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Israel Blamed for Attack Killing Iranian General in Damascus

And the hits keep on coming!

How did WWI start again?

Israel Blamed for Attack Killing Iranian General in Damascus

Missile strike hit Iranian diplomatic building in Syrian capital, Syria and Iran say, risking an escalation of hostilities

By Jared Malsin and Aresu Eqbali, WSJ

Updated April 1, 2024 4:51 pm ET

Syrian and Iranian state media accused Israel for a missile attack on an Iranian diplomatic building in Damascus, in a possible escalation of a shadow war between Iran and Israel.

Syria and Iran accused Israel of a missile attack on an Iranian diplomatic building in Damascus that killed a senior Iranian general, in a potential escalation of a shadow war between Israel and Iran that has intensified during the war in Gaza.

Iranian state media said the attack on Monday killed a senior leader in the elite Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which oversees Tehran’s network of militia allies throughout the region. The commander, Gen. Mohammad Reza Zahedi, managed Iranian paramilitary operations in Syria and Lebanon, according to Iranian state media and U.S. officials.

The Revolutionary Guard said that seven of its members were killed, including senior military advisers in Syria. The strike also killed diplomatic staff, Iran’s ambassador to Syria told reporters.

The Israeli military’s chief spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, told reporters: “We are focused on the war goals and we will continue to do anything that contributes to achieving those goals,” declining to comment further on the event. U.S. officials said they were aware of the reports but declined to comment.

Israel and Iran have engaged in a long-running covert war across the Middle East in which Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes targeting Iranian targets and their allies. ​Iran has blamed Israel for killing Iranian​ nuclear scientists and military leaders. Iran, meanwhile, has built up a network of militia allies arrayed against Israel in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq.

Since the start of the war in Gaza last year, the slow-burning conflict has come to a boil, with Israel trading fire regularly with Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah movement. Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that carried out the Oct. 7 attack on Israel that sparked the war in Gaza, is also a client of Iran.

Monday’s strike could signal a new phase of the two foes’ undeclared war, with Israel taking a more aggressive action against Iran’s shadow network in the region. That network is designed to give Tehran the ability to strike adversaries such as the U.S. and Israel without engaging in a direct conflict, security analysts said.

“This is Israel telling the Iranians: Your forward-defense strategy isn’t going to work anymore,” said Randa Slim, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “Israel is saying to them, we are in a new realm and we are going to hit you wherever and whenever we can.”

The attack at 5 p.m. local time on Monday resulted in the “total destruction” of an Iranian consulate building in the Syrian capital, Syria’s state-run news agency SANA said. Iranian state TV broadcast the smoldering wreckage of a building, with debris strewn on the street outside.

Zahedi was among the most senior leaders of the Revolutionary Guard to be killed since a U.S. airstrike killed Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the leader of the Quds Force, in Baghdad in early 2020.

The U.S. Treasury Department has identified Zahedi as playing a key role in the IRGC’s relations with Syria and Lebanon, including acting as liaison to Hezbollah and Syrian intelligence, and reportedly working to deliver weapons to the Lebanese militia group. ​Zahedi was among several senior Iranian military figures that the U.S. sanctioned in 2010 as supporters of terrorism.

Israel, Iran and Iranian militia groups throughout the Middle East have pulled back from the brink of all-out regional war, but a recent flare-up in hostilities raises the risk that one side or the other could miscalculate, triggering a wider conflagration, analysts say.

Iran threatened retaliation against Israel for the attack. “The Islamic Republic reserves its rights to take reciprocal actions and will decide the type of reaction and punishment of the aggressor,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said in a statement.

Middle East security experts say Iran can’t sustain a direct conflict with Israel or the U.S. and has sought to avoid one throughout the Gaza war. But by hitting an Iranian diplomatic mission and killing a senior military leader, Monday’s strike raises the risk of a wider confrontation, analysts said.

“We’re in new territory. Israel and Iran have always been engaged in a shadow war, but this is no longer a shadow war. This is coming out in the open,” said Ali Vaez, the Iran project director and senior adviser to the president at International Crisis Group, a conflict resolution organization.

The attack could curtail Iran’s military presence in Syria if Iranian officials come to believe they are no longer safe in diplomatic installations, Vaez said. Iran intervened militarily in Syria’s civil war in support of President Bashar al-Assad, helping him survive a popular uprising that began in 2011.

The regional crisis sparked by Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza has brought Iran’s regional militia network to the fore. Yemen’s Houthi rebels, another Iranian partner, have attacked ships in the Red Sea, forcing some shippers to avoid a key global shipping lane that leads to the Suez Canal.

Earlier on Monday, the Israeli Red Sea port city of Eilat came under an attack from the air that caused light damage and no casualties, the Israeli military said. An Iranian-aligned militia in Iraq claimed to have carried out the attack.

Israeli airstrikes near the Syrian city of Aleppo killed and wounded numerous people on Friday, according to the Syrian defense ministry. Israel also again exchanged fire with Hezbollah in recent days.

Israel last week accused Iranian agents of smuggling weapons into the West Bank in recent months and said that security forces had confiscated dozens of weapons including antitank missiles, grenade launchers, explosives and assault rifles. Iran has openly expressed support for Palestinian armed groups that it views as resisting Israeli occupation.

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