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Iran blames Israel for Syria strike, vows revenge after 5 Guards die

Israel has been accused of intensifying strikes targeting senior Iranian and allied figures in Syria and Lebanon — both backers of the Palestinian militant group Hamas — raising fears that the Gaza conflict could expand further throughout the region.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) confirmed it lost five members in the strike that it blamed on Israel, its regional arch-foe, updating an earlier toll from four.

Hamas condemned what it called a “heinous crime”.

In Tehran, foreign ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanani also accused Israel of being behind the attack and said Iran “reserves the right to respond to organised terrorism” at the appropriate time and place.

Quoting an informed source, Iran’s Mehr news agency said “the Revolutionary Guards’ Syria intel chief” and his deputy were among those “martyred in the attack on Syria by Israel”.

Mehr later quoted the IRGC as saying a fifth member wounded in the strike had died.

ALSO READ: How the term “genocide” is misused in the Israel-Hamas war

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said the Israeli strike on the Mazzeh neighbourhood of the capital killed 10 people.

The Guards’ Sepah news agency blamed the attack on the “evil and criminal Zionist regime (Israel)”, and named four of those killed as Hojatollah Omidvar, Ali Aghazadeh, Hossein Mohammadi and Saeed Karimi.

The mid-morning strike, which sent a large plume of smoke skywards, was also reported by Syrian state media.

Official news agency SANA said a residential building in Mazzeh had been targeted in what it called “an Israeli aggression”.

The defence ministry said the strike killed “a number of civilians”.

An AFP journalist said the building had been reduced to debris.

Hundreds of strikes

It was cordoned off, and ambulances, firefighters and Syrian Arab Red Crescent teams were on site as rescuers searched for survivors.

“I heard the explosion clearly in the western Mazzeh area, and I saw a large cloud of smoke,” one resident told AFP, requesting anonymity over security concerns.

“The sound was similar to a missile explosion, and minutes later I heard the sound of ambulances.”

Asked about the strike, the Israeli military told AFP: “We do not comment on reports from the foreign media.”

During more than a decade of civil war in Syria, Israel has launched hundreds of air strikes, primarily targeting Iran-backed forces as well as Syrian army positions.

But such attacks have intensified since the war between Israel and Hamas, which like Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement is an ally of Iran, began on October 7.

The Observatory said the strike hit a four-storey building “where Iran-aligned leaders were meeting”.

Among the dead were Iranians and other Tehran-backed fighters, Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman, told AFP.

The Britain-based war monitor with a network of sources inside Syria said the targeted building belonged to the IRGC and that Mazzeh is known to be a high-security zone where leaders of the IRGC and pro-Iran Palestinian factions live.

The neighbourhood also houses the United Nations headquarters, embassies and restaurants.

“They were for sure targeting senior members” of Tehran-backed groups or Iranian forces, Abdel Rahman told AFP.

Exchanges of fire

Saturday’s presumed Israeli strike was the second high-profile targeted assassination in Syria in less than a month.

In December, an air strike killed a senior Iranian general in Syria.

Razi Moussavi was the most senior commander of the Guards’ foreign operations arm, the Quds Force, to be killed outside Iran since a January 2020 US drone strike in Baghdad killed IRGC commander Qasem Soleimani.

On January 2 in neighbouring Lebanon, where the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah holds sway, Hamas deputy Saleh al-Aruri was killed in a strike widely blamed on Israel.

Days later, Israel killed top Hezbollah commander Wissam Tawil in a strike on his car in south Lebanon.

Since the Israel-Hamas war began there have been regular cross-border exchanges of fire between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

Saturday’s raid on Damascus came four days after the Revolutionary Guard said it attacked “an Israeli intelligence headquarters” in Arbil, the capital of Iraq’s northern autonomous province of Kurdistan.

Iraqi authorities said the attack killed four civilians and wounded six others.

Israel rarely comments on individual strikes targeting Syria, but has repeatedly said it will not allow Iran, which backs President Bashar al-Assad’s government, to expand its presence there.

Since 2011, Syria has endured a bloody conflict that has claimed more than half a million lives and displaced several million people.

 

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Published: 20 Jan 2024, 10:43 PM IST

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