Tension rises as US expects Iran to ‘imminently’ avenge Israel’s Damascus attack

Tension rises as US expects Iran to ‘imminently’ avenge Israel’s Damascus attack
Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on 1 March 2024 in Tehran, Iran. (Photo: Majid Saeedi / Getty Images)

Iran may be close to launching missile or drone strikes on Israeli targets in response to a deadly attack on its diplomatic compound in Syria last week. Yet how the Islamic Republic retaliates is more complicated than the why.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has repeatedly said Israel will be “punished” for a deadly attack on its diplomatic compound in Syria last week, which destroyed the consulate building and killed at least 13 people. The risk is that the move could significantly escalate the conflict in the Middle East and put Iran even more in the crosshairs.

The US and its allies believe a major revenge attack is imminent, either by Iran or its various proxies in the region, according to people familiar with the intelligence. Recent history suggests any assault will be measured against what might come next from Iran’s adversaries. When the US killed General Qassem Soleimani in 2020, for example, Iran opted for non-lethal attacks on military bases. 

“Iran is in a precarious position — Israel has been calling its bluff for some time,” said Bader Al-Saif, an assistant professor at Kuwait University and a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “It’s kind of damned if it responds and damned if it doesn’t.”

Israel hasn’t claimed responsibility for the Damascus attack, in keeping with its usual response to accusations of targeting Iran, though it has tried to cut off weapons supplies to Islamist militant groups via Syria for years. 

Its military campaign in Gaza against Hamas — a group backed by Iran and categorised as a terrorist organisation by the US and the European Union — has entered a seventh month and has been accompanied by heightened tension with Hezbollah and the Houthis, other militia allied with Iran.

At stake for Iran is the risk of diverting the world’s attention away from Israel’s war in Gaza, which Hamas authorities say has killed more than 33,000 Palestinians and led to increasing international and domestic pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A humanitarian crisis has been building in the enclave, and the United Nations has warned that tens of thousands of people are on the brink of famine. 

Tehran’s potential attack, which has spooked oil markets, could come in a variety of forms.  

Khamenei has said the Damascus assault was equivalent to an attack on Iranian soil, and the most explosive response would be to launch one in Israel. That would have the potential to trigger a full-on war that would be likely to draw in the US and other Israeli allies. A precedent for Iran attacking Israeli territory came in 2018 when Tehran fired rockets from Syria on positions in the Golan Heights.  

Yet even if Iran’s leader were to attempt such a move, his military would have to get past Israel’s sophisticated defence systems, according to Fabian Hinz, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. 

That becomes even harder from long range unless supplemented by attacks from, say, Hezbollah next door in Lebanon. That, though, would risk further conflict between Israel and the group. A lower-key option would be an escalation of Hezbollah’s rocket barrage on northern Israel or Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea. 

“The Iranian systems are very good — there’s no doubt about that — the issue is just that Israeli defences are absolutely exceptional,” Hinz said. “If a strike would show that most of them can get intercepted and are not very effective, you might still have a political and symbolic victory, but it would degrade your deterrence capabilities.”

Israel scrambled navigational signals over the Tel Aviv metropolitan area a week ago in preparation for an Iranian attack, a showcase of its capabilities.  

Another option is to target Israeli embassies, a tit-for-tat response to the Damascus bombing. But it would be a high-risk move given Iran’s other priorities in the Middle East. Tehran agreed last year to restore diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, for example, ending a seven-year freeze. And while Israel doesn’t have an embassy in Riyadh, an attack on a Saudi regional ally could cause diplomatic problems.  

A non-military assault — via agents or a proxy group — could be more practical, though Iran’s track record of success with similar attempts in the past is poor, according to Hinz. “A lot of these attacks were prevented by Israeli intelligence,” he said.  

Iran could respond by attacking Israeli or US military bases, as it has done during previous flare-ups. Most recently, the US — Israel’s main ally — said Iranian-backed militants killed three US service members and wounded 25 others in a drone attack near the Syrian border in January. 

Iran holds the US responsible for the Damascus attack as well as Israel, due to Washington’s support for the Jewish state. The US made the rare move of contacting Tehran directly to say it wasn’t involved. 

Attacks on military bases were Iran’s preferred approach after former US President Donald Trump ordered the killing of General Soleimani. Iran struck the Al Asad airbase in Iraq, injuring more than 100 US troops, while suspected Iranian proxies fired rockets at the US embassy in Baghdad. 

“Iran’s response, whether in self-restraint or attack via proxies, hasn’t amounted to much in terms of deterring Israel,” said Al-Saif at Kuwait University. “A direct response is its litmus test.” DM

Read more in Daily Maverick: Israel-Palestine War

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  • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

    Until Iran actually attacks Israel I will view this as a ploy by USA and allies to keep the flow of weapons to Israel, they are struggling to explain the supply in the evident mass killing of civillians including domestic citizens.

    • Dietmar Horn says:

      Whenever DM reports on the situation in Gaza, you express your opinion. Whenever DM reports on war in Africa, the humanitarian catastrophe in Sudan, then I miss your “constructive” contributions there. Don’t you have an opinion on this?

