Israel trying to pull Iran into deeper confrontation with Damascus killings, analysts say

The killing of Iranian and Tehran-allied commanders in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq in recent weeks has opened a 'phase of reciprocal killings'

Smoke rises after an Israeli missile strike in Damascus on Saturday, which killed four members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards. Reuters
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The killing of top Iranian intelligence officers in Damascus on Saturday is an attempt to pull Tehran into a deeper regional confrontation over Israel’s war in Gaza and indicates a prolonged series of revenge killings across the Middle East, according to security officials and experts.

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps accused Israel of killing four of its “security advisers” in a strike in Damascus, including its intelligence chief in Syria and his deputy. Israel did not immediately comment on the accusations.

“The strike confirms that we are in a phase of reciprocal killings,” a security official in Beirut told The National.

The attack happened weeks after the killing in Syria of Brig Gen Razi Mousavi, a senior IRGC military commander. Iran also accused Israel of being behind the attack and vowed to retaliate.

Earlier this month, an Israeli strike killed Saleh Al Arouri, the Iran-backed Hamas deputy leader in Beirut, followed by a strike in eastern Baghdad that killed three militants allied with Tehran. The next week, an Israeli strike killed the top commander in Hezbollah's elite Radwan unit, Wissam al Tawil, in his car.

“This is going to be a long confrontation,” added the security official.

Saturday’s strike, which hit a residential building in the Syrian capital, came days after Iran launched a missile strike on the city of Erbil in northern Iraq.

Tehran said it had targeted an “Israeli spy base”, a claim Iraq's federal government in Baghdad rejected.

The strike was a rare direct Iranian involvement in the regional confrontation over Israel’s war in Gaza.

The IRGC claimed the strikes were carried out in “response to the recent evil acts of the Zionist regime in martyring IRGC and resistance commanders” — in reference to the recent assassinations.

“It seems that the Iranian strike in Erbil, achieved its goal and hurt the Israelis, and that is why Israel responded in this way,” said political expert Wissam Bazzi.

But according to Joseph Daher, a regional scholar and expert who has written two books on Syria and the Lebanese Hezbollah group: "These days whenever there’s an opportunity [Israel] takes it.”

He added that Israel’s assassinations of the senior IRGC officials in Syria are a “continuation” of covert Israeli military operations on Iranian and Iran-affiliated figures that have taken place since the war in Syria began in 2011.

“It’s not new to target IRGC personalities in Syria, or even Hezbollah figures in Syria,” he said.

Since the Hamas attacks on Israel on October 7 and the start of the devastating war in the Gaza Strip, Tehran has intensified operations through its axis of proxy militant groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen – all of which are operating in various degrees to exert pressure on Israel to cease its assault on the enclave.

Earlier this month, officials and militants told The National that the Iran-backed armed factions in the Middle East had established a daily co-ordination process through a joint command since the start of the war, mainly focused on picking up targets and the timings of attacks against Israel and US forces.

“We should expect assassinations and bombings throughout this wide region, from Iran to the Axis countries led by Iran, in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and even in Iran itself.

''Perhaps we will witness something bigger than assassinations,” warned Muhammad Saleh Sedqian, Director of the Arab Centre for Iranian Studies in Tehran.

Regional expert Joseph Daher told The National that if Israel’s wave of assassinations continues, it would be because “they have a green light [from the United States] on everything in Syria related to the IRGC”.

Crucially, Iran’s response to Israeli attacks on its forces in the region has historically been reserved, due to the possibility that full-on war would destroy the political, military, and economic influence it has built in the region and through its proxies over the years.

Israel knows there won’t be a response, or it will be a small response,” Mr Daher said.

“They don’t have a green light for a full war in Lebanon,” where the Lebanese Hezbollah group is waging a mid-intensity border conflict with Israel in an attempt to divert it from its war in Gaza, he added.

The cross-border conflict has displaced tens of thousands of people on both sides of the frontier.

The hostilities have presented a major problem for Israel, whose displaced have often reiterated their hesitation to return as long as the Iran-backed Hezbollah – with a paramilitary that outrivals the Lebanese army – remains in control of southern Lebanon.

Although Hezbollah was the first to initiate the cross-border conflict, the group has been careful to keep hostilities contained out of a desire to avoid a full-scale war that would likely drag its ally and sponsor, Iran, deeper into the fray.

“But inside Syria, Israel has no problem with bombarding and conducting assassinations” against Iranian officials and Iranian allies like Hezbollah, Mr Daher said.

“Even if the Americans don't agree, they’re not objecting. Historically speaking it’s been like this.”

An all-out war directly involving Iran remains unlikely due to Tehran’s own unwillingness to be dragged in, most experts agree, although the slightest miscalculation could tip the region into turmoil.

Updated: January 21, 2024, 7:32 PM