Why did Israel launch a strike on Iran’s consulate in Syria?

The world is currently holding its breath, waiting for the unfolding of events in the Middle East following the Israeli airstrikes on Iranian consular buildings two weeks ago in Damascus, Syria.

The world is currently holding its breath, waiting for the unfolding of events in the Middle East following the Israeli airstrikes on Iranian consular buildings two weeks ago in Damascus, Syria. This attack which killed seven Iranian military members, including Mohammad Reza Zahedi, a senior commander in its Quds Force, was unprecedented as the attack took place on the compound of a consular mission, which is a highly protected area under the International Law and Conventions.  

These attacks left Iran with no option than to directly respond, and the Iranian response has opened up avenues of uncertainties which the Middle East and world politics are about to witness in the coming time.

Why Israel did what it did?

Israeli-Iranian relations have been marked by open hostility following the years of the Iranian revolution in 1979. The hostility has seen bloodshed on both sides over the years. Iran in particular has used proxies like Hezbollah and Houthis to attack Israel to avoid direct confrontation. While Israel in the same place avoided attacking Iran directly and instead attacked or counter-attacked Iranian affiliates and bases elsewhere. The Iranian Nuclear Science program was, however, an exception when Israel did not shy away from direct attacks on Iranian soil. The killing of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was one highly noted incident.

So, one could phrase the policy of Israel from the above – Israel tends to avoid direct conflicts with Iran on any given day, but if Iran is doing something which crosses the threshold set by Israel then they would not shy away from going to extents unvisited before for securing their national interests.

One school of thought which answers the recent Damascus attack is offensive realism. John Mearsheimer argued that states seek to maximise their chances of survival over any other goals. The current change in Israeli policy from merely targeting Iranian associates to directly eliminating the Iranian leadership in Syria, started with Israeli dissatisfaction with the limitations and failures of their restrictive approach. The continuous missile attacks by Hezbollah in recent days and Houthis attacks on Israeli ships in the Red Sea were probably a sign which shows Israel’s containment strategy has not worked well so far. Thus, Israel had no choice but to attack to increase their chances of survivability in the hostile Middle East region.  

Another argument which sounds probable is that Israel aims to maximise its security via show of hard power. Israel wishes to create fear amongst the top military leadership of Iran and wants them to take note that Iranian attacks on Israel via their proxies would not go unanswered. Israel aims to go after the leadership who supplies weapons, provides monetary and other support than after the stooges who physically carry out these attacks. The unprecedented attacks on the Iranian Mission warns Iran that Israel would go to any extent to ensure their national security.

Lack of credible deterrence could be seen as another point which encouraged the Israeli attack. Iran have historically controlled their temptation to strike back recklessly and thus, they failed to create deterrance when similar incidents happened in the past. When Soleimani was killed by the USA, Iran deliberately designed a response which avoided any casualties in order to stop a counter-American response. Even when Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed, Iran restricted itself to directly attack Israel. It is a good possibility that the Israeli leadership thought of the Iranian response, if it happened, would be limited partially because Iran doesn’t want to be in a full-scale conflict and partially because of the massive tilt of the balance of power in Israeli favour due to the presence of the USA. President Biden had already made it clear that Israel has the ironclad support of the US in case of an Iranian response.

En route to Iranian Revolution 2.0?

The last and the most important reasoning which Israel could have thought is that bringing Iran to a full-scale conflict brings a historic opportunity for Israel to topple the Iranian regime. The time is also ripe for this, as Israel has suffered one of the worst attacks in its history and is already engaged in a conflict in Gaza. Wars are costly businesses and Iran cannot afford one at the moment. Pushing Iran to war could be more beneficial to Israel, and it may be willing to take that risk to permanently solve the issue. Iran and its proxies will find it difficult to defeat a nuclear state like Israel, backed by the US and its allies. Furthermore, Iran’s capability to smoothly engage Israel is limited by the fact that there are countries like Jordan which lie between Iran and Israel who may not be happy over the usage of their airspace for such attacks. However, losing the war does not essentially mean the toppling of the Iranian regime. What is more concerning for Iran is dealing with internal strife during the war.

In recent years, Iran has seen widescale civil protests, the notable ones being the Bloody November protests of 2019 and the hijab protests following the death of Mahsa Amini in 2022. Protests like these are part of a wider call for reforms in the Iranian democratic system which shows a large chunk of masses is not satisfied with the current regime in Iran. Involvement in wars means slowdown of the economy and higher levels of authoritarianism which could be repulsed by the Iranian masses. This would provide a scenario for the West to get involved and provide a platform for an Iranian Revolution 2.0 as Arab Spring is still fresh in minds of the masses in the Middle East. Toppling the Iranian regime like that would be the best possible outcome for Israel but a result like that is far-fetched. Iran simply would not come out for a full-scale war unless Israel pushes it to do so, but wars with a regional power like Iran would have consequences for Israel as well.

The attack on the Iranian Consulate was aimed to achieve more than the deaths of top commanders of the Quds force. Israel knows that these forces have a long list of experienced commanders who could easily replace the generals killed in Damascus. So, going this far for the sake of revenge does not seem to be the main purpose of the attack and the Middle East could be lining up for another phase of bloody conflict at its disposal.

Ankit Shubham
Ankit Shubham
Advocate. Graduate, National Law University, Jodhpur (India), having specialisation in International Trade Law and keen interest in International Relations and Politics.