An Israeli strike on Monday that killed an Iranian officer in Syria is the latest development to renew fears of a wider conflict in the Middle East as the war in Gaza continues to rage with a mounting 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 yet in the Israel-Hamas war.
“Tel Aviv is waiting for a tough countdown,” said Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter.
The strike also comes amid mounting civilian deaths in Gaza, with any potential fallout threatening to undo a strenuous effort from the U.S. to contain the war to between Israel and Palestinian militant group Hamas.
The U.S. itself is getting dragged deeper into the conflict as Washington fends off relentless attacks from Iranian-backed groups in Iraq and Syria. Militias carried out their deadliest attack since the Gaza war began when a Christmas Day drone strike critically wounded an American soldier and injured two others.
Although analysts don’t expect the breakout of a wider war anytime soon, the events show the conflict is showing no signs of cooling down as the New Year approaches.
“Everybody is playing a chess game,” said Barbara Slavin, a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center and the editor of the think tank’s Middle East Voices blog. “You have so many different players now.”
But Slavin does not see a dramatic shift in the calculus anytime soon.
“The major casualties of this war have taken place in Israel and in Gaza, and the West Bank,” she continued. “These other attacks, while they’re kind of scary, are really very much symbolic, more symbolic than part of a broader conflict at this time. It can always change — can always escalate — but I don’t see this developing into World War III.”
The Israeli strike in Damascus on Monday killed Brig. Gen. Seyyed Razi Mousavi, a senior adviser to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps who was responsible for coordination with Syria and Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed military and political group in Lebanon.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said his forces are fighting in a “multi-arena” war following the deadly Oct. 7 attacks from Hamas, which left more than 1,200 dead in southern Israel. Hamas, which is fighting to stay alive in Gaza, is funded by Iran.
“Anyone who acts against us is a target, no one is immune,” Gallant said on Tuesday.
Mousavi had been close to Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was slain by the U.S. in 2020 during the Trump administration, and his death this week prompted the same outpouring of grief from Iran and its allies as Soleimani’s death did nearly four years ago.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said Monday that Tehran would definitely retaliate for the strike, according to Iranian state-run media.
“His martyrdom is another sign of frustration and weakness of the occupying Zionist regime in the region,” Raisi claimed.
Hezbollah has also strongly denounced the strike 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, the executive vice president at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, said Israel likely conducted the strike to send a message to Iran: that senior Iranian officials can and will be targeted for their involvement with proxy groups.
But Parsi assessed that Iran will not respond to Israel directly or with an escalatory attack, arguing “they’re playing the longer game” against the U.S. and Israel.
“They’re building up the capability of the Houthis, Hezbollah and others,” he said. “We’re likely going to see more attacks on the U.S. … rather than the Iranian strike.”
Israel has killed several high-ranking Iranian officials in the past decade as the two countries have been locked in a shadow war for years. But Tehran has rarely directly ordered a strike on Israel or Israeli positions, usually acting instead through its proxies.
The entire Middle East region is tense, with Iranian-backed militia groups having now attacked U.S. troops around 100 times since Oct. 17, shortly after the Israel-Hamas war began.
So far, American troops have suffered only minor injuries in the attacks in Iraq and Syria. But the Christmas Day strike saw an explosive drone hit an air base in northern Iraq, leaving one U.S. soldier in critical condition. The U.S. responded with retaliatory strikes that killed one militant and injured another 18.
When asked if the events over the holiday could lead to escalations in the Middle East, the Pentagon referred to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s Monday statement. Austin said the U.S. does not seek escalation but is “committed and fully prepared to take further necessary measures to protect our people and our facilities.”
The Houthis, an Iranian-backed rebel group in Yemen, also continue to be a threat against ships and merchant vessels in the Red Sea. They have mainly harassed commercial boats, but a few weeks ago damaged a ship with a missile and hijacked another last month. The U.S. set up a maritime task force last week to deter the Houthis, but the group is promising to keep up its pace of attacks in the Red Sea.
Analysts say the only way for tensions to ease across the Middle East is if the war in Gaza reaches a ceasefire or significantly slows down. The war’s high death toll — more than 20,000 killed, according to Hamas health officials — has sparked outrage across the world, but particularly among Arab nations, Iran and Iranian allies.
The U.S. is pushing Israel to move the war into a lower-intensity phase, a diplomatic campaign that bore some fruit earlier this month when Israeli officials signaled they would do so when the time was right.
But it’s not clear when that would happen. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week fighting is picking up in southern Gaza, where nearly two million Palestinian civilians have fled.
And Netanyahu emphasized that Israeli soldiers “need to keep going until the end.”
“We are not stopping and we will not stop until we are victorious, because we have no country but this one, and we have no other way,” Netanyahu said before the Knesset.
Parsi, from the Quincy Institute, said that “every day we’re getting closer and closer to all-out war” in the Middle East, which he said will likely get more aggressive until Israel slows down its assault on Gaza.
“It’s an extremely dangerous, escalatory cycle that we’re in and the most obvious and most effective way of stopping and preventing a regional war,” he said, “is the one step that the administration is least inclined to pursue. And that is to actually have a cease-fire in Gaza.”
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