Moscow puts foot between Tehran and Tel Aviv

Damascus after Iranian consulate attack

The Iranian flag and a picture of Qassem Soleimani in front of the rubble of the Iranian consulate in Damascus - April 1, 2024 (Reuters)

Moscow puts foot between Tehran and Tel Aviv

Damascus after Iranian consulate attack

The Iranian flag and a picture of Qassem Soleimani in front of the rubble of the Iranian consulate in Damascus - April 1, 2024 (Reuters)

The Iranian flag and a picture of Qassem Soleimani in front of the rubble of the Iranian consulate in Damascus - April 1, 2024 (Reuters)


Hussam al-Mahmoud | Hassan Ibrahim

Over the past few days, Israel has increased its military targeting of sites in Syria, both in quantity and quality, until these strikes and air raids, most of which occur under cover of darkness and without claiming responsibility, have become almost a daily occurrence and may even recur on the same day.

These strikes are accompanied by a complicated political and field reality that exceeds the Syrian borders. Despite Israel’s involvement in a continuous six-month war waged on the Gaza Strip, the northern front of the occupied territories (with southern Lebanon) has not been spared skirmishes that have not escalated into an open war, nor have they subsided enough to stop the risk of their expansion.

The bombardment of militarily sensitive sites in Syria, such as warehouses, military factories, and scientific research centers, or Iranian deployment points, has escalated, prompting more than one party to intervene and align with or against Israel regarding the strikes in Syria, under the influence of other political issues for the involved parties, like Russia and Iran.

Enab Baladi discusses in this file, with informed experts and political analysts, aspects of this Israeli escalation and its future, the possibility of responding to it, and what this response might look like if it occurs, as well as the Russian stance, which is close to Tehran and Damascus, while Moscow eyes understandings with Tel Aviv.

Israel translates its threats

On April 1, Israel broke its engagement rules in Syria for years and destroyed the Iranian consulate building in the Syrian capital, Damascus, in its latest and most severe targeting to date.

At the time, the Ministry of Defense in the Syrian regime’s government announced the killing and injury of everyone inside the building through aerial targeting from the direction of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights.

Hours after this targeting, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) announced the killing of two of its leaders along with five of their comrades during the targeting of the consulate in Damascus, mourning the two general advisors, Mohammad Reza Zahedi and Mohammad Hadi Haj Rahimi, and five advisors and officers: Hossein Amir Allah, Sayed Mehdi Jalalati, Mohsen Sedaghat, Ali Agha Babaei, and Sayyed Ali Salehi Rouzbahani.

On April 2, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), quoting the Iranian ambassador in Damascus, Hussein Akbari, reported that the death toll rose to 13, including seven Iranian military personnel and six Syrian civilians.

The reaction to the incident began from Damascus itself when the Foreign Minister, Faisal Mekdad, visited the site of the incident, located on one of the sensitive streets of the capital, adjacent to the Iranian embassy building, and made statements expressing solidarity with Tehran and attacking Israel. He said that Israel can not influence the relationship between Syria and Iran and that the massacres committed by the Israelis in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank show that they are not human, fighting humans wherever they may be, and there is no sense of humanity in the Zionist leadership,” according to him. He also made a phone call to his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, offered condolences, and stressed the unity of stance.

On April 2, the Syrian regime’s president Bashar al-Assad made a phone call to the Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi, to condole over the “Iranian military advisors” killed in what he described as the “dirty brutal attack” on the Iranian consulate.

The political and diplomatic impact of the Israeli targeting, which prompted some parties to condemn, such as the Hamas movement, and the countries of Qatar, Jordan, Pakistan, the UAE, and Oman, caused others to evade, with the Axios website quoting a spokesperson for the American National Security Council saying that the United States had no role in the Israeli strike. Adding, quoting an unnamed senior American official, that Washington informed Tehran of this.

Iran’s promise to respond and avenge with the same strength and ferocity, and successive statements to this effect from Tehran, Israeli and American preparations to absorb any Iranian attack and reaction to the targeting, and ongoing announcements from the Islamic Resistance in Iraq about strikes in the Palestinian depths occupied by Israel, without an Israeli statement about losses or documented images of damage, and rockets from southern Lebanon towards Israel and vice versa, all did not constitute any significant deviation from the usual since the consulate targeting a few days ago.

