after Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian announced that an official from the Swiss embassy in Tehran, representing US interests in the country, had been summoned to deliver a message to the US administration. The message held the US administration "accountable" for its support of Israel. The US denial is also based on the fact that Israel allegedly notified the United States of the strike beforehand and carried out the attack using F-35 fighter jets supplied by Washington. Considering the ongoing communication between Iran and the United States since the start of the Gaza conflict, it is unlikely that the US was involved in the strike. However, Israel notified Washington about it without waiting for clearance.

The Iranian Response

The attack on the Iranian consulate headquarters in Damascus could lead to several possible outcomes:

1- Direct retaliation: 

The incident puts Tehran in a difficult position and may prompt a direct response. However, it is unlikely that this retaliation would take place within Israel. Iran has shown a desire to avoid a direct confrontation with Israel, especially considering Israel's willingness to engage in confrontations and respond outside its borders. Instead, Iran may choose to target Israeli ships in the Gulf or the Red Sea, diplomatic headquarters, religious centers (as seen in some Latin American countries), or even the headquarters of Israeli intelligence services (as previously done in Iraqi Kurdistan).

2- A postponed response: 

Upon reviewing the threats issued by the Iranian side, it becomes clear that the majority of them revolve around the notion of "responding at the appropriate time." As a result, one possible outcome of the attack could be a suspension of an imminent response. This scenario has occurred in the past when Iranian targets were hit, making it likely to happen again. However, the cost, whether internal or external, could be significant. It may portray Iran as a "weak country" incapable of protecting its interests. Consequently, widespread popular dissatisfaction with the regime could arise, especially considering that demonstrations in Tehran have already begun to condemn the strike. Furthermore, the inability to respond would also be detrimental to fundamentalists who maintain a hardline stance toward Israel, particularly after controlling the results of the legislative elections last March.

3- An escalation through proxies: 

This scenario may be Iran's preferred option, at least for now. Tehran could exert pressure on Lebanese Hezbollah to increase missile attacks on Israeli targets. Additionally, they may encourage the Houthis to continue targeting Israeli and American ships. Iran might also urge its proxies in Iraq and Syria to launch attacks on Israeli and US targets. There are already indications of this situation unfolding. For instance, on the evening of April 1, Iranian-backed groups attacked the Al-Tanf US base in Syria using a drone. It is worth noting that militias had previously refrained from targeting this base since the attack on the "T22 Tower" base, which resulted in the deaths of three American soldiers on January 28, 2024. Furthermore, a cruise missile was launched towards the Golan but was successfully intercepted by Israeli air defenses.

The recent attack on the Iranian embassy in Syria has set in motion a new phase in the ongoing dispute between Tehran and Tel Aviv. Both parties are expected to adopt an action-reaction policy in order to prevent the situation from escalating further. However, there are concerns that these attacks could potentially trigger an unforeseen outbreak of conflict, which would have detrimental effects on the overall stability of the region.