Iran embassy strike shows Israel’s growing reach as Mideast boils

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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - DUBAI, April 4 –– Hounded by months of deadly Israeli attacks in Syria, Iranian military commanders thought it safe to convene a top-level meeting inside Iran’s embassy compound in Damascus, believing it protected by international norms shielding diplomatic missions, according to a dozen Iranian, Syrian and regional officials.

They were wrong.

An airstrike on the compound killed seven Iranian officers on Monday - among them one of Iran’s top soldiers, Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Zahedi, a senior commander in the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC). It was the boldest, and deadliest, in a series of attacks that have picked off Iranian officials in Syria since December. Blamed by Tehran on Israel, the attack was a rare military strike on diplomatic premises anywhere in the world and drew swift condemnation from the UN and EU. Analysts view it as a significant escalation in a wider Israeli campaign to degrade the influence carved out by Iran in Syria over the last decade. Zahedi had arrived in Syria a day or so before the attack and was staying at the embassy compound with two other senior commanders, according to an Iranian source who, like others in this story, asked not be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The three men were in Syria to discuss operational logistics and coordination, the source said, without elaborating. Zahedi was a top figure in the Guards’ Quds Force, which funnels Iranian support to allies around the region, including to Lebanon’s Hezbollah. He was the most senior Revolutionary Guards figure to be killed since a U.S. drone strike on Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad four years ago, and the manner of the strike sent shockwaves across a region already roiled by Israel’s war in Gaza.

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“In my view, it’s without precedent,” said Gregory Brew, an analyst at Eurasia Group, adding he could not recall any state directly targeting another’s diplomatic presence in this way.

“The IRGC officers likely thought they were safe so long as they remained in the diplomatic compound,” he said. “I can’t imagine any IRGC officers feel particularly safe at the moment.” With Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowing revenge, the fallout risks further escalating the conflict that has spread through the Middle East since the eruption of the Gaza war in October.

However, two Iranian officials indicated Tehran would not veer from the approach it has adopted since October of avoiding direct conflict with Israel and the United States, while simultaneously backing allies who have hit Israel, U.S. troops, and Red Sea shipping in attacks they say aim to support Gaza.

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One of those officials, a senior source, said Tehran was compelled to give a serious response to prevent Israel from repeating such attacks or escalating. But the level of retaliation would be limited and aimed at deterrence, the official said, without elaborating.

The public relations office of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards declined to comment.

Israel, which rarely comments on its Syria operations, has not declared its responsibility for Monday’s attack, which levelled the building where the commanders were gathered adjacent to the main Iranian embassy building. The Israeli military spokesperson’s office declined to comment for this story. Sanam Vakil, deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House, said the attack was the latest to show the precise nature of Israeli intelligence in Syria and the wider region. She noted a Jan. 2 Israeli strike had killed a senior leader of Palestinian militant group Hamas in Lebanon, the stronghold of Iranian-backed movement, Hezbollah. Both groups are part of Iran’s regional ‘Axis of Resistance’.

“We have seen very high-level killings of officials with management responsibility across the network,” she said, adding the latest attack targeting Zahedi “speaks to Israel’s broader objective of trying to degrade the operational capacities of the Axis of Resistance over the last six months”. Just last week, Israel mounted one of its deadliest strikes in months in Syria, killing 33 Syrians and six Hezbollah fighters, security sources said. Israel has also hit Hezbollah hard in Lebanon during hostilities since the Gaza war began in October, killing some 250 of its fighters including senior commanders.

Israel launched its invasion of Gaza in response to the Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel by Hamas, which killed 1,200 people and captured 253 hostages. Some 33,000 Palestinians have since been killed in nearly six months of warfare, according to medical officials in the enclave

A ‘rare opportunity’

An Iranian security source said Iran would adjust its tactics in light of Monday’s strike, without giving further details. A regional source close to Iran said there was no longer any secure place in Syria after Israel had transgressed diplomatic norms.

Reuters reported in February that the Revolutionary Guards had scaled back deployments of senior officers in Syria as a result of the wave of Israeli strikes against Revolutionary Guard commanders. Sources said at the time the Guards had raised concerns with Syrian authorities that information leaks from within the Syrian security forces played a part in those strikes.

In the wake of Monday’s attack, the Iranian security source said Iran was investigating whether Zahedi’s movements were leaked to Israel.

Iran has deployed officers and allied militias to Syria to aid President Bashar al-Assad during the war that began in 2011. The Syrian government say they serve in the capacity of advisers at the invitation of Damascus.

Raz Zimmt, a researcher at the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University, said Zahedi had played a significant role “managing the entrenchment of Iranian activity both in Syria and Lebanon”. He would be hard to replace due to “his long experience and his long presence in Syria”, he said, but the main significance of the attack was to show that nowhere was out of bounds.

“I think that perhaps the more important issue is for Israel to relay the message to Iran, saying that Iran can no longer escape the consequences of its major role in the coordination of this Iranian axis in the region,” Zimmt said.

An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, declined to confirm Israel’s involvement in Monday’s attack but said that the congregation of several senior Iranian officials in one location was highly unusual.

“Whoever did this clearly did not want to pass up what appears to have been a very, very rare opportunity,” he said. “That’s not something a country at war would pass up.” U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres condemned the attack on the Iranian diplomatic premises, saying “the principle of the inviolability of diplomatic and consular premises and personnel must be respected in all cases and in all circumstances in accordance with international law”, his spokesperson said. The European Union echoed the statement.

However, the Israeli official said the identities of the dead amounted to “an admission that a diplomatic mission in a third-party country is being used as a military headquarters”. The United States has said it has not confirmed the status of the building struck in Damascus, but that it would be concerned if it was a diplomatic facility. Washington warned Iran on Tuesday not to retaliate against it over the attack, telling the UN Security Council it had no prior warning of the strike.

A Syrian military intelligence officer said the area near the embassy included buildings previously used by Israel to monitor and plant devices, and that Israel had intensified efforts to develop human intelligence in recent months.

Qasem Mohebali, former Director-General for the Middle East and North Africa at Iran’s Foreign Ministry who is based in Iran, called the strike a turning point in Israel’s attacks against Iran’s presence in Syria.

In an interview with the Iranian news website Jamaran, he said Israel “had previously exercised caution and refrained from targeting official and diplomatic Iranian locations”.

But “direct war with Israel is by no means in Iran’s interest”, he added. “Entering that arena does not just end with war with Israel; the conflict could escalate and involve other players such as the United States,” he said.—Reuters

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