If the Israeli targeting of an Iranian diplomatic building in Damascus is a departure from international norms and the Vienna Convention, constituting a breach of the sovereignty of two countries at the same time, the human losses were not minor for Tehran. Among the dead was Mohammad Reza Zahedi, one of the senior commanders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and in charge of the Quds Force belonging to the Revolutionary Guard Corps in Lebanon and Syria.

Khamenei looks at the coffins of Iranian leaders and officers killed in an Israeli raid on the Iranian consulate in Damascus - April 4, 2024 (Reuters)

Khamenei looks at the coffins of Iranian leaders and officers killed in an Israeli raid on the Iranian consulate in Damascus – April 4, 2024 (Reuters)


Two days before the targeting of the consulate and the killing of Zahedi and his companions, Israel had clearly threatened, through its Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, on March 29, to expand assassination operations and targeting in Syria and Lebanon, following an increased pace of strikes in Syria.

During a visit to the Northern Command headquarters of the Israeli army, close to the Lebanese border, Gallant said, “I arrived today at the Northern Command to closely monitor another successful assassination of a leader in Hezbollah, and to get an overview of the operations being carried out in preparation for assassinations and other activities in Syria, Lebanon, and other places.”

The researcher in Iranian affairs, Mustafa al-Nuaimi, explained to Enab Baladi that the current escalation is based on targeting the excess power coming from Tehran to Syria, as Iran violates the rules of engagement and sends non-peaceful weapons and technology to Syria, which resulted in the recent targeting of a scientific research center in Damascus.

This bombing sends an Israeli message to Iran that providing logistical support to Iranian militias through the regime means treating them as live targets and holding the regime responsible for the Iranian position in those locations.

The intensity of the Israeli escalation at this time is due to an assessment of the risks that could result from complacency in the Iranian positioning in Syria, or the Iranians owning separate air defense systems other than the Syrian and Russian systems, or proceeding with drone development projects on Syrian land, which explains the diversity of targets, according to the researcher.

Zahedi.. The link

Mohammad Reza Zahedi is not only considered one of the senior Iranian leaders by the forces opposing the Iranian presence in Syria, but Iran has also classified him as such. The Iranian agency “Mehr” stated that Zahedi is considered “one of the senior commanders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps”.

According to the Iranian agency, the leader’s full name is Sardar Mohammad Reda Zahedi, born in the city of Isfahan, in central Iran.

Zahedi joined the Revolutionary Guard Corps at an early stage and was one of the middle-level leaders within it. He previously commanded the Qamar Bani Hashim 44 Brigade, was the commander of the 14th Division of Imam Hussein and he held the position of commander of the ground forces in the Revolutionary Guard Corps between 2004 and 2007.

Zahedi’s career progression within the military and security sectors of the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ external sector, known as the Quds Force, ended with him being responsible for the Syrian and Lebanese files within the force.

According to the Iranian Tasnim agency, Zahedi is among four Iranian leaders that Israel threatened with assassination, including the head of the Quds Force branch in Iraq, Ali Reda Nobakht; his counterpart in Yemen, Abdul Reda Youssef Shahlai; in Palestine (West Bank and Gaza) Aqed Said Yazidi; and Zahedi in Syria and Lebanon.

The Israeli Maariv newspaper on its part stated that Mohammad Zahedi was “the mastermind for Iran in Lebanon” and in daily contact with the leader of the Lebanese Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, which was confirmed by photos showing him with Nasrallah, published by the Iranian site “Tabnak”.

The Israeli newspaper also reported from the director of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Israel, Tamir Hayman, that if the Iranian commander responsible for Syria and Lebanon was indeed killed, this would be one of the most significant assassinations carried out by Israel, perhaps more significant than the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force.

He added that Zahedi is the highest commander of the Quds Force’s northern front and is responsible for the activities of Hezbollah and the Shiite militias in Syria, and is regarded as the de facto oldest man on this front.

The British newspaper, The Guardian, from its side, mentioned that Zahedi was a “decisive figure” in Tehran’s relationship with Hezbollah and the Syrian regime leader Bashar al-Assad.

With the losses that the Quds Force has suffered, it now faces challenges in continuing its operations. The assistant professor of political science at Tennessee University, Saeid Golkar told the newspaper that the killing of Zahedi was “the most significant loss for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps since the assassination of Qassem Soleimani.”

