Limor Simhony Philpott

How will Iran respond to Israel’s assassination in Damascus?

Two senior IRGC officials were killed in the attack in Syria's capital Damascus (Credit: Getty images)

Last night, six missiles fired from an Israeli F-35 combat aircraft hit and destroyed a building belonging to the Iranian embassy in Damascus, Syria. At the time, a meeting between high-ranking members of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad were taking place. The attack resulted in the death of two IRGC generals: Mohammad Reza Zahedi who was leader of the Quds force – the IRGC force in Syria and Lebanon – and his deputy, Sardar Haji Rahimi. It is reported that at least five other IRGC officers were killed in what is one of Israel’s most successful assassinations of senior Iranian commanders.

This was a risk that Israel was willing to take in order to eliminate two high-ranking commanders

The attack that killed the Iranian generals happened on the same day that a drone launched by an Iranian militia in Iraq exploded in an Israeli naval base in the southern city of Eilat causing no casualties and little damage. It was only the latest in drone and missile attacks against Israel launched by Iranian militias and other proxy organisations in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.

Iran’s leaders have repeatedly expressed their commitment to the destruction of Israel, and the country is seen by Israel as the main force behind regional and global terrorism against Israeli and Jewish targets. For many years, Israel has taken covert and overt actions against Iranian targets in an attempt to stop Iran from achieving nuclear capabilities and disrupting their armament of Israel’s enemies, mainly Hezbollah and Hamas.

When the war against Hamas started in October last year, hostilities between the sides intensified. However, Iran and Hezbollah took a cautious approach and limited their actions in support of Hamas in an effort to avoid being dragged into a full-scale war against Israel, which might have involved American forces too.

Yesterday’s assassination could lead to a further escalation in violence, and the Iranian government may act with far less restraint. Israel says the building which was hit was used as an Iranian military base and therefore not protected by diplomatic immunity. But Tehran is still likely to respond. Iran may prefer not to be engaged in a full-scale war, yet it may decide to retaliate in a way that establishes deterrence and discourages Israel from future attacks against high-profile targets.

Attacking Israel directly would prove challenging for Iran. Israel has far more advanced warning and detection system, making it possible to shoot down most missiles before they hit. As a result, it’s possible that Iran will choose softer targets around the world. This was a risk that Israel was willing to take in order to eliminate two high-ranking commanders.

The close relationship between Iran and Hezbollah means that things could escalate along Israel’s border with Lebanon, where Hezbollah is based. As Israel reduces the number of military forces in Gaza, it is looking north – towards the threat from Hezbollah, whose fighters are positioned in close proximity to its border.

The Israeli government was considering war against Hezbollah earlier in the conflict, and might have started won, had it not been for American objections. But the threat from Hezbollah remains extremely high. The organisation is such more powerful than Hamas, and it has been preparing for war since the last one against Israel ended in 2006. Negotiations to move forces away from the border permanently have so far not been successful. As a result, Israel fears that a similar attack like that one launched by Hamas on 7 October could be emulated by Hezbollah: tens of thousands of Israelis have been forced to evacuate towns along Israel’s northern border and have resided in temporary accommodations and hotels for the past six months.

However, the reality is that this isn’t good timing for Israel to be fully engaged in another war; international public opinion has largely turned against it, and a deep rift has opened between US president Joe Biden and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu. A war in Lebanon and the casualties that will ensue will place Israel in an even more awkward position with its allies, although this may still not deter Netanyahu, who remains defiant of criticism. As he faces international criticism and major political trouble at home, Netanyahu will need to decide Israel’s next move against Iran and Hezbollah, depending on their response to yesterday’s assassination.

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