Escalation ladder: On Israel’s offensive, and the danger ahead

The U.S. must rein in Israel, and Iran must show restraint 

April 06, 2024 12:10 am | Updated 08:40 am IST

The April 1 attack on an annex of the Iranian embassy in Damascus was a major point of escalation in the multifaceted conflict that has been spreading across West Asia since October 7, 2023. Iran blamed Israel for the strike, in which 13 Iranians, including Mohammed Reza Zahedi, a top commander who was in charge of the Quds Force’s Syria operations, were killed. Israel neither confirms nor denies claims that it was behind such attacks, but it is an open secret that it has been carrying out operations across the region targeting Iranian military and nuclear figures. On December 25, a suspected Israeli strike killed Razi Mousavi, senior adviser in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), in Syria. What makes the April 1 attack different from Israel’s past strikes is that an embassy complex was targeted this time. Embassy and other diplomatic premises have a protected status under international law. Even during the Second World War, diplomatic premises were spared by hostile powers. When the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was bombed in May 1999 by the U.S., the then U.S. President Bill Clinton issued a public apology, stating it to be an accident. But in the case of Damascus, the attacker’s precision strike was aimed at killing a group of IRGC figures. Many in Iran see this as an act of war.

Even before the October 7 Hamas attack in Israel, there was a shadow war going on between Israel and Iran in West Asia. After October 7, Israel launched a two-pronged offensive — a full-throttled invasion of Gaza, the tiny Palestinian enclave of 2.3 million people on the one side, and dozens of air strikes in Syria and Lebanon against Iran and its network of militias on the other. Israel sees Iran as the lynchpin of all the non-state militias of the region, be it Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis or the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and seems determined to roll back their influence in its immediate neighbourhood. Israel’s war on Gaza is not proceeding as planned. Six months of fighting has turned Gaza into an open graveyard with a death toll of over 33,000, a majority of them women and children. As Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister, under whose watch the October 7 attack unfolded, is coming under increased pressure at home and abroad to cease fire and resign, he appears to be more eager to escalate the regional crisis. This is a dangerous slope. An open war between Israel and Iran, which could drag the U.S. in, would be a security disaster for the whole region and an economic nightmare for the wider world. Iran should not walk into the trap set by Israel. It should show strategic patience and restraint and the U.S., Israel’s most important diplomatic and military supporter, should restrain its closest ally from acting rogue again.

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