      • Luke S says:

        Same old retort from the IDF apologists: Personally attack the person defending the Palestinian people in one or both of two ways, either tell them their opinion is invalid because they aren’t also condemning (and then they choose 1 of 100 other things going on in the world), or call them racists (antisemites). Dietmar – how about addressing the topic, instead of the same old irrelevant personal attacks on the person, which is such blatant indoctrination, it would be funny if it wasn’t trying to defend so many murders.

        • Dietmar Horn says:

          The question is simply whether one considers human rights to be universally valid or takes a culturally relativist stance; whether compliance with human rights is only demanded when they are violated by actors who are assigned to the “West”. Anyone who raises the moral finger has to endure such questions. Is the empathy shown sincere or are the victims exploited ideologically?

        • Dietmar Horn says:

          The topic of the article is whether, in what way and with what probability Iran will respond to the attack on its diplomatic mission. Last night Iran reacted – and? Regarding the attack on the embassy building, it should be said that attacks on a diplomatic mission are always to be condemned and cannot be justified in any way; not even if it were proven that it would be misused for hybrid warfare purposes. That is why Israel will not claim responsibility for the attack. The rules of international war law were not formulated under the impression of hybrid war tactics. Now we have a murderous regime in Iran that tortures and causes women to die in its prisons simply because they demonstrated against an anachronistic dress code; and this regime supports the fight against Israel with all means. How credible is the moral outrage of commentators who one-sidedly complain about human rights violations on the Israeli side? Are there good and bad murderers? Doesn’t it constitute anti-Semitism to value Israeli injustice more simply because it is committed by Israel?

      • Mordechai Yitzchak says:

        You know him – if its aint the you know whos, it aint news

      • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

        I am going to be kind Dietmar, you are economical with the truth just go through all the articles.
        Secondly there is no rule that say you must comment on all articles because you won’t have fact unless you are a Zionist, commenting according to ethnicity.
        Ask the Jews they comment on facts and they are not happy with the murder of hostages and innocent Palestinians, they are camping in Israel cities.
        If you don’t have anything to comment on Don’t.

        • Dietmar Horn says:

          I admit that this comment of mine is a bit exaggerated, but as it turns out, provocative wording is sometimes good for triggering self-revealing reactions. On the same day, another article appeared in DM that discussed the humanitarian disaster in Sudan: zero comments to date. Shouldn’t one question why human rights violations in Gaza and elsewhere attract such different levels of interest? Isn’t it the case that different ideological standards are set for the same facts?

  • John Shaw says:

    The flaw in the legitimacy of Israel is that it was created by the West without regard for the people of Palestine. Palestine was a British administered territory from 1917. Sometime thereafter a British politician by the name of Lord Balfour produced a document encouraging the creation of a Jewish State it became known as the Balfour Doctrine. In 1947 after the holocaust, The League of Nations/United Nations encouraged by the USA and Britain created Israel by dividing up Palestine into a section for the Jews and a section for the Palestinians. Both Jews and Palestinians lived in Palestine, the Palestinians were in the majority. The Palestinians and the Arab world rejected the division outright. The future of Palestine could only be decided by the Palestinian people.
    Many wars have been fought and millions of people have been displaced, killed, starved to death, or denied medical attention at the hands of the Jews occupying Palestine. On day one in 1948 the Jews displaced 750 000 from their homes in the new Israel. The Jews occupying Palestine have brutally abused the Palestinians for 75 years. These are crimes against humanity. They have done this by dehumanising the Palestinians, these constructs made it easy to slaughter 25000 women and children, almost a journalist a day and describe it as being ‘caught in the crossfire’. This is in the short period from October 7 23. The Jews have in the process dehumanised themselves. They have lost their humanity, their souls; they no longer have moral integrity and are no longer behaving like human beings. Evidence supports the claims that the Jews are starving the Palestinians by frustrating aid into Gaza. They are also denying them medical attention by destroying hospitals and other medical facilities. Killing Aid workers is strategic, demolishing medical facilities is strategic and especially killing journalists is strategic. No aid workers, no aid, no health facilities, no medical attention, no Palestinians! The IDF members slaughter anybody and everybody they come into contact with, including unarmed young children, old people, women, health workers, aid workers and their response is a social media celebration. These are commonly known as war crimes.
    The Israelis have destroyed cultural sites, archives, education sites, medical facilities and homes, the evidence supports genocide. In addition, they are building settlements in Palestinian territory notwithstanding many UN resolutions declaring them illegal. The Jews now occupy the whole of Palestine.
    Recently an old Jewish person wrote ‘we were the victims now we are the perpetrators’, what he did not speak about was the past 75 years where the USA, the UK, their European allies together with the Israeli propaganda machine, the Jews around the world and the Western media have provided cover for all the atrocities committed by Israel. The propaganda machine attacks everybody that is not pro-Israel. The attacks are relentless, truth is not important. The evidence hardly ever supports Israel’s version of events. The Israeli Knesset recently passed a law enabling the banning of media regarded a security risk to Israel, Al Jazeera is the first to be banned. Al Jazeera is the most credible media channel covering the Middle East. Truth is always discredited by Israel. The UN is often in the firing line, they know too much about what happens in the occupied territories. The Israeli propaganda machine demonises any persons or entities that share truth. Israel sounds a lot like North Korea, unhinged and isolated.
    We all wonder why the USA and their allies unconditionally support Israel, why Israel is never held accountable. Israel has been described as ‘lawless’ by legal scholars, as in criminal. The US is providing the bombs and ammunition that are used to slaughter the Palestinians. Israel is their frontman in the Middle East, there is more US military hardware in Israel including nuclear than anywhere in the world. The USA has provided hundreds of billions of dollars in support of Israel over the years. There are a lot of Jews in the USA, and all have a vote. This is about politics not morality. When the US President speaks about his concern for the Palestinians, he is not concerned about them he is concerned about votes. Nothing changes on the ground, it is called politics speak. How did the promoters of Israel expect the creation of a Jewish state to be a success without the support of the Palestinians and the Arab world?
    Israel will have no legitimacy for many people of the world until there is an agreement with the people of Palestine. Remarkably, the Israelis never speak about a solution only more violence and atrocities. There are no Nelson Mandelas in Israel so don’t expect a solution soon. The Palestinians in whatever form, Hamas or Hezbollah or the ordinary people of Palestine have few options to deal with the injustice they have been dealt. The accusation that UNRWA, the UN aid organisation, is supporting terrorism is another cynical example of the Israeli’s taking every opportunity to exterminate the Palestinians. Of course, the Palestinians support Hamas and Hezbollah who else is batting for them. The Palestinians have been violated, impoverished, and humiliated for the past 75 years. Hezbollah and Hamas are the consequence.
    Israeli aggression is now on the world stage, it is out of the exclusive hands of the Israeli propaganda machine and the USA, the Teutonic plates around this issue are shifting, the best outcome is that Israel is dismantled. Israel is a threat to world peace and has bought death and misery to millions of people The cover provided and encouragement of these crimes against humanity by the USA, its allies, the western media, the Israeli propaganda machine, and the Jews around the world will go down in history as a crime of its own.
    Only disciples of humanity get to heaven.

