By Reuters Iran embassy attack shows Israel’s growing reach amid simmering Middle East

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By Parisa Hafezi, Laila Bassam, Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Dan Williams

DUBAI (Reuters) – Rattled by months of deadly Israeli attacks in Syria, Iranian military commanders deemed it safe to convene a top-level meeting inside Iran’s embassy compound in Damascus that they believed would save diplomatic missions. Protected by international norms, according to a dozen Iranian, Syrian and regional officials.

they were wrong.

An airstrike on the compound killed seven Iranian officials on Monday – among them Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Zahedi, a senior commander of the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), one of Iran’s top troops. It was the boldest and deadliest in a series of attacks on Iranian officials in Syria since December.

Blamed by Tehran on Israel, the attack was a rare military attack on diplomatic compounds anywhere in the world and was strongly condemned by the United Nations and the European Union. Analysts see it as a significant escalation in a broader Israeli campaign to reduce the influence Iran has built up in Syria over the past decade.

Zahedi had arrived in Syria a day or two before the attack and was staying in the embassy compound with two other senior commanders, according to an Iranian source who, like others in this story, asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue. Said.

The three men were in Syria to discuss operational logistics and coordination, the source said, without giving details.

Zahedi was a top figure in the Guards Quds Force, which provides Iranian support to allies around the region, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah. He was the most senior Revolutionary Guard figure to be killed since the US drone strike on Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad four years ago, and the manner of the attack sent shock waves through a region already troubled by Israel’s war in Gaza.

“In my view, this is without precedent,” said Gregory Brough, an analyst at Eurasia Group. He said he did not recall any state directly targeting the diplomatic presence of another in this manner.

“IRGC officials probably thought they were safe as long as they remained in the diplomatic compound,” he said. “I can’t imagine that any IRGC officer is feeling particularly safe at this time.”

The conflict that has raged across the Middle East since the Gaza war began in October threatens to escalate, with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowing revenge.

However, two Iranian officials indicated that Tehran would not retreat from the approach it has adopted since October to avoid direct conflict with Israel and the United States, as well as support allies who have threatened Israel, American troops and the Red Army. The ships at sea have been attacked. To support Gaza.

One of those officials, a senior source, said Tehran was forced to respond seriously to Israel to prevent such attacks from repeating or escalating. But the level of retaliation will 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 responsibility for Monday’s attack, which demolished the main Iranian embassy building near where commanders had gathered. The Israeli military spokesman’s office declined to comment for this story.

Sanam Wakil, deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, said the attack was the latest to show the precise nature of Israeli intelligence in Syria and the wider region. He said an Israeli strike on January 2 had killed a senior leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas in Lebanon, a stronghold of the Iran-backed movement Hezbollah. Both groups are part of Iran’s regional ‘axis of resistance’.

“We have seen very high-level assassinations of officials with management responsibilities throughout the network,” he said, adding that the latest attack targeting Zahedi was “an attempt to undermine the operational capabilities of the axis of resistance over the last six years.” reflects Israel’s broader objective.” Months”.

Just last week, Israel carried out one of its deadliest strikes in months in Syria, killing 33 Syrians and six Hezbollah fighters, security sources said. Israel has also hit Hezbollah in Lebanon hard during hostilities since the Gaza war began in October, killing about 250 of its fighters, including senior commanders.

Israel launched an offensive into Gaza in response to an October 7 attack on southern Israel by Hamas, killing 1,200 and capturing 253 hostages. According to medical officials in the enclave, about 33,000 Palestinians have been killed in the nearly six-month war.

A ‘rare opportunity’

An Iranian security source said Iran would change its strategy in the wake of Monday’s attack, without giving further details. A regional source close to Iran said Syria is no longer a safe space after Israel violated diplomatic norms.

Reuters reported in February that the Revolutionary Guard had reduced the deployment of senior officers to Syria as a result of a wave of Israeli attacks against Revolutionary Guard commanders. The Guardsmen raised concerns to Syrian officials at the time that information leaks from within Syrian security forces had played a role in those attacks, the sources said.

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

Iran has deployed officers and allied militia to Syria to aid President Bashar al-Assad during the war that began in 2011. The Syrian government says they act in the capacity of advisors at the invitation of Damascus.

Raz Zimmat, a researcher at the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University, said that Zahedi had played a key role “in managing the toehold of Iranian activity in both Syria and Lebanon”. He said it would be difficult to replace him because of “his long experience and his long presence in Syria”, but the main importance of the attack was to show that nowhere was off limits.

Zimmt said, “I think probably the more important issue is for Israel to send a message to Iran saying that Iran can no longer avoid the consequences of its major role in coordinating this Iranian axis in the region.”

An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, declined to confirm Israel’s involvement in Monday’s attack, but said the gathering of so many senior Iranian officials in one place was highly unusual.

“Whoever did this clearly didn’t want to miss a very rare opportunity,” he said. “This is not something a country at war will abandon.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the attack on the Iranian diplomatic compound, saying “the principle of inviolability of diplomatic and consular premises and personnel must be respected in all cases and in all circumstances in accordance with international law”, his spokesman said. The European Union also supported this statement.

However, the Israeli official said the identification of the dead was “an admission that a diplomatic mission in a third-party country is being used as a military headquarters”.

The United States said it had not confirmed the location of the building in Damascus that was attacked, but that it would be concerned if it were a diplomatic facility. Washington warned Iran on Tuesday not to retaliate over the attack and told the UN Security Council that it had no prior warning of the attack.

A Syrian military intelligence official said the area near the embassy included buildings previously used by Israel to house surveillance and equipment, and that Israel had stepped up efforts to develop human intelligence in recent months. Have given.

Qassem Mohebali, former director general for the Middle East and North Africa at Iran’s Foreign Ministry, who is based in Iran, described the attack as a turning point in Israeli attacks against Iran’s presence in Syria.

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

But “a direct war with Israel is in no way in Iran’s interests”, he said. He said, “Entry into that region does not just end with a war with Israel; the conflict could escalate and involve other players, such as the United States.”

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