Israel's attack on Iranian embassy erases unspoken 'red lines'

Experts and political sources say loss of prominent IRGC commander is serious but not irreparable for Tehran

Rescue workers search the rubble of the Iranian embassy in Damascus after an air strike. AFP
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Israel’s brazen attack on an Iranian embassy annexe in the Syrian capital Damascus may have erased unspoken “red lines” but caused little long-term damage and is unlikely to change Iran’s strategy of attrition warfare, experts and sources told The National.

The Israeli strike killed Mohammad Reza Zahedi, who was the commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Forces in Lebanon and Syria, along with six other members of the force.

Mr Zahedi played a key role in facilitating the transfer of weapons and military support from Tehran to its ally Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, and was responsible for creating strategies for Tehran's "axis of resistance", comprised of Iran-backed armed groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

In addition he had responsibility for consolidating Iran and Hezbollah's role in Syria, a political source close to the axis said.

The loss of the prominent senior commander is “serious” but not “irreparable”, they added.

“In principle, every assassination of a leader in the resistance axis represents a loss,” the source said. “But it does not cause irreparable harm because this force does not rely on a hierarchical leadership structure ... dozens of leaders can fill the void quickly and had worked alongside him for years.”

The killing could bring about the rise of new leadership within the IRGC, said Mohanad Hage Ali of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Centre.

Assassinations, while concerning in the short term, “ensure internal mobility, a new opportunity for younger members to move up in ranks. This is how organisations like this renew themselves,” he said.

'No red lines'

More concerning for Tehran and the international community than Israel's assassination of IRGC and Hezbollah commanders is its apparent abandonment of unspoken boundaries in its conflict with Iran, he said.

“There are no red lines after this. Killing Iranian generals inside an Iranian embassy is really the ultimate attack in many ways,” Mr Hage Ali said.

Israel has long tracked the movements of Iranian officials in Syria but has rarely acted to target them.

“In Syria the Israelis obviously have a lot of intel," he said. “[Before October 7] what kept them from killing generals and commanders were mostly these red lines. But now these are gone.”

Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah has so far resisted playing into Israel’s escalations, calibrating their retaliation with the aim of keeping the conflict contained while supporting their ally Hamas in Gaza.

Israeli air strike hits Iranian consulate in Syria

Israeli air strike hits Iranian consulate in Syria

The embassy attack highlighted a key problem with Israel’s maximalist strategy of targeted assassinations and what the international community has come to see as a disregard for international norms in Gaza and against Iran-backed groups across the region.

Iran’s resistance to provocation – having responded to previous assassinations with relative restraint – has served only to highlight Israel’s self-isolation.

The embassy attack was the first intentional incident of a sovereign country attacking another’s diplomatic mission on foreign soil and was condemned widely by the international community.

The day after, six foreign aid workers were killed in Israeli strikes on their vehicles while delivering food to starving civilians in Gaza, prompting further international outrage.

“Iran’s is not a regime that favours an all-out war," Mr Hage Ali told The National. "For them, Israel is digging its own grave. It’s better not to get in the way of them doing that."

Rather, Iran looks set to continue with its attrition tactics, hoping that over time the administration of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will further isolate itself and erode its international support through its own actions.

“When Iran then has a window of opportunity it will likely re-establish deterrence,” Mr Hage Ali said.

Updated: April 04, 2024, 7:07 AM