An Israeli strike Monday that killed an Iranian officer in Syria is the latest development to reignite fears of a broader conflict in the Middle East as the war in Gaza continues to rage with a rising death toll.
Iran has vowed to retaliate against Israel for the strike, which killed a senior Iranian officer and marked Tehran’s most personal loss in Israel’s war with Hamas.
“Tel Aviv faces a difficult countdown,” Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said in a message on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
The strike also comes amid rising civilian deaths in Gaza, and any potential fallout threatens to undo the United States’ strenuous efforts to ensure the war does not spread beyond Israel and of the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
The United States itself is being drawn deeper into the conflict as Washington fends off relentless attacks from Iran-backed groups in Iraq and Syria. The militias carried out their deadliest attack since the start of the Gaza war when a drone strike on Christmas Day seriously injured a US soldier and wounded two others.
Although analysts do not expect a wider war to break out in the near future, events show that the conflict shows no signs of slowing down as the New Year approaches.
“Everyone is playing a game of chess,” said Barbara Slavin, a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center and editor of the think tank’s Middle East Voices blog. “You have so many different players now.”
But Slavin doesn’t see a sea change in the math anytime soon.
“The main casualties of this war have been in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank,” she continued. “These other attacks, while they are quite frightening, are actually very symbolic, more symbolic than they are part of a larger conflict right now. This can always change – can always escalate – but I don’t see this turning into World War III. »
The Israeli strike in Damascus on Monday killed the brigadier general. Gen. Sayyed Razi Mousavi, senior advisor to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, responsible for coordination between Syria and Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed military and political group in Lebanon.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said his forces were fighting a “multi-arena” war following the deadly Oct. 7 Hamas attacks that left more than 1,200 dead in southern Israel . Hamas, which is struggling to stay alive in Gaza, is financed by Iran.
“Anyone who acts against us is a target, no one is safe,” Gallant said Tuesday.
Mousavi was close to Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, who was assassinated by the United States in 2020 under the Trump administration, and his death this week prompted an outpouring of grief from Iran and its allies, all like the death of Soleimani almost four years ago.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said Monday that Tehran would certainly retaliate for the strike, according to Iranian state media.
“His martyrdom is another sign of frustration and weakness of the occupying Zionist regime in the region,” Raissi said.
Hezbollah also strongly denounced the attack on Mousavi, state media reported. Analysts expect that if Iran responds to the Israeli strike, it will do so with Hezbollah and other proxy groups.
Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, said Israel likely carried out the strike to send a message to Iran: that senior Iranian officials can and will be targeted for their involvement in proxy groups.
But Parsi said Iran would not respond to Israel directly or by escalating the attack, arguing that “they are playing the long game” against the United States and Israel.
“They are strengthening the capabilities of the Houthis, Hezbollah and others,” he said. “We’re probably going to see more attacks on the United States…rather than the Iranian attack. »
Israel has killed several senior Iranian officials over the past decade, while the two countries have been locked in a shadow war for years. But Tehran has rarely directly ordered a strike against Israel or Israeli positions, usually acting through its proxies.
The entire Middle East region is tense, with Iranian-backed militias attacking US troops around 100 times since October 17, shortly after the start of the war between Israel and Hamas.
So far, U.S. troops have suffered only minor injuries in attacks in Iraq and Syria. But in the Christmas Day attack, an explosive drone struck an air base in northern Iraq, leaving a U.S. soldier in critical condition. The United States responded with retaliatory strikes that killed one militant and injured 18 others.
When asked whether events over the holiday could lead to escalation in the Middle East, the Pentagon referred to Monday’s statement from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Austin said the United States was not seeking escalation but was “committed and fully prepared to take additional steps necessary to protect our population and facilities.”
The Houthis, an Iranian-backed rebel group in Yemen, also continue to pose a threat to ships and merchant vessels in the Red Sea. They have mainly harassed commercial ships, but a few weeks ago they damaged one ship with a missile and hijacked another last month. The United States set up a maritime task force last week to deter the Houthis, but the group vows to maintain the pace of its attacks in the Red Sea.
Analysts say the only way to ease tensions in the Middle East is to achieve a ceasefire or significantly slow down the war in Gaza. The war’s heavy toll – more than 20,000 Palestinians killed, according to Hamas health officials – has sparked outrage around the world, but particularly among Arab countries, Iran and its allies.
The United States has been pushing Israel to move the war to a lower-intensity phase, a diplomatic campaign that bore fruit earlier this month when Israeli officials indicated they would do so when the time was right.
But it’s unclear when that will happen. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week that fighting was restarting in southern Gaza, where nearly two million Palestinian civilians have fled.
And Netanyahu stressed that Israeli soldiers “must continue to the end.”
“We do not stop and we will not stop until we are victorious, because we have no other country than this and we have no other solution,” Netanyahu told the Knesset.
Parsi, of the Quincy Institute, said that “every day we move closer and closer to all-out war” in the Middle East, which he said will likely become more aggressive until Israel slows its attack on Gaza.
“We find ourselves in an extremely dangerous cycle of escalation,” he said, “and the clearest and most effective way to stop and prevent regional war is for the administration to take action. less inclined to take. And it’s about having a ceasefire in Gaza. »
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