He also added, “The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps still relies on one man and his networks”.

A photo of Qassem Soleimani on the facade of the Iranian embassy in Damascus, adjacent to the Iranian consulate that was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike - April 1, 2024 (Reuters)

A photo of Qassem Soleimani on the facade of the Iranian embassy in Damascus, adjacent to the Iranian consulate that was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike – April 1, 2024 (Reuters)

What is the nature of the Iranian response?

Researcher in Iranian affairs, Mustafa al-Nuaimi, believes that these strikes will affect the future of Iranian coordination with the Syrian regime regarding the positioning of forces and the management of operations, and the Syrian regime will not respond beyond condemnation and reserving the right to retaliate, whereas the Iranian response could be built on one of three possibilities, the first being drones that do not cause a tangible military effect but are considered part of a framework of politic deterrence messages to engage Israel.

Iran may resort to hitting soft flanks represented by allies of the United States and American bases in Deir Ezzor and al-Tanf through drones used more for causing confusion than damage.

The third and most dangerous possibility is targeting Israeli diplomatic missions and representations scattered around the world, with the researcher believing that Iran will focus its strikes around the American consulate in Erbil, in addition to offices it claims house elements of “Mossad”.

On his part, the researcher in international relations, Mahmoud Alloush, sees that post-October 7, 2023, (the Hamas attack and the beginning of the Israeli war on the Gaza Strip), there emerged a new environment that escalated the Israeli-Iranian war in Syria.

Alloush said to Enab Baladi that Israel is sending through these targets a message to Tehran, implying that there are no red lines to targeting the Iranian presence in Syria, which was actually reflected in an unexpected strike that targeted the consulate in Damascus.

Israel is moving to put or impose new rules of engagement with Iran in Syria, and Hezbollah on the southern Lebanese-Palestinian northern borders, as it sees in the current regional environment an opportunity to establish new rules of engagement that enhance its position against Iran.

Regarding the future of this escalation and the possibility of its expansion on a larger scale than it currently is, the researcher Mahmoud Alloush pointed out that the path of Israeli targeting is escalating and linked to the war in Gaza, as the continuation of the war and the failure to reach a soon calm contribute to a favorable condition for a larger escalation against Iran in Syria.

The researcher also noted the increased risks of the conflict between Israel and Iran exploding and moving towards direct confrontation, between action and reaction, which creates a situation that does not assist in containing the conflict, as the Israelis are clear in their statements and messages, and will proceed with regards to undermining Iran’s ability to use Syrian territory to form a threat to what Israel calls its “national security”.

Three scenarios

A report by the Future for Advanced Research and Studies center, prepared by the researcher in Iranian affairs, Sherif Haridy, put forward three scenarios that may result from targeting the Iranian consulate headquarters in Damascus, namely:

Direct response: The direct targeting of the consulate and the residence of the Iranian ambassador in Syria places Tehran in an embarrassing position and represents a violation of its sovereignty. The response may not necessarily take place inside Israel, as it seems unlikely because Iran is keen on avoiding a direct confrontation with Israel, especially as the latter proves that it does not consider red lines and is willing to engage in any confrontation, on any front, and may respond outside its borders.

According to the report, the direct Iranian response could be through targeting Israeli ships in the Gulf or the Red Sea, or targeting diplomatic headquarters or religious centers as happened before in some Latin American countries, or targeting headquarters affiliated to Israeli intelligence agencies, according to the Iranian perspective, as it has done before by targeting headquarters in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Postponing the response: Because most Iranian threats revolve around the threat of a “response at the appropriate time and place,” a phrase that could contain the suspension of the response at the present time and the possibility of a response in the future. Looking at previous incidents, Tehran favors this scenario, although its cost, whether internally (local discontent) or externally, may be high and may portray Iran as a “weak state” that cannot protect its interests.

Escalation through proxies: And perhaps this is the preferred scenario for Iran, at least at the present time. It may push the Lebanese Hezbollah to launch more rockets at Israeli targets, encourage the Houthis to continue targeting Israeli and American ships, in addition to urging its proxies in Iraq and Syria to attack Israeli and American targets.

Russia’s realigning stance

The Russian invasion of Ukraine muddied the previously “good” relations between Russia and Israel after the latter took a biased stance in favor of Ukraine and by extension the European Union and the United States, at the expense of Moscow. This became more pronounced after Israel launched a war on the Gaza Strip on October 7, 2023, following an attack by Palestinian factions, most notably the Al-Qassam Brigades, on Israeli settlements surrounding the Gaza Strip.

