Israel just raised the risk of a regional war

Israel just raised the risk of a regional war

Iranian protesters burn US flags during a protest gathering to condemn the Israeli airstrike against the Iranian consulate in Syria, at Palestine Square in Tehran, Iran, on April 1, 2024 | Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images

And US troops may suffer the consequences.

Even as the fighting has raged in Gaza, a question has hung over the war: Would it escalate into a wider regional conflict involving Iran, its various proxy groups, and perhaps even the US military?

Nearly six months after October 7, it’s a mixed picture. The Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have played a much larger role in the conflict than most observers expected, up to the point of meaningfully disrupting international shipping. But early fears that a full-scale war with Lebanon-based Hezbollah would break out on Israel’s “northern front” or that the Iranian government itself would get directly involved haven’t materialized.

Nonetheless, Monday marked a major step up the escalator ladder. Warplanes, presumably Israeli, carried out an airstrike in Damascus, Syria, which killed a senior Iranian general, Mohammad Reza Zahedi, who was deeply involved in his government’s activities in Syria and Lebanon. He is the highest-ranking Iranian military officer killed by enemy fire since Gen. Qassem Soleimani was killed by a US drone strike in 2020.

Per its general practice with strikes in Syria, Israel has not officially acknowledged the attack, but four Israeli officials, speaking anonymously, confirmed their involvement to the New York Times. Iran claims that the building that was struck was a consulate facility that was also used as its ambassador’s residence, but the anonymous Israeli officials denied that it had diplomatic status.

Iran’s President, Ebrahim Raisi, vowed that the strike “would not go unpunished,” and Iran-backed Hezbollah has vowed retaliation. US officials claim to have had no advanced knowledge or involvement in the strike — according to some reports, they were told only generally that there would be upcoming activity in Syria — but Iranian officials nonetheless say they are holding the US responsible.

Iran’s response may not be immediate, but the strike will nonetheless contribute to regional tensions that were already at the boiling point — and there’s a good chance American troops in the Middle East may be in the firing line.

Iran’s man in Damascus

Zahedi was a significant figure in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its efforts to project power throughout the region.

At one point, he commanded the IRGC’s air force, but he’s better known for his work as a liaison to both Hezbollah and Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, which is allied with Iran. He was the only non-Lebanese citizen to sit on Hezbollah’s Shura Council, the group’s main decision-making body.

The strike also killed six other senior leaders of the Quds Force — the branch of the IRGC responsible for operations outside Iran — including Zahedi’s chief of staff and the commander for Palestine. As such, Israel not only severed a key link between Tehran and its foreign proxies, but also removed several of the men who might have been in line to replace him.

It’s a significant hit to the IRGC’s operations, but how much of a setback is it, really? Suzanne Maloney, an expert on Iran and director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution, pointed out that many expected Iran’s network to take a blow after Soleimani was killed.

Instead, “it’s arguable that today, Iran’s coordination of its various proxy militias in the Middle East is stronger than it was even in Soleimani’s heyday,” Maloney told Vox. “Killing influential figures in Iran’s military establishment doesn’t necessarily produce the corresponding desired impact of degrading Iran’s capabilities in the region. In some respects, it may only harden Iran’s commitment and that of the various proxies.”

How will Tehran respond?

Whatever the operational impact, Iran will have to respond somehow, but it may be the US rather than Israel that bears the brunt of it. Charles Lister, director of the Syria and counterterrorism programs at the Middle East Institute, told Vox that “the most predictable option will be to lift the freeze on proxy attacks on US troops in Syria and Iraq. Basically, our troops in Iraq and Syria are seen by Iran as soft targets, but also targets that can indirectly place significant pressure on the Israelis.”

In the weeks following the Hamas attacks on October 7 and in response to Israel’s war in Gaza, Iran-backed militias carried out dozens of rocket and drone strikes against US troops in the region. These culminated in a strike on January 29 that killed three US soldiers at a base in Jordan.

