Implications of fresh Middle East tensions The Statesman 09 Apr 2024 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar


Implications of fresh Middle-east tensions

Implications of fresh Middle East tensions The Statesman 09 Apr 2024

          A drone strike, launched by a pro-Iranian group from Iraq, Islamic Resistance, targeted the Israeli naval base of Eilat. There were no casualties while the drone caused some damage to a building, however was enough to compel Israel to retaliate. Missiles and drones aimed at this crucial base earlier were intercepted. Eilat is reported to house Israel’s tactical nuclear weapons as also hosts Israel navy’s Corvette class ships.

          Israel in retaliation targeted not terrorist groups behind the strike, but the Iranian consulate building, located in its embassy compound, in the Syrian capital, Damascus. As per the Iranian ambassador to Syria, the destroyed building housed his residence, consular section and Iranian military attaché offices.

Tel Aviv had always considered Iran responsible for attacks on its soil. Israel’s military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari had mentioned, ‘I want to tell you that in the last six months, Iran is making this region escalate. She’s the main actor.’ Possibly increased attacks on its soil, failure to secure release of hostages, and breakdown of peace talks drove Israel towards this step.

Reports indicate that the strike killed seven military officers, amongst others, including the commander and deputy of Iran’s elite Quds Force. Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Zahedi, killed in the strike, was leader of the Quds Force for Syria and Lebanon, thereby coordinating operations of pro-Iranian groups in the region. Israel had been tracking his movements for some time and possibly exploited this opportunity.

          The Israeli government spokesperson refused to comment on the strike while the US initially claimed that President Biden was aware, implying the US was briefed in advance, though inputs indicate that the Biden administration was put in picture once aircraft tasked for the strike had taken off, giving Washington no reaction time. Hence, the US conveyed to Iran that it had nothing to do with the incident.  

Subsequently, Israel’s military spokesperson mentioned, ‘According to our intelligence, this is no consulate and this is no embassy. This is a military building of Quds forces disguised as a civilian building in Damascus.’ However, the Iranian flag flew on the building, even after its destruction, marking it as diplomatic.       

Very recently, the US government had announced additional military aid for Israel including F 15 fighter aircraft and 900 kg bombs. The US defended its decision with its spokesperson stating, ‘we are committed to Israel’s right to self-defence, and this is a long-term commitment the United States has made.’ 

It is evident that these weapons are not intended for the war in Gaza, as Israel has only Rafah to clear, nor against the Hezbollah, for which it possesses requisite weaponry, but for possible war against Iran, implying the US expected escalation. How soon would they be delivered is unknown as there is no mention of the same being provided from existing US stockpiles. At some stage Israel had planned to target Iran.

The Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi, responded to the Israeli strike by stating ‘(this) cowardly crime will not go unanswered.’ The Iranian Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, termed the attack a ‘violation of all international obligations and conventions.’ The government in Tehran has threatened similar attacks on Israeli embassies. 

China, Russia, Iraq, Jordan, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Pakistan condemned the strike as it involved deliberately targeting a diplomatic compound, which is against Vienna conventions. India stated that it ‘noted with concern’ the attack on Iranian ‘diplomatic premises,’ debunking Israeli claims. The UN Secretary General’s office stated, ‘the principle of inviolability of diplomatic and consular premises and personnel must be respected in accordance with international law.’

The US state department had earlier mentioned, ‘an attack on an embassy is considered an attack on the country it represents.’ Thus, logically Israel has declared war on Iran. A special UNSC session was called by Russia in which nations reiterated ‘diplomatic structures as off-limits,’ however the US, UK and France did not condemn Israel for its actions.

          Thus far, Iran’s proxies in the region, including the Hezbollah and groups in Syria and elsewhere, have not directly enjoined the battle in support of Hamas. They have launched rockets but avoided ground strikes. Iran has been calling for a halt in operations in Gaza but not directly intervened in the war.

Simultaneously, Israel and the US have been targeting Iranian proxies while avoiding escalating the conflict with Iran, aware that it could engulf the region. However, with this attack, Hezbollah has vowed to retaliate, thereby enlarging the conflict. The Gaza war has thus far claimed over 33,000 lives including possibly 14,000 Hamas soldiers and thousands of children.

Retaliation may not be against Israel alone but would also involve US bases in the Middle East as also shipping in the Red Sea as Iran holds the US equally responsible for the strike. The US offering a sop, mentioned it is considering delisting Yemen’s Houthis as a terrorist organization, if they cease Red Sea attacks.

Tehran could initially consider non-contact warfare including cyberattacks while providing additional munitions to its proxies. Israel is fearful of attacks on its embassies. A direct strike by Iran could bring the war onto its soil and hence currently unlikely.

Netanyahu appears desperate to escalate the war and draw in Iranian proxies as protests spread against his failure in preventing the October attacks and release of hostages. He is secure as long as the conflict continues. Simultaneously, global pressure mounts on Tel Aviv, as civilian casualties mount. Israelis are demanding Netanyahu’s resignation and fresh elections. There are cracks within the coalition. A continuing conflict is his best solution to retain power.

Escalation of conflict could spell doom for Ukraine. Russia has already enhanced its missile strikes on Ukrainian cities and Kiev is losing control of the battlefront. US military support has shifted to Israel while Europe alone is unable to fulfil military demands of Ukraine, leaving Zelensky with little choice. Kiev has already announced that its current territorial losses are due to lack of munition supplies from the US.

Increased attacks on US bases and resultant casualties, as a fallout of this strike by Israel, could play a role in forthcoming US elections, pushing Biden into a tough spot. Israel expanding the conflict could have regional and global ramifications.