A significant shift in relations started to emerge more clearly on Syrian grounds recently, after Moscow intensified its statements condemning Israeli targeting of various areas in Syria—a change from the course it had taken in previous years when its comments were sporadic in timing and somewhat repetitive.

Moscow’s comments on the Israeli strikes several times in a short period are notable, especially since it had remained silent on dozens of previous strikes, while Israeli attacks on various sites and military points in the capital Damascus, its suburbs, Aleppo, and the rural areas of Hama, Tartus, and Homs never ceased.

For about four years, the Russian statements condemning the Israeli targeting of sites in Syria were few as the understandings between the two sides were not confined to closed rooms. These were publicized by Israel’s former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett after his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on October 24, 2021. He mentioned that Russia showed clear interest in Israel’s security needs regarding the situation in Syria.

On November 2, 2021, the Israeli newspaper, Jerusalem Post, spoke of a Russian-Israeli consensus on the exclusion of Iran from the Syrian scene, discussed during the Bennett-Putin meeting. It mentioned that Israel is engaged in the “difficult task of destroying Iran’s dreams of regional dominance” by carrying out hundreds of airstrikes against its sites in Syria.

Photos of Iranian leaders killed in an Israeli attack targeting the Iranian consulate in Damascus - April 4, 2024 (Reuters)

Photos of Iranian leaders killed in an Israeli attack targeting the Iranian consulate in Damascus – April 4, 2024 (Reuters)

Russian rhetoric escalates in tone

On March 21, Vasily Nebenzia, Russia’s permanent representative to the United Nations, said that Israeli raids on Syria “threaten a comprehensive regional confrontation,” adding that Moscow is particularly concerned about the intensification of Israeli attacks, and such “irresponsible actions carry the risk of dragging Syria and several of its neighbors into a broad regional confrontation.”

Eight days after Nebenzia’s statement, following Israeli strikes that targeted a site in the countryside of Damascus and various areas in the city of Aleppo, Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry, stated that Israeli strikes on Syria are “absolutely unacceptable,” condemning these actions as provocative and fraught with risky consequences that could deteriorate the situation in the region dramatically.

After targeting the Iranian consulate on April 1, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov described the raid as a violation of all the foundations of international law and an act of aggression, while Sergei Naryshkin, director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, called the attack “terrorist and a disgraceful criminal step.”

Russian Ambassador to Tehran Alexei Dedov mentioned that the Israeli strike on Damascus carries negative and unpredictable consequences, noting that Moscow will closely monitor the situation. Russia also called for an emergency session of the Security Council following the attack on the Iranian consulate.

During a Security Council session on April 2, Nebenzia said that Russia expects the international community to provide a fair assessment of Israel’s attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus, calling for the council members’ solidarity and condemnation of attacks on diplomatic institutions.

Dmitry Polyanskiy, the first deputy permanent representative of Russia to the United Nations, announced that Moscow had distributed a draft statement to the Security Council traditionally used in such cases, condemning the targeting of the Iranian consulate in Damascus.

He added that the United States and the United Kingdom refused even to discuss the matter, due to the lack of consensus in the meeting. They, along with the French delegation, did not condemn the targeting of the consulate, implying that Iran alone is responsible.

The United States, Britain, France rejected the Russian statement condemning the attack on the consulate, accusing Israel of executing it.

Reuters quoted unnamed diplomats saying the United States, supported by France and Britain, told their colleagues on the Security Council that the facts of what happened on April 1 in Damascus are still unclear.

Dmitry Bridzhe, director of the Russian Studies Unit at the Center of Arabic Eurasian Studies (CAES), believes the purpose of the Russian statements is to affirm that Israeli military actions pose a threat to regional stability and increase tension in Syria.

Bridzhe, in his conversation with Enab Baladi, sees the potential that the timing of the comment carries implications related to four possibilities. The first is potential future understandings between Russia and Israel regarding the situation in Syria, and the second an indication of the necessity to escalate diplomatically rather than militarily.

The third possibility, according to Bridzhe, is Russia’s attempt to reduce tensions and find peaceful solutions to ongoing conflicts in Syria, and the fourth a desire to maintain diplomatic relations between the two countries despite differences in approach towards the Syrian crisis.

