Israeli attack on Damascus suburb shrouded in mystery

Iranian and Syrian media produce conflicting reports on whether or not any Iranian military personnel were killed

Smoke rises after an Israeli missile strike on Damascus on January 20. Reuters
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An Israeli air strike in Syria has prompted conflicting reports in Damascus and Tehran over whether or not Iranian military personnel were killed.

Monday's strike on the outskirts of Damascus was reported by media in both Syria and Iran, but they gave mixed reports regarding the victims.

Syrian state news agency Sana quoted the country's Defence Ministry as saying Israel had hit several locations south of the capital at about 1pm local time.

It said a “number of Iranian advisers” were killed, implying that they had been hit by air-to-surface missiles.

But Sana later retracted that part of its report, saying only that the attack had “resulted in the martyrdom and wounding of a number of civilians, as well as some material losses”.

Iranian reports also provided contradictory accounts.

Tasnim news agency, which is linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, said Israel had hit an Iranian “military advisory centre”. But Tehran's ambassador to Syria, Hossein Akbari, said no such site had been hit and that no Iranian citizens were among the dead.

The strike came a day after the US accused pro-Iranian militias of killing three of its troops at a base in Jordan in a drone attack launched from Syria. Washington vowed to respond to the attack.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said eight people were killed in the Israeli strike on Monday, including two members of Iran-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah and the bodyguard of an Iranian officer.

A member of the Syrian opposition to President Bashar Al Assad said that without a direct admission from Tehran or Damascus, it would be difficult to determine who was killed in the attack.

He told The National that Israeli missiles had struck a building in Aqraba, a mixed area of urban dwellings and small farms just south of the Syrian capital.

“There are no reliable indications who the dead were,” he said, adding that the building that was hit “is one of many in the southern suburbs that had fallen into Iranian hands”.

Iranian influence in Syria

Israel has increased the frequency of air strikes against Iran-linked sites in Syria since the outbreak of the October 7 war in Gaza, and has killed at least a dozen members of the IRGC, which oversees Tehran's proxy militias abroad, including in Syria.

The IRGC has vowed to open a regional front against Israel to support Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that governs Gaza.

The Aqraba area of southern Damascus is one of the centres of Iranian influence in Syria, said the opposition member, and several people with ties to the Iranian state have bought property there as Tehran consolidates its control.

Iran, Russia and the US have carved out zones of control in Syria over the past decade of civil war in the country. The conflict started in 2011, when Mr Al Assad's regime used deadly force to suppress pro-democracy demonstrations that broke out in March that year.

Aqraba, due to its proximity to Damascus Airport, is seen as a key strategic point within Iran's zone of control in Syria.

Israel says Tehran uses the airport to move weapons technology, such as drones, to its proxies in Syria and Lebanon.

The suburb is also 90km north of the border with Jordan, and near to a motorway which Amman says Iran-backed militias use to support drug smugglers.

Two senior Iranian military figures have been killed in Israeli strikes on Syria in the past two months. Senior Iranian intelligence operative Sadiq Ameed Zada was killed in Damascus earlier in January, while an Israeli attack on Sayyida Zeinab, near Aqraba, killed IRGC general Razi Mousavi in December.

Updated: January 30, 2024, 4:13 PM