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A deadly Israeli strike in Syria ratchets up a years-long shadow war with Iran that could again put US forces in the crosshairs

Jake Epstein   

A deadly Israeli strike in Syria ratchets up a years-long shadow war with Iran that could again put US forces in the crosshairs
  • An Israeli strike on an Iranian diplomatic facility in Syria this week killed top IRGC officials.
  • The attack is part of a years-long shadow war between Israel and Iran — two bitter foes.

In the days following a fatal Israeli airstrike on an Iranian diplomatic facility in Syria this week, the Middle East continues to hold its breath as it waits to see how Tehran might retaliate.

The brazen attack on Monday, which killed multiple senior Iranian military officials, marks a significant escalation in what has been a years-long shadow war between Israel and Iran. It has also raised fears across the region that a larger conflict between the two countries may be looming, which would have grave consequences.

And the Biden administration is not sitting on the sidelines, either, creating risks for the US as well. This complex conflict has in the past put US forces in the crosshairs, and war experts say Iran may choose to respond, at least in part, to the latest strike by targeting American troops stationed in the Middle East.

'It is certainly significant'

For years, Israel and Iran have traded attacks as part of their shadow war — a simmering conflict between two bitter foes that has, in recent memory, featured assassinations, cyberattacks, drone strikes at sea, and more.

Amid these hostilities, Israel has long carried out airstrikes against Iranian assets and the the movement of weapons in Syria. But Monday's incident was different from those in the past because of where it occurred and who it targeted.

"It is certainly significant," Farzin Nadimi, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Business Insider, because this deadly incident "can be counted as the first time Israel struck an official Iranian government-affiliated site with high-ranking people inside."

The strike destroyed an Iranian consulate building in Damascus and killed seven Iranian military officials, including two generals in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, according to a statement carried out by Tehran's state media.

The IRGC was established in 1979 in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution and is listed by the US as a foreign terrorist organization. It is a separate branch of Tehran's armed forces and is responsible for supporting Iran's vast network of militias across the Middle East, which operate in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank.

These groups make up the so-called Axis of Resistance, which seeks to destroy Israel and push its main ally — the US — from the region.

In the aftermath of the Damascus strike, Iran blamed Israel, vowing revenge and harsh retaliation. But it also claimed that the US was responsible for the attack. Tehran's foreign minister, for instance, said Tehran delivered a message to the Biden administration, through Switzerland, asserting that it would be held accountable.

"Iranian officials and media are accusing the United States of enabling the Israeli airstrike, possibly to set conditions to target US forces in the Middle East," analysts at the Institute for the Study of War think tank wrote in a Tuesday assessment.

The US, however, has repeatedly pushed back on Iran's accusations. A Pentagon spokesperson on Tuesday said the Biden administration "made it very clear" to Tehran through private channels that it was not responsible for the strike in Damascus, nor did it have any advanced knowledge about the attack.

When asked if the Israeli strike will increase the risk to US forces in the region, Deputy Press Secretary Sabrina Singh told reporters that she can't speak to "hypothetical actions" but said "we're going to continue to make sure that our forces are protected in the region. So, that means monitoring what's going on around them."

Iran 'historically' holds the US accountable

Iran-backed proxies have attacked US forces in the Middle East for many years as part of a larger cycle of violence across the region. Analysts say the strategy is part of Tehran's goal of both ousting American troops from the region and also retaliating against Israeli strikes targeting Iranian assets and weapons shipments.

But the tempo of these attacks significantly increased following Hamas' Oct. 7 massacre in Israel, which triggered the ensuing ground invasion of Gaza.

Iran-backed militias began firing missiles, rockets, and drones at US forces in Iraq and Syria on a routine basis. By late-January, the Pentagon had tracked over 170 attacks. Then, three American troops were killed at a base in Jordan, and Washington retaliated with widespread airstrikes targeting Tehran's assets.

Since early February, there has been relative calm across Iraq, Syria, and Jordan; the last attack against coalition forces occurred in early February, a US defense official told BI this week.

The Damascus strike, however, has ignited fears that American troops in Iraq and Syria may be targeted again. Lt. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich, the top US Air Force commander in the region, said Washington is concerned about this possibility.

If Iran chose to go after US forces in response, it would not be unprecedented. In March 2023, shortly after Israeli airstrikes hit Iran-linked targets in Syria, Tehran-backed militants conducted a drone attack on a coalition base, killing an American contractor.

"Iran has historically held the United States accountable for Israeli military activity against Iran and its proxies," the ISW analysts said.

It's certainly not a given that the US will get roped into the fallout of the Damascus strike. Nadimi, an expert in Iranian security affairs, said it's possible that Tehran will refrain from directly attacking American forces — especially in ways that could cause casualties — because it doesn't want to push Washington closer to Israel right now.

"They do not want to see any US airstrikes against their targets in the region," Nadimi said. Ultimately, if Washington steers clear of Iran's response to Israel, it can avoid becoming party to the retaliation until it escalates out of hand. Tehran also wants to avoid receiving condemnation from any of the countries in the region, he added.

"They will be very, very careful not to create any more enemies right now," Nadimi said. "They want to keep their focus on Israel."

A 'rapid escalation' in the shadow war

For now, it remains to be seen how Iran will respond. In the past, following the death of high-ranking officials, Tehran's response has ended with casualties, though it stopped short of all-out confrontation with the US or Israel.

After the US assassinated Qassem Soleimani, who was the IRGC's elite Quds Force commander, in a 2020 drone strike, for example, Iran fired dozens of ballistic missiles at bases housing US forces in Iraq. Around 100 American troops were left injured.

Hours later, amid sky-high tensions, the IRGC shot down a passenger jet that was bound for Kyiv shortly after it took off from Tehran. The aircraft was mistakenly misidentified as a cruise missile, and all 176 people on board were killed.

Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, said on Wednesday that Tehran will make Israel "regret" its attack in Damascus. It's currently unclear what that may look like.

The US will be closely monitoring the situation though. President Joe Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday that his administration "strongly supports" Israel as it faces threats from Iran, according to a White House readout of the call between the two leaders.

Regardless of how Iran retaliates, whether directly or through a proxy militia in the region, Nadimi said it will likely force an Israeli response as the country seeks to strengthen its deterrence against Tehran.

"They will feel obligated to respond to any Iranian retaliation," he said, warning that "we will see a rapid escalation" in the shadow war.

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