Israel’s Damascus airstrike was a deliberate provocation

Sina Toossi is a senior non-resident fellow at the Center for International Policy

On April 1st, an Israeli airstrike in Damascus dramatically escalated already simmering tensions between Israel and Iran. The operation led to the deaths of seven Iranians, including a senior commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The target, according to Iran, was an official consulate building. However, Israel disputes this claim, which would be a violation of international law. Despite this, many countries and the United Nations have condemned the attacks on grounds that diplomatic facilities were targeted. Notably, even U.S. allies in the region, such as the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, expressed their disapproval.

In response, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has vowed retribution, declaring that those responsible “will be punished by our brave men,” and that they will “regret this crime.” Iran’s Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, also indicated that Iran had sent an “important message” to the U.S. government, holding it accountable for supporting Israel’s actions. These developments suggest that Iran may be considering a substantial retaliation, which could include renewed actions against American forces in the region.

The Israeli airstrike occurs at a time when Israel, under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is grappling with a multitude of internal and external pressures. The war in Gaza has taken a severe toll on Israel’s societal fabric and economy. The military draft has drained the workforce, while the war’s ripple effects have contracted Israel’s GDP by an estimated 20 percent. Additionally, the government, already facing internal strife due to Netanyahu’s legal issues and public discontent, has been further strained by the fallout from failed hostage rescue operations and the loss of numerous hostages due to Israeli bombardments.

Adding to these internal challenges is Israel’s growing diplomatic isolation, exemplified by the UN Security Council’s demand for an immediate halt to military operations in Gaza. This call signifies a notable shift in the Biden administration’s approach, which is increasingly critical of Israel’s conduct.

Against this backdrop, Netanyahu’s decision to green-light the airstrike on Damascus seems to be a calculated act to amplify the hostilities. Such a move sharply contrasts with international appeals for restraint and indicates a deliberate escalation strategy.

Netanyahu seems to be aiming to provoke Iran and intensify the conflict to galvanize domestic and international political support and justify wider military actions, potentially in Rafah and against Hezbollah and Iran. This strategy risks drawing the United States deeper into the conflict, with potentially dire ramifications for regional stability.

The crucial issue now is Iran’s potential reaction.  A review of commentary from prominent Iranian analysts from across the Islamic Republic’s political spectrum reveals two prevailing narratives: one perceives Israel’s actions as a deliberate provocation of war that Iran should respond to with restraint, while the other suggests that Israel is capitalizing on Iran’s typically restrained responses and that failing to react proportionately will only invite further escalations. The latter perspective is gaining momentum, with increasing calls for a decisive response to deter future Israeli aggression.

Iran’s potential responses to the Israeli airstrike include a wide range of actions, such as targeting Israeli interests in third countries, reciprocal attacks within Israel’s own borders or the Golan Heights, or escalating cyber warfare attacks. The consequences of Iran’s decision could profoundly affect the Middle East and beyond.

The U.S. response to Netanyahu’s actions is also crucial. President Biden is at a critical juncture where he can exert significant coercive pressure on Netanyahu to prevent an escalation in regional tensions. Despite his hesitations so far, it is more vital than ever that he takes decisive action now. Failure to act could exacerbate the situation, potentially leading to a regional conflict with severe repercussions for U.S. interests and which would inadvertently benefit U.S. great power rivals like Russia and China.

Given the current developments, it is crucial for the U.S. and other global powers to intensify their efforts towards de-escalation. The initial step in this process should involve applying pressure on Netanyahu to cease further military actions. This could be achieved through various means, including halting arms shipments, imposing economic sanctions, or advocating for international legal action against Israel.

The foremost priority in this situation remains securing a ceasefire agreement. Achieving this would require Netanyahu to compromise on what he previously termed as “delusional” demands by Hamas for a hostage exchange and an end to the war. Another vital aspect is preventing escalation along the Lebanon border, especially considering statements from Israeli officials like Defense Minister Yoav Gallant about their intent to increase “firepower” against Hezbollah.

Up until now, Iran has been striving to manage the level of regional violence to avert a full-scale war. Iran and its regional allies have been calibrating their actions to pressure the U.S. and Israel to end the Gaza war. Iran has dissuaded its allied militias in Iraq from firing missiles at American forces in the region, understanding that these are tripwire forces and attacking them would allow for hawks in Washington to push for war.

Nevertheless, Iran holds escalatory dominance, capable of commanding its allies to renew attacks on U.S. forces. The question now is whether the U.S. and Iran can prevent this from escalating into a wider war, which neither side wants but Netanyahu seems bent on for his own political survival. The aftermath of the Damascus strikes will serve as a significant test.