    John Shaw
    South Africa

    • Mordechai Yitzchak says:

      Such a long essay, to have simply said what any antisemite could have said in one sentence …

      • Luke S says:

        Mordechai, I’ve seen about 10 posts from you so far in the last two days. Most if not all of them simply attack the person who has a fair opinion on the topic, or is stating facts as Mr. Shaw has above. Not only that, but you attack them with a vile, deeply insulting accusation, without knowing a thing about the person who has taken the time to think about, read up on, and write about the actual topic at hand. What are you hoping to achieve? Seriously? What could this method of conversation/debate possibly achieve that would do anyone, including yourself, any good at all? I’m genuinely curious.

      • Luke S says:

        Your deep hatred for anyone who criticises the government of a country that I’m guessing you don’t even live in (since you’re commenting daily on a South African website), that you take every opportunity to express, ironically as accusing them as having a hatred for a specific group, is not going to bring anyone killed in any war back to life. On either side. Alienating yourself by repeating very old and tired propaganda isn’t going to change a single thing for the better, for anyone. I’m using your tactics now: I’ve had more mature thoughtful conversations with a 7 year old. Honestly. What have you got to say on THE TOPIC, or are you trying to say that all the middle east issues are all the result of antisemitism? Really? So many people apparently hating a certain group because…? Please come and join us around the table, it is more productive than throwing the same old ethereal stones through the window, while raging.

    • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

      Unfortunately Israel is creating problems for Europe and the west by attacking the Iranian embassy in Syria, Mexico wants Ecuador expelled from the UN for it’s attack on its embassy.
      No condemnation was issued on the Iran issue, now Mexico suffered the same attack, to make matters worse lives were lost on the Iran consulate, which is protected by the same Vienna convention.
      I take note in advance that there are DM commentators who would rather face a bullet than the truth about Israel, it is sad to have no defence for something that you hold dear, I forgive them in advance.

  • Hidden Name says:

    Hate to say it, but pragmatically speaking, removing Iran from the board would go a long way to settling quite a few conflicts. It’s almost inevitable that they will escalate things. Israel is correct to go after them as the main supporter of the various terrorist groups attacking them. No Iran means no Hezbollah, Houtis or Hamas. Considering the amount of conflict these groups cause destroying their support makes good tactical sense. Guess we will see.

    • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

      Iran and it’s allies (purposely not calling them proxies) exist because of connected relations in blood lines.
      Like in our diversity here where people will relate in bloodlines with families in nearby countries although not in significant numbers.
      These are the aggrieved groups who will group and look for support and they happen to align with Iran in certain areas which results in them getting the support and pushing the common agenda.
      The common visible agenda is Palestine which makes Israel a common enemy.
      There is also a religious ideology connection that comes into play, a bond that will almost be impossible to dismantle.
      The existence of foreign elements who relate with the players in the middle east based on what suits their interests abroad complicates issues.
      Unfortunately weapons is the common support flourishing as means of support between all these players, weapons lead to one result, death and destruction.

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