Why Israel’s attack on Iranian consulate in Syria was a gamechanger

<span>People in Tehran hailed the success of Iran’s attack on Israel, despite causing relatively little damage. </span><span>Photograph: Majid Saeedi/Getty Images</span>
People in Tehran hailed the success of Iran’s attack on Israel, despite causing relatively little damage. Photograph: Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

The large-scale attack by Iran on Israel may have passed with relatively little damage, but it marks a significant transformation in the conflict between the two enemies.

A war that has long been fought through proxies, assassinations and strikes away from Israeli soil – often in third countries – has spilled into the open.

While senior Israeli officials have framed this weekend’s Iranian attack as “revealing the true face” of Tehran, the reality is that the proximate cause was Israel’s misjudgment in its strike on an Iranian diplomatic compound in Syria that killed two senior Iranian generals, among others.

After years in which both sides operated within the framework of a largely undeclared set of “rules”, Israel – as analysts have pointed out – bulldozed through every red line to attack a location that Tehran maintains was tantamount to attacking Iranian soil.

“Israel went too far in assassinating the Iranian general, probably, in a diplomatic location,” said Yagil Levy, a professor of military sociology at the Open University of Israel.

“Israel is led by the availability of its weapons systems. And whenever the country or the leadership feels that they have a good intelligence, a good opportunity and available weaponry systems that can do the job, Israel strikes,” he added.

“Israel doesn’t have a really strategic approach … the attempt to identify the [connections] between specific military actions and expected benefits is not in the repertoire of the Israeli leadership.”

And while much is made of Israel’s military strategy of deterrence, it is a principle no less strongly internalised in Iran, despite its years of trying to avoid direct confrontation.

Israeli commentators have framed the failure of the Iranian attack to do much damage as a defeat for Tehran and a victory for Israel, suggesting retaliation is inevitable following the first declared attack on Israeli soil by a foreign state since 1991, when Iraq fired missiles.

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The reality is that the fact Iran attacked at all, while Israel is fighting against Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah on its northern border, is a significant strategic and policy failure that threatens to stretch already depleted military resources while inviting a widening conflict.

Although some have speculated that the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, agreed to the Israeli strike on Damascus deliberately to prompt exactly this widening crisis, what seems far more likely is that Israel misjudged it in a similar way to its miscalculations in the run-up to 7 October, when it fatally misread Hamas’s offensive posture.

The retired general Tamir Hayman, a former head of military intelligence and now managing director of the Institute for National Security Studies thinktank, said Netanyahu had handled the relationship with the US badly but ruled out a political motivation for the strike.

“I know how the system works, and I know probably how those strikes were planned and conducted and how, what elements of timing were needed,” he said. “I think that’s what stands behind the timing, not political [manipulation] but operational tactical opportunity.”

While Israel has been actively pursuing a policy of degrading the threat posed by Iran and its allies post-7 October, it appears also to have calculated that the policy could be achieved without a direct confrontation with Tehran.

After years of undeclared airstrikes in Syria, including against people closely associated with Iran, and six months of cross-border exchanges with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Israel had assumed wrongly that Tehran would not respond with a direct attack on Israeli soil.

Instead, the Damascus attack has placed Tehran and its leadership in what some have described as a “strategic conundrum”.

Having encouraged key allies in the “axis of resistance” – including Hezbollah, Yemen’s Houthis and pro-Iranian militias in Iraq – to launch their own attacks in support of Hamas in Gaza, the strike on Damascus became a test of credibility for Iran, both domestically for the regime and in the wider region.

“The attack on Damascus was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Sanam Vakil, the director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at the Chatham House thinktank, adding that the Iranian strikes were “unprecedented” and that Israel had likely failed to anticipate that Iran would respond in this way.

“It came on the back of so many other Israeli attacks that claimed lives in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and alongside the breach of the Vienna convention in attacking a diplomatic [site].

“I think Iran’s calculation was that if didn’t respond, Israel will keep trying to push back and degrade the axis of resistance across the region. This was about reinforcing its red lines and some measure of deterrence.”

Related: Fate of Middle East hangs in the balance as Israel mulls its next steps

The pressing risk now for Israel and the US in the hours and days ahead is that – as six months of war in Gaza and Lebanon have already demonstrated – the contagion of the current conflict continues to spill relentlessly beyond its boundaries.

Washington had poured diplomatic efforts into preventing escalation in recent months and, despite firm military support for Israel, is certain to be pushing Netanyahu to moderate any Israeli response. But the attack on Damascus – which the US was quick to say it had not been informed about – was a reminder of President Joe Biden’s limited leverage in Israel, despite the country’s reliance on US military support.

While it was highly significant that Jordan joined the effort to shoot down incoming Iranian munitions, the broadening scope of the conflict presses on lines of fracture, not least in Iraq.

The decision, almost certainly coordinated between Hezbollah and Tehran, for the Lebanese Shia group not to deploy its huge arsenal of heavy rockets during the Iranian attack also suggests that for now at least there is a small window of opportunity to stop the conflict deepening further still.

The burning question is whether, as Vakil suggests, Israel will feel content to portray its defence against Iran’s attack as a “success” in and of itself or whether it will risk striking back at Iran and further escalating the war.

“Iran’s retaliation was choreographed and telegraphed,” wrote HA Hellyer, a Middle East expert and senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, on X in the immediate aftermath of Iran’s attack.

“[There was] almost zero chance it was going to inflict damage on Israel with that level of warning. The point was to make a scene, and it did that. Iran’s payoff? Reputational advancement as ‘resistance’ internationally.

“We need de-escalation, and it’s imperative [Washington] DC convinces Tel Aviv of its determination not to be drawn into an offensive war with Iran. Netanyahu has been expressing his desire for one for a long time, but will hold back if he is sure the US won’t stand alongside.”