Iran buries IRGC commanders as allies discuss response to Israeli strike

Virtual meeting between Tehran-backed groups was set for Wednesday after attack on embassy compound in Damascus

A billboard image in Tehran of IRGC Quds Force commander Mohammad Reza Zahedi reads: 'You [Israel] will be punished'. EPA
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Iran on Wednesday buried the commanders and operatives killed in an Israeli strike on its embassy compound in Damascus amid heightened regional tensions, prompting the US to clarify that it had no role in the attack.

The strike that levelled the Iranian ambassador’s residence, which is also used as a consulate and is adjacent to the main embassy building, killed at least 16 people – among them seven from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), including the head of the Quds Force in Lebanon and Syria, Mohammad Reza Zahedi.

Iranian state media said the seven IRGC members were buried in “a special ceremony” in the Syrian capital. Their funerals will be held in Tehran on Friday and Isfahan on Saturday.

Monday's strike was one of several Israeli attacks on Syria since the Israel-Gaza war erupted on October 7 and came days after dozens of regime soldiers and Iran-backed fighters were killed near Aleppo. It is the most significant hit on an Iranian target since the Gaza war and risks pulling Iran into a direct confrontation with Israel.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi have vowed to retaliate and “punish” Israel. In a meeting with the country's top officials on Wednesday, Mr Khamenei reiterated that “efforts like the one they committed in Syria will not save them from failure. Of course, they will be slapped over this action”.

Sources close to the Iranian-backed groups in the region have told The National that the response will probably come through those militant groups in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen, but that a “direct response” should not be disregarded.

“We will soon witness more deadly strikes against Israel, and the Resistance Front will do its duty,” a spokesman for the IRGC was quoted by state media as saying on Wednesday.

Iranian officials and the leaders of Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas, Yemen’s rebels and Iraq factions on Wednesday discussed the strike fallout in a virtual meeting, according to the state-run Irna news outlet.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said during the meeting that Tehran's allies “must strive to win this battle and defeat the Zionist enemy and all its supporters, and this must be our goal,” calling for “working hard to provide all the components of support in order to achieve our goals, and this is everyone's duty”.

The leader of Yemen's Houthi rebels, Abdul Malik Al Houthi, said his group, which has been launching attacks against ships in the Red Sea “is trying to increase missile and naval power to support the Palestinian nation”.

Brig Gen Zahedi played a key role in facilitating the transfer of weapons and military support from Tehran to its ally Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, and was responsible for creating strategies for Tehran's “axis of resistance”.

“In principle, every assassination of a leader in the resistance axis represents a loss,” a source close to Iran's groups said.

“But it does not cause irreparable harm because this force does not rely on a hierarchical leadership structure … dozens of leaders can fill the void quickly and had worked alongside him for years.”

Drone shot down

While Israel did not officially acknowledge responsibility for the attack in Damascus, an army spokesman said the embassy compound, in the central Mezzeh area of the city, was a military site “disguised” as a diplomatic site.

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant emphasised that his country would “act everywhere, every day to prevent the force build-up of our enemies”, adding that Israel was making it “clear to everyone who acts against us, all over the Middle East, that the price for acting against Israel will be a heavy price”.

More concerning for Tehran and the international community than Israel's assassination of IRGC commanders is its apparent abandonment of unspoken red lines in its conflict with Iran, experts said.

Hours after the strike, US officials rushed to clarify that Washington did not play a role after Iran’s foreign minister said America must be held accountable because of its support for Israel.

“We were not involved in any way whatsoever. So the comments by the Iranian foreign minister that somehow we are to be held to account or we’re to blame – it’s just nonsense,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters.

Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said the US had told Iran via “private channels” that it was not responsible for the strike.

“I will reiterate the US had no involvement in that strike. And we had no knowledge about it ahead of time,” she said.

A source close to Iran's allies in the region said the US “knows the gravity of what Israel did and that it should expect that Iran carries out some kind of response. Washington already fears the possibility of the collapse of the Iraqi truce that has been in place since last February”.

Last month, Iraqi militias backed by Iran halted their attacks against US forces in the region in the context of an “unannounced truce” and the last direct attack on US forces in Iraq and Syria was on February 4.

Indirect talks between the US and Iran in recent weeks have attempted to build on that truce in Iraq to expand it across conflict-hit areas of the Middle East.

Although Washington has not commented on the latest discussions, Iranian state media confirmed the most recent rounds of indirect talks, saying they focused on negotiations for removing sanctions against Iran – thought to be a major motivation for Tehran's increased initiative to mitigate regional conflict.

Just hours after Israel struck Iran’s embassy compound in Damascus, US forces shot down an attack drone as it flew close to an American base in Syria.

The Pentagon said the drone was not directly targeting US forces based at Al Tanf, near the Jordanian and Iraqi borders.

“The drone was travelling in the proximity of the base, and the base did engage that drone. But we do not assess right now that that was an attack on US forces,” Ms Singh said.

Updated: April 03, 2024, 5:10 PM