Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei this week asserted that Israel would face consequences for its attack on the Iranian Embassy compound in Damascus that claimed the lives of two senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps generals. President Ebrahim Raisi also vowed that Iran would retaliate and “punish” Israel. This was followed by the IRGC and its proxies across the region, which promised more deadly strikes against Israel.

Monday’s attack, coupled with the heightened rhetoric and the situation in Gaza, has sparked fears within the international media and diplomatic community of a broader conflict in the region. But is this really about to happen?

Despite the promises of Iranian officials, I doubt the Iranian response will be so vehement as to rock the rules of engagement between the two countries. Even if this was the first time Israel has hit the Iranian Embassy in Syria, these targeted assassinations appear to fall within the agreed playbook between the two regional powers. The target of the attack was Brig. Gen. Mohammed Reza Zahedi, who was a commander in the IRGC’s Quds Force responsible for its role in Syria and Lebanon.

Yet, this strike should also raise two questions. What is the IRGC preparing in Syria and has it changed its objectives since the war in Gaza started? And maybe more importantly, how did Israel know when to hit its target, especially as it was known that Zahedi traveled in secret? Just two months ago, the IRGC reduced its deployment of senior officers in Syria due to Israel’s deadly airstrikes and instead relied more heavily on its allied militias. This claimed shift came after a spate of attacks by Israel that killed several IRGC members, including high-ranking commanders.

Call me a conspiracy theorist, but when such strikes take place, one has to wonder where the information came from. It has always been the case — whether it was the 2008 killing of Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s international operations chief, or Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force, in 2020 — that the information comes from within.

Mughniyeh was killed by a bomb planted in a spare tire on an SUV in Damascus. The bomb was apparently triggered remotely by Mossad agents, instantly killing the target. Media reports indicated that a team of CIA spotters was tracking his movements in Damascus but they could not intervene in the operation executed by Mossad. This took place amid accusations of links between Hezbollah and the Syrian regime over the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Today, the Syrian regime is in the middle of an ambiguous situation and it knows it will not regain its legitimacy while staying under the thumb of the Iranian regime. Worse, it cannot accept having a proliferation of militias that undermine its authority. Hence, the increase in assassinations could mean that either the Syrian regime is looking to tame the Iranian plans indirectly or, at a less strategic level, the Syrian security services are leaking information for financial or other benefits. For Tehran, in the short term, the result is the same.

There is also clarity and a strategic position in the fact that Iran has stood silent in the face of numerous Israeli strikes in Syria and Lebanon. It has, for decades, worked with great focus on developing a military infrastructure and logistics that extend to Syria and Lebanon through Iraq. This Israeli strike, like the previous ones, will not create a different outcome and will not lead to an escalation or broadening of the war for these reasons. We can call it the rules of engagement between these countries, but it is starting to look like a Tehran-Tel Aviv tango in the land of the Levant.

Despite the war in Ukraine — and only two days after the Israeli attack on the Iranian Embassy compound — Russia’s Defense Ministry this week deployed more forces to the Syrian-controlled areas of the Golan Heights. These soldiers, from Russia’s military police, aim to reduce tensions and monitor the ceasefire in Syrian provinces like Quneitra and Deraa. Russian observation posts are positioned above Syrian military posts to oversee potential provocations.

However, as we now all know, despite their interests being aligned with the Assad regime, Russia and Iran are also in competition for influence and leverage on Syrian soil. This Iranian retrenchment is a tactical win for Russia, as well as the Assad regime, which could not agree with Iran’s deployment of militias like in Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere.

One striking difference from 2008 and the targeting of Mughniyeh is the US position. Judging by the current administration’s response of profuse and obsequious justifications to Tehran that it was not involved, something has indeed changed. Moreover, current and former US officials have expressed concerns over Israel’s airstrike, fearing that it could escalate tensions in the region and lead to retaliatory strikes. This is the first time that, despite the IRGC being designated as a foreign terrorist organization, the US has not granted Israel the gift of silence. If we read between the lines, it is perhaps even going so far as condemning this action.

There is no doubt that Iran is not only suffering on the ground in Syria, but it is also suffering from a huge deficit in terms of image and status since the Gaza war started. Despite the visit of leaders of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad to Iran last week, many consider Tehran to be standing on the sidelines and leaving its proxy militias to focus on wreaking havoc, rather than getting involved in a direct war with Israel, as its raison d’etre claims. Yet, this time, the biggest challenge might not be Israel but a less docile regime in Syria.

Source » arabnews