Abdul Wahab Assi, a researcher at Jusoor Center for Studies, believes that through ongoing criticism, Russia wants to play a strategic role in mediating between Iran and Israel, presenting itself as a guarantor of Israeli and regional security, in continuation of its efforts that began in 2018 but stumbled, as the disagreements with the United States continued, and it seemed unable to or unwilling to control Iran’s destabilizing activities in the southern region.

Assi told Enab Baladi that Russia limiting its stance on Israeli strikes to criticism without reaching the level of suspending joint cooperation and coordination with Israel indicates its continued desire for Iranian sites to be targeted. This would achieve a weak Iranian presence but not lead to its end, as Moscow still needs Iran’s role in Syria. It seeks to weaken that role without actively doing so itself.

Assi pointed out that after the Gaza war, Russia’s role in establishing stability on the Israel-Syria border significantly increased. It established 11 observation posts along the border with the Golan Heights and conducted several patrols in the area, allegedly to ensure the reduction of tensions in the region between the Iranian militias and Israel.

According to the Emirates Policy Center, Moscow is exploiting the Israeli war on Gaza to highlight the shortcomings of American policies, gaining leverage on the Ukrainian front, which has become somewhat forgotten. At the same time, it seeks to renew its influence through the Syrian gateway, by increasing its absent diplomatic activity since the Ukraine war and working to prevent the Israeli war from turning into a regional conflict.

The Russians to the south

With the onset of the Russian-Ukrainian war in February 2022, the Russian presence relatively declined in southern Syria, after Moscow redirected its resources and focused its energy. This withdrawal opened the door for Iranian militias to infiltrate the region, leaving it susceptible to repeated targeting by Israel, which bombarded the area frequently and targeted members of these militias.

Since the ongoing Israeli war on Gaza started about half a year ago, Russia has bolstered its presence along the Golan Heights by establishing a number of observation posts and resumed its military patrols in the south in early November 2023, after an absence that lasted for more than a year. A Russian military patrol toured south of Quneitra between the town of al-Muealaqa and Ghadir al-Bustan near the al-Safra Company of the 90th Brigade affiliated with the regime in the southern province.

One of Moscow’s moves in the southern front was on April 1, when Russia established a military point near the demarcation zone between the Israeli and Syrian forces in the Golan Heights. This is the third Russian military point of its kind since the beginning of the year.

Deputy head of the Russian Center for Reconciliation, Yuri Popov, commented on the establishment of the point, stating that it came as part of the efforts to monitor the situation along the “Bravo Line” in the demarcation area, adding that work is underway to monitor “the commitment to the ceasefire between the two parties”.

The Israeli research center “Intelli Times” said that the Russian Defense Ministry’s eyes on Israel, documenting the activities of the Russian police in the Golan Heights, not to monitor military provocations but to gather intelligence, technological, and military information about the capabilities of the Israeli army, and about the performance of Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Researcher Bridzhe believes that the function of the Russian military points in southern Syria will not exceed monitoring, as there are de-escalation understandings between Russia and Israel, which have their roots dating back to 2018, when talks were held between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin.

In September 2018, the Israeli Security Cabinet instructed the army to continue taking actions against Iranian attempts to establish a military presence in Syria while continuing security coordination with Russia.

An analysis by the Malcolm Kerr-Carnegie Middle East Center considered southern Syria a hotbed of conflict on the verge of ignition, and that bolstering the Russian presence in southern Syria could either increase pressure on Iran or help mitigate the Iranian-Israeli confrontation in the south. Even if Moscow is unable to replace or cancel Iranian influence.

According to the Carnegie center, Russia has failed to build a strong network of local proxies as Iran did. Therefore, if Iran continues to strengthen its position near the occupied Golan, or to deploy more weapons there, a conflict with Israel could become an inevitable reality.

Although southern Syria still witnesses relative calm in light of the Israeli focus on Gaza and southern Lebanon, a move towards achieving a preliminary understanding in southern Syria is necessary, according to the Emirates Policy Center, because field developments could accelerate and get out of control.

If escalation occurs before reaching an understanding, Russia may have to take a stance favoring Iran in Syria in order not to jeopardize its relationship with Iran for a non-existent understanding. However, if a preliminary agreement exists, Russia will be more interested in containing Iran rather than supporting it.


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