Two IRGC generals killed in Israeli strike on Iranian embassy compound in Damascus

Mohammad Reza Zahedi and Mohammad Hadi Haji Rahimi among 11 dead as Iranian officials vow revenge

Israeli air strike hits Iranian consulate in Syria

Israeli air strike hits Iranian consulate in Syria
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Two generals in Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps were killed in an air strike on the Iranian embassy compound in Damascus, the IRGC said.

Brig Gen Mohammad Reza Zahedi and Brig Gen Mohammad Hadi Haji Rahimi, were killed in the attack, alongside five officers, Hossein Amanollahi, Mehdi Jalalati, Mohsen Sadaqat, Ali Agha Babaei and Ali Salehi Rozbahani, Iranian officials said on Monday.

Brig Gen Zahedi was a commander of the IRGC's Quds Force in Lebanon and Brig Gen Rahimi was a senior commander in the IRGC's foreign operations arm. Eleven people were killed in the strike, a UK-based war monitor said.

"The death toll from the Israeli strikes on the Iranian embassy annex has risen to 11: eight Iranians, two Syrians and one Lebanese – all of them fighters, none of them civilians," Rami Abdulrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told AFP.

The strike is the most significant attack against an Iranian target since the outbreak of the Gaza conflict and risks pulling Iran into a direct confrontation with Israel.

"By assassinating the commander Zahedi in the heart of Damascus, Israel wants to renew the attempt to lure Iran into a direct confrontation," a source close to Iran's allies in the region told The National.

The strike raises fears of further escalation on other fronts against Israel, including from Iran-backed groups in Yemen and Lebanon, the source added.

Iran urged the UN Security Council to condemn the attack.

In a letter to the UN Secretary General, Iran’s UN chargé d’affaires, Zahra Ershadi, accused Israel of “intentionally” targeting its diplomatic premises in Damascus by missile airstrikes launched by Israel from the occupied Golan Heights.

Ms Ershadi called on the Security Council to take “all necessary measures” including through an urgent meeting to address the “egregious violation” and prevent future acts of aggression that jeopardise the security and safety of diplomatic missions.

A Syrian military source told The National that Israel launched the attack from the direction of the occupied Golan Heights at 5pm on Monday. He said that several missiles were shot down by Syrian air defences.

The attack flattened the ambassador's five-storey residence in Damascus, which is part of the Iranian embassy compound in the city and home of the consulate.

“The Iranian ambassador's residence in Damascus has been hit with what looks like an Israeli strike,” a Syrian security source told The National. “It's the building adjacent to the Iranian embassy,” he said.

Iman, a resident of the Mezzeh area where the Iranian embassy is located, told The National that the blast that destroyed the consulate was so strong her house, about two kilometres away, shook with the impact.

Iran's ambassador to Syria, Hossein Akbari, was not among those harmed, and he issued a statement in response to the attack.

"The Israeli attack on the Iranian consulate reflects the reality of the Zionist entity, which does not recognise any international laws and does everything inhumane to achieve what it wants," Mr Akbari said in a statement following the attack.

"We will retaliate at our own timing," the ambassador wrote on X, and the embassy vowed to "retaliate with an appropriate action to this cowardly aggression".

Speaking to reporters in front of the embassy, according to the Iranian state news agency Isna, the ambassador said F-35 fighters with six missiles had attacked the embassy compound.

"I was at my workplace in the embassy, and I saw from my room that the building was damaged," he said.

Mr Akbari said two security guards had been killed in the attack, adding that the final death toll would be announced once the bodies had been recovered from the rubble.

Syrian security sources identified the IRGC's Mr Zahedi as the target of the strike to The National. The US had imposed sanctions on Mr Zahedi, with Washington accusing him of terrorism.

He held several senior positions in the Quds Force, including previously commanding the group's ground forces. He acted as a liaison between Tehran and its allies, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and Syrian intelligence services.

Mr Zahedi was reportedly in charge of guaranteeing the supply of Iranian weapons to Hezbollah.

“His real kind of expertise and strategic value has been his long-standing role as kind of the Quds Force’s lead liaison with Hezbollah in Lebanon, for which he has been responsible for many, many years,” Charles Lister, director of the Syria and countering terrorism and extremism programmes at the Middle East Institute, told The National.

“On top of that, since 2021, he has also been wholly responsible for everything that the IRGC and the Quds Force has been doing in Syria. So, in a sense he is the Quds Force’s number one operative, co-ordinating Iran's most sensitive strategic front line for Lebanon and Syria.”

The Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Faisal Al Mekdad, said from the Iranian embassy in Damascus that "the Israeli occupation entity will not be able to influence the relations between Iran and Syria".

The Israeli government did not respond to requests for comment.

Israel has repeatedly carried out bombings against Iranian and Syrian targets within Syria.

The strikes have escalated since the start of the war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas and the cross-border conflict between Israel and the Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Monday's strike comes just days after dozens of Syrian soldiers and Hezbollah members were killed in Israeli air strikes on north-western Aleppo province on Friday, in one of the biggest attacks against Syria and the Iranian-backed group since October 7.

Israel has also intensified attacks against Hezbollah in Lebanon, sparking fears that the conflict on the Israeli-Lebanese border could escalate into all-out war.

Dangerous provocation

The source close to Iran's allies in the region said that as the Iranian embassy is technically Iranian territory, Israel is raising the level of confrontation with Iran and provoking it with a clear incentive to respond.

"The central question now is whether the Iranian leadership considers the attack on its diplomatic building in Damascus to be a direct assault on Iranian territory, so it is then forced to respond in one way or another, or whether its understandings with the US to de-escalate will hold," the source said.

Washington has repeatedly pledged to try to contain the regional spillover from Israel's war in Gaza and avoid an all-out confrontation with Iran and its allies.

Mr Lister added that Israel essentially eliminated the Quds Force leadership responsible for Lebanon and Syria in one strike. Retaliation is all but inevitable, he warned.

“In so doing, of course, they've also hit what is technically sovereign Iranian territory in Syria. They hit the consulate and so, diplomatically speaking, it's also an enormous escalation in that sense," he said.

Iraqi militias backed by Iran halted their attacks against US forces in the region in the context of an “unannounced truce” with Tehran, after the killing of three US soldiers in early February risked sparking a regional escalation.

Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Mr Zahedi was a “very high-level individual” and predicted the Iranians may try to retaliate by striking an Israeli consulate somewhere.

“It’s a little bit of a smack in the face to lose a consulate,” Mr Knights told The National. “The Israelis have definitely stepped up their game in both Lebanon and even in Syria over the last six months."

He said Israel has decided to use the current conflicts in Gaza and along the northern border with Lebanon as a time “to get some things done” that previously had not been feasible.

Senior US correspondent Willy Lowry contributed to this report

Updated: April 02, 2024, 10:46 AM