Deadly attack on Iranian embassy compound in Syria condemned
Experts warn of more military conflicts in the Middle East and more spillovers from Gaza crisis
Published: Apr 02, 2024 11:09 PM Updated: Apr 02, 2024 11:50 PM
An ambulance is parked outside the Iranian embassy after a suspected Israeli strike on April 1 on Iran's consulate building, adjacent to the main Iranian embassy building, which Iran said had killed seven military personnel including two key figures in the Quds Force, in Damascus, Syria April 2, 2024. Photo: IC

An ambulance is parked outside the Iranian embassy on April 2, 2024 after an airstrike on April 1 on Iran's consulate building, adjacent to the main Iranian embassy building, killed 13 people, including two Iranian generals in Damascus, Syria and Iran blamed Israel for the deadly attack. Photo: IC

Iran has blamed Israel for a deadly airstrike on Monday on its Damascus embassy compound in Syria, which killed 13 people including two Iranian generals, and vowed to retaliate. Monday's attack has been condemned for violating international law and sovereignty as it risked escalating regional tensions amid devastating humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Monday's attack marks the first Israeli strike targeted at an Iranian embassy compound, according to media reports. Analysts have said the incident is a significant escalation of tensions in the Middle East since the Israeli-Palestinian conflict renewed fighting in October 2023. They also warned of the increasing risk of more military conflicts in the Middle East and spillovers from the Gaza crisis.  

According to Iran's Foreign Ministry, airstrike has destroyed the Iranian consulate building in Damascus. The consulate building, which is located next to the Iranian Embassy, is always regarded as sovereign Iranian territory, the CNN reported.

Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Zahedi, a senior commander in the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and his deputy General Mohammad Hadi Hajriahimi were killed in Monday's attack. Zahedi is the most high-ranking Iranian target killed since then-US president Donald Trump ordered the assassination of IRGC Gen Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad in 2020, according to media reports. 

Iran and Syria accused Israel of authoring the attack. According to the New York Times, four Israeli officials acknowledged that Israel carried out the strike. 

Iran's Ambassador to Syria Hossein Akbari, who survived the attack, said Tehran's response would be "decisive." Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanani said that Iran "reserves the right to carry out a reaction and will decide on the type of response and punishment of the aggressor." He called the strike a "gross violation of international regulations, especially the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations," media reported.  

Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad denounced the attack, calling it a "heinous terrorist attack ... Killing a number of innocent people," according to media reports. 

Significant escalation

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin on Tuesday said China condemns the attack on the Iranian Embassy in Syria and opposes any act that would escalate the tensions. 

The security of diplomatic institutions should not be violated and Syria's sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity must be respected, the Chinese spokesperson said.

Russian Foreign Ministry "strongly condemned" the Israel's attack targeting Iranian consulate building in a statement made public on Monday, terming the airstrike as "unacceptable."  

In addition, Jordan and Iraq, as well as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and Hezbollah in Lebanon, have been quick to slam Israel's airstrike which they regard as a grave violation of both international law and Syrian sovereignty, according to media reports. 

Experts said the attack, a significant escalation of tensions, was both a spillover of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a product of the longstanding structural tensions between Israel and Iran.

According to Liu Zhongmin, a professor at the Middle East Studies Institute of Shanghai International Studies University, as UN Security Council recently adopted a resolution urging for a ceasefire in Gaza for the month of Ramadan, Israel is facing increased pressure at home and abroad. And that would make Israel slow its operations in Gaza and ramp up operations in the spillover regions.

Israel sees Iran as the main backer of several forces fighting Israel in the spillover of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well as Shiite forces in Syria and Iraq, said Liu. 

When Israel strikes Iran, its target is Hezbollah in Lebanon, Niu Xinchun, executive director of the China-Arab Research Institute of Ningxia University, told the Global Times on Tuesday.  

In the last two weeks, Israel has frequently targeted Hezbollah commanders and stroked Hezbollah weapons depots in Syria. Israel views Iran as Hezbollah's biggest backer, and believes their attacks on Iran will weaken Hezbollah, said Niu. 

According to Liu, Israel is trying to gain leverage from the aggravation of regional conflicts to bind America even more tightly to itself and force Washington to continue wielding influence in the Middle East, especially considering that the US recently abstained from voting on a UNSC resolution, a sign of waning support to Israel. 

A more complicated future

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said on Monday that the US did not "have confirmation either of the target or the responsible party," noting "we're always concerned about anything that would be escalatory or cause an increase in conflict in the region."

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian also accused the US as Israel's supporter and said it "must be held accountable."

According to US and Israeli officials, Israel notified the US "a few minutes" before the airstrike but didn't ask for a US green light. And a US official said the Israelis didn't tell the US that they were planning to bomb a building in the Iranian embassy compound, according to Axios. 

If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict spills over further and the tension in the whole region expands, it does not serve the interests of the US in the Middle East, when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself has already disrupted US' strategic contraction in the Middle East, Liu said. 

But Israeli's airstrike is undoubtedly related to the long-term strategy of the US over the years to shape the "Iranian threats" and motivate Israel and even Arab countries to confront Iran, Liu said. 

At a rally on Monday night, hundreds of people in Tehran gathered to condemn the Israeli attack, they waved flags of Iran and Palestine. They also burned Israeli and US flags, according to the AFP. However, it remains unknown how Iran will retaliate. 

According to Niu, there are three options for Iran's counterattack. 

"One is to support Hezbollah in Lebanon, militias in Iraq, and Houthi forces in Yemen to attack Israel. The other is to strike directly at Israeli targets outside its territory," said Niu, "Although Iran has the missile capability to strike directly at the Israeli mainland, this is not a highly probable scenario." 

Echoing Niu, Liu believes that counterattacks conducted by Iran's proxies would increase. However, direct military conflict between Iran and Israel is unlikely, Liu added.

Compared with the past, the conflict between Israel and Iran has increasingly become a combination of "spillover of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict" and "geopolitical contradiction," and has become more explicit and direct, Liu said. 

The conflict between Israel and Iran is likely to develop in parallel with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, further complicating the regional situation, Liu said.