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'Pivotal Moment': Is Israel Risking A Regional War?

03.04.2024 14:12

Israeli strike on Iran’s Damascus consulate marks a ‘pivotal moment in regional dynamics,’ says Hayder Al Shakeri, research fellow at Chatham House The more Israel is ‘failing in Gaza, the more they try to attack outside,’ says Mahjoob Zweiri, director of Gulf Studies Center at Qatar...

Israel's Monday airstrike targeting an Iranian diplomatic mission in Syria has once again stirred tensions in the Middle East, raising concerns of an escalation and the specter of a wider conflict in the region.

At least 11 people were killed in the attack on the Iranian Consulate in Damascus, among them two generals of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Zahedi and his deputy Gen. Mohammad Hadi Haji Rahimi, and five military advisers. The casualties also included three Syrians and a Lebanese national.

For Mahjoob Zweiri, director of the Gulf Studies Center at Qatar University, the attack is rooted in Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's attempts to hide their failures in Gaza.

This approach heightens the risk of a regional war, he warned, but is more about Netanyahu believing that he can use it to whip up support among his radical supporter base.

"The more they are failing in Gaza the more they try to attack outside because that's the way they can, at least to their own base, justify what they are doing," he told Anadolu.

"They basically want to tell their base that they are actually fighting in different places and the enemy is not only Hamas. This kind of discourse or narrative helps Netanyahu a lot … He thinks that's the way he will have more support internally from Israelis."

All about Iran

Hayder Al-Shakeri, a research fellow at Chatham House's Middle East and North Africa Program, emphasized that the incident marks a "pivotal moment in regional dynamics."

"This incident tests Iran's strategic calculus between retaliating directly, which could escalate tensions across the region, or continuing its established approach of responding through proxies in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon," he told Anadolu.

Zweiri, however, pointed out that tensions between Israel and Iran are nothing new.

"What happened in Syria is not new. This is an official declared war actually on Iran since 2015 by Israelis," he said, adding that there have been hundreds of attacks "on Iranian personnel or offices in Syria, from the north to the south."

All of this, he explained, is part of the strategy that Netanyahu has developed over the past 17 years, which is based "on the understanding that Iran is the main evil in the region."

Netanyahu's strategy and foreign policy is that "whenever he talks to the Americans and Europeans, he's always trying to build his victories and achievements based on defeating Iran," said Zweiri.

According to Al-Shakeri, Israel's recent attacks show its "preparedness to extend its military actions directly against Iranian interests."

The strategic bombings of selected sites in Lebanon and Syria and targeting areas associated with Hezbollah and Iranian-backed groups show that "Israel has already opened these fronts in order to disrupt these factions' operations," he said.

Expected reactions

Experts believe the responses to Israel's aggression will remain measured and calculated to avoid escalation.

Following the recent attack, the onus is now on Iran to determine its next move, with any response potentially leading to a broader regional escalation, said Al-Shakeri.

"Hezbollah is carefully managing its confrontations with Israel, employing a strategic approach. Meanwhile, the Houthis and other groups backed by Iran are likely to maintain their attacks against Israel and its allies, potentially seeking retribution for the recent strikes," he said.

According to Zweiri, the real concern comes from outside the region, particularly the Americans and the Europeans.

"They don't want this escalation and even some regional players don't want escalation," he said.

"I'm not sure even Iran is interested in a confrontation with Israel. But they are interested, of course, to make a statement and to show the Israelis they are capable to do so."

One front where analysts expect a stronger reaction is that of the Houthis.

"In the light of what happened ... the Houthis might increase the volume of their attacks," Ahmed Nagi, the International Crisis Group's Yemen analyst, told Anadolu.

He said there has been a sort of de-escalation on that front over the past weeks, but "things will be different in the coming days."

"We don't have clear image about what kind of things the Houthis have in their hands that could be used differently to what they already did," he added.

Zweiri agreed with that assessment, saying more attacks from the Red Sea or Iraq would not be a surprise.

"I think these can be expected to increase, maybe to be more effective to target specific places ... The last target from Iraq a few days ago nearly hit an Israeli military ship," he said.

'Huge implications'

According to Zweiri, Israel's ongoing assault on Gaza is changing the dynamics of the wider region.

"The war on Gaza will have huge implications on alliances and the role of non-state actors," he said.

He emphasized that every war over the past 25 years that involved non-state actors has ended in defeat for the other side.

"They (non-state actors) won over the state. You can go to different examples; look at Iraq, look at the situation in Syria, look at the Taliban in Afghanistan, look at the Houthis in Yemen," he said.

For him, this means that the conclusion would be that "Hamas will not be defeated in Gaza, neither politically nor militarily."

Zweiri stressed that Israel is "failing to recognize that Gaza is under occupation … and everything happened because of that occupation."

Israel needs to change the way it views this conflict because "they think the enemy is fighting them for the sake of ideology, not because they are occupying lands and they are oppressing people," he added.

Al-Shakeri said Israel's claim that it is targeting Hamas holds little ground because of "its broader actions, including attacking and weakening Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank, along with settlement expansion."

Moreover, Israeli strikes on targets outside Palestine "suggest a wider strategic intent," he said.

"This approach, which Israel justifies as a focus on Hamas, actually encompasses a broader strategy to maximize its interests, benefiting from the current unconditional support of Western countries," he added.​​​​​​​ -

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