Can Iran be pushed into war with Israel after the assassination of a senior commander?

The killing of the IRGC military official in Syria could lead to a major response from Tehran's regional proxies

A poster of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Brig Gen Seyed Razi Mousavi in Tehran after he was killed in an Israeli missile attack outside Damascus. EPA
Powered by automated translation

The assassination of a senior commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, (IRGC) in Syria could be a provocation by Israel to draw its existential enemy, Iran, into a broader regional war, Middle East political analysts and observers have said – but it remains to be seen what form Iran’s promised retaliation will take.

Brig Gen Razi Mousavi, known as Sayyed Razi, was killed in a reported Israeli strike in Syria’s capital Damascus on Monday. He was the most senior commander in the IRGC to be assassinated since the killing of Quds Force Gen Qassem Suleimani in 2020 by a targeted US drone strike in Iraq.

The well-established senior commander had been operating in and out of Syria for at least 15 years – by some accounts about 30 – and was responsible for “supporting the resistance front in Syria,” according to an IRGC statement released following his death.

Retaliation would be exacted “without a doubt” against Israel, whom the IRGC blamed for the killing, the statement added.

Riad Kahwaji, who heads the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, said, “Syria is the bridge Iran uses to provide weapons and logistical support to Hezbollah in Lebanon.”

“He was high-ranking, influential, and a big loss for the Iranians,” Mr Kahwaji added. “They can appoint a replacement, but the years of experience he had will make his loss felt for a while.”

Although Iran promised retribution for the commander’s killing, “It’s highly unlikely we’ll see Iran directly retaliate,” according to Mr Kahwaji.

“Iranians have created proxy groups as a projection force in order for it to be able to stay out of any wars. If the Iranians retaliate, it will be through its proxies, never directly against Israel or the US because they do not want to be directly involved in war with either one.”

Iran’s proxies – commonly known as the Axis of Resistance – have rallied to militarily support ally Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, following the group's attack on Israel October 7.

Potential action against Iran

The alliance of Iran-backed militant groups across the Middle East has choreographed numerous attacks against Israel since then. The Lebanese Hezbollah group has waged a cross-border conflict with Israel from Lebanon and, in some cases, Syria, seeking to divert its enemy from its invasion of Gaza. In Yemen, the Iran-backed Houthis have attacked Israel-linked ships in the Red Sea – demanding an end to Israel's war in Gaza and the delivery of life-saving food and medical supplies to the enclave. In Iraq, militant groups have stepped up attacks on US military installations in the country.

But the pressure has done little to sway Israel from its assault on Gaza.

In a speech before Israel’s Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant hinted at potential action against Iran.

“We are in a multi-arena war,” he said. “We are under attack from seven different sectors – Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Iraq, Yemen and Iran. We’ve already reacted and acted in six of these sectors.”

“I say here in the most explicit way – anyone who acts against us is a potential target. There is no immunity for anyone,” Mr Gallant said.

Hezbollah, joined by allied armed groups, first initiated its cross-border conflict with Israel when it shot rockets at the occupied Shebaa Farms on October 8.

But since then, Israel has gradually but consistently upped the ante of its attacks on Lebanon, despite Hezbollah’s show of relative restraint as the group mostly targets military bases and installations.

Israel hasn't shied away from civilian casualties even after the party’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah threatened to retaliate. In Lebanon, about 19 civilians have been killed by the fighting. In Israel, the civilian death toll stands at four.

On each side of the Lebanon-Israel border, over 60,000 people have been displaced by the conflict.

For Israel, the inability to project peace for its population along the northern border while the southern region near Gaza remains unstable presents an existential threat of sorts, according to Mohanad Hage Ali, from the Carnegie Middle East Centre.

In short, “Israel believes war with Hezbollah is necessary,” he told The National.

Mr Kahwaji believes Israel’s targeting of major assets in Syria and Lebanon – such as Sayyed Razi’s killing – is an attempt to provoke Hezbollah, and by default Iran, into a larger war.

If Hezbollah or Iran were to retaliate harshly to Brig Gen Razi’s assassination, “it would invite major Israeli retaliation that could justify a major Israeli operation,” he said.

“And even if Hezbollah and Iran don’t respond in a big way … Israel would have still taken out a big figure. It’s a win-win for the Israelis.”

If Israel manages to provoke a reaction from Tehran or its proxies, it would be in the hopes of drawing the US into a regional war, according to analyst Karim Al Mufti, a professor of international relations at Sciences Po Paris.

Israel “wants to get their allies into the trench with them”, he said.

But, he added, such a large-scale retaliation from Iran, Hezbollah or any proxies seems unlikely – just as the retaliation was somewhat tempered following Maj Gen Suleimani's assassination in 2020.

Although Maj Gen Suleimani was reportedly the second-most powerful figure in Iran, the IRGC's retribution was limited to launching volleys of ballistic missiles at two airbases hosting US troops in Iraq.

The attack caused no US deaths; US soldiers had received advanced warning of the missile attack from the Iraqi government, which in turn had been notified by Tehran.

Iran and Hezbollah's responses are measured and calculated, according to Mr Al Mufti.

“They're playing the long game,” he said, and are unlikely to risk destabilising the military might Iran has worked to establish in the region.

Iranian Retaliation in Iraq

An Iraqi Shiite politician linked to Iran-backed militias doesn’t rule out that Iran’s retaliation could take place in Iraq.

“We will be surprised if Iran will not retaliate,” he told The National. “It will be a matter of time to decide where and when,” he added.

When Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani took office in October last year, Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq stopped their rocket and drone attacks against US troops in Iraq.

But after the Hamas October 7 attack, the Iraqi militias, who also have a presence in Syria, resumed attacks against the US troops in both countries.

The umbrella group of militias, the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, has claimed responsibility for more than 100 attacks in Iraq and Syria.

They say the attacks are to show support with Gaza, but they are also demanding the withdrawal of the US troops in Iraq, calling them “occupiers”, echoing the Iranian statements regarding the US presence in Iraq.

The escalation between Iran-backed Shiite militants and US forces has put the government in a difficult position which has been trying to convince the militias to reach an agreement with the US through diplomatic channels about their military presence in Iraq.

On Tuesday, the Iraqi government condemned US air strikes on three sites in Iraq that left one serviceman killed and 18 wounded as an “unacceptable infringement to the Iraqi sovereignty”.

The US strikes came after an attack wounded three American personnel the previous day.

Updated: December 27, 2023, 1:52 PM