While the US response to the earlier strikes had been limited, after the deaths it responded much more aggressively with a strike in Baghdad that killed the leader of Kataib Hezbollah, the militia blamed for the Jordan attack. Since then, Iran’s proxies have dramatically scaled back their efforts, reportedly at Tehran’s request.

That may now be changing. Shortly after the Damascus strike, US forces shot down a drone in the vicinity of the US garrison in al-Tanf, Syria, though it’s not clear if the drone was actually targeting the base. If it was, it would have been the first attack on US troops in the country in two months.

Even before Monday, there were signs that Iran’s proxies were getting bolder in terms of attacking Israel itself. In the days before the bombing in Damascus, Iran-backed militias in Iraq took credit for two strikes on Israel — one on the southern port city of Eilat and one on a Christian village in Galilee. These attacks caused only light damage and no injuries.

“The only thing that the Iranians haven’t yet done, which they could do but would be bold, would be to launch missiles from Iran itself at Israel,” said Lister. Though Iran’s proxies — most notably Hezbollah — have directly attacked Israeli soil and Iran has launched missiles at what it says was an Israeli intelligence facility in Iraq, it has also made very clear it has no desire for a direct shooting war with Israel, which it is in no position to win and could be devastating for its own regime and population. Maloney suspects this calculation has not changed, even after Zahedi’s killing.

“Iran is prepared to fight Israel to the last Palestinian or the last Lebanese, but there would be a significant risk for them to try to mobilize any military response that can be directly attributable to them,” she said. “They’ve made an art form of avoiding direct war with Israel.”

Washington’s dilemma

Israel has been periodically bombing targets linked to Iran and Hezbollah in Syria for more than a decade to keep them from gaining a military foothold on its border. It has done this with the tacit acceptance of Russia, even though Moscow backs the Assad regime and maintains its air defense systems.

But Israel also almost never publicly discusses these operations.

“Israel wants to be able to conduct these operations without necessarily rubbing it in the nose of the Syrian government or the Russians or others,” Brian Finucane, a former State Department legal adviser now with the International Crisis Group, told Vox. “But that’s in tension with its obligations under international law, including its obligations under the UN Charter.”

That’s because the charter prohibits the use of force against neighboring states except in cases of self-defense. Normally, Israel would be required to present its case to the UN for an attack against the territory of Syria and Iranian military officials was justified. The Trump administration at least made an attempt to do this after the Soleimani drone strike, which it argued was a response to an escalating series of attacks on US troops by Iranian militias, though many legal scholars were not convinced. Israel is unlikely to even try.

Given that the attack was presumably carried out by US-supplied fighter jets — F-35s according to Iranian officials — this has implications for the US as well. “As a matter of US law, the Arms Export Control Act establishes an exhaustive list of purposes for which US arms may be transferred, with “legitimate self-defense” being the most pertinent,” said Finucane.

A national security memorandum issued by the Biden administration in February also requires the secretary of state to obtain “credible and reliable” assurances that US-supplied weapons are being used in accordance with international law.

“The US government needs to assess whether the strike was a prohibited use of force or lawful self-defense,” Finucane said.

In the past, Israeli military actions like these have caused at least temporary ruptures in the US-Israel relationship. When Israel in 1981 bombed a nuclear reactor in Iraq with US-supplied aircraft, it took the incoming Reagan administration by surprise. The administration responded by backing a UN Security Council Resolution condemning the attack. It also temporarily suspended the sale of F-16 fighter jets.

But in the current context, the event is likely to be just one more incident in a rapidly expanding conflict. It arguably wasn’t even the Israeli airstrike that garnered the most international attention yesterday — that would be a strike in Gaza that killed several international aid workers from the charity World Central Kitchen.

For the moment at least, the Biden administration still looks set to approve several major new weapons sales to Israel including fighter jets and air-to-air missiles, even as criticism of the civilian toll in Gaza continues to grow.

As for the long-term impact, the attack likely won’t turn the war in Gaza into a full-blown regional war overnight. But it’s another escalation in a region that can only bear so much. “Iran is nothing if not excellent at assessing risk ladders and escalation ladders,” said Lister. What we don’t know is just how high that ladder goes.

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