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April 2, 2024

Israeli Attack Kills Senior Iranian Officials in Damascus, Deepening Regional Tensions

On Monday, Israeli warplanes destroyed a building in Damascus that was reportedly part of the Iranian Embassy compound in Syria, killing seven including three senior Iranian military officers. This is a major provocation that has raised questions as to whether Israel is seeking to draw the U.S. into a direct military conflict with Iran as the devastating war in Gaza nears six months. It is also yet another reminder that only a permanent ceasefire that halts the killing in Gaza can seriously reduce the risks of a disastrous regional war between the U.S. and Iran.

What Transpired

Israeli officials confirmed to The New York Times that it was responsible for the attack, though they disputed that the target was a protected diplomatic building. Gen. Mohamad Reza Zahedi, the top Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps official in the Levant, was the most senior figure targeted. Killed alongside Zahedi were two other generals and four officers in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force. Israeli forces have alleged that the senior Iranian military figures were meeting with representatives from Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Iran has stated that the building struck was a consulate building that also housed the Iranian ambassador’s residence, though the ambassador – Hossein Akbari – was not present at the time it was struck. Akbari alleged that F-35 fighter jets conducted the attack, which “brutally targeted my place of residence and the consular section of the embassy, along with Iran’s military attaches.” Iran also reportedly assigned Zahedi and other figures with diplomatic credentials in an apparent bid to protect them from assassination.

A National Security Council spokesperson stated that the U.S. “had no involvement in the [Israeli] strike” and “did not know about it ahead of time,” indicating that they communicated this to Iran.

Shortly thereafter, a one-way attack drone targeted U.S. forces in Syria but was intercepted, the first such attack in roughly two months. However, Iranian officials vowed harsh reprisals. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei stated, “The evil Zionist regime will be punished by our courageous men. We will make them regret this and other crimes like it, by God’s power and strength.” Likewise, Iran summoned the Swiss chargé d’affaires – who represents U.S. interests in Iran in the absence of formal diplomatic relations – and issued statements holding the U.S. responsible for the Israeli attack.

Violation of International Law

The attack appears to indicate a willingness to violate international law protecting diplomatic compounds, including the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations which Israel is party to, in order to assassinate those targeted. 

The possible use of U.S.-origin weaponry on a diplomatic compound also raises serious questions of accountability for the United States, which obligates recipients of U.S. military assistance to abide by international law. As former State Department official Josh Paul notes, “If U.S.-origin arms were used in this strike, that would be a further instance of their use to violate international law.”

A Pattern of Escalation that Threatens U.S. Troops

This is not the first case of Israel assassinating senior Iranian military figures operating in Syria amid the Gaza war, and in prior instances such attacks have directly led to increased threats and injuries to U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria. 

On December 25, 2023, Sayyed Razi Mousavi – a senior IRGC commander and former associate of the late Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani – was killed in an Israeli missile attack in the suburbs of Damascus. The same day, a U.S. airbase in Erbil, Iraq came under fire from Iran-aligned militias, injuring three servicemembers. One of those soldiers suffered serious injuries that required them to be transferred to Germany for treatment. The U.S. engaged in retaliatory strikes against the militias deemed responsible that reportedly killed some of the fighters.

A similar pattern played out on January 20 of this year. An airstrike on a building in the Mezzeh district of Damascus killed several members of the IRGC, including two senior officials. Among the deceased was Sadegh Omidzadeh, the Deputy of Intelligence for the Quds Force. Iranian media sources also reported the death of Omidzadeh’s deputy, identified as Haj Gholam. Later  that day, U.S. forces at Al Asad Airbase in western Iraq came under heavy rocket and missile fire, injuring two soldiers. According to the New York Times, “At least 10 rockets and seven short-range ballistic missiles were fired at the base, with two making it through air defense systems, in the most successful attack the militias had carried out so far.” Given the timing, it certainly appears as if the attacks were connected, with militia forces penetrating U.S. defenses and injuring U.S. troops after an assassination of Iranian forces attributed to Israel. 

Shortly thereafter, U.S. forces again engaged in retaliatory strikes. According to CENTCOM, on January 23 U.S. forces “conducted unilateral airstrikes against three facilities used by Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia group and other Iran-affiliated groups in Iraq. These strikes targeted KH headquarters, storage, and training locations for rocket, missile, and one-way attack UAV capabilities.”

Just a little more than a week following the assassination of Iranian military commanders, a drone fired by militias backed by Iran penetrated the defenses of the Tower 22 base in Jordan on January 28. Tragically, this led to the death of three U.S. soldiers and injuries to many more. 

Some exploited this tragedy and recklessly called for direct military strikes on Iran that would have plunged the U.S. into full-blown regional war. However, the U.S. wisely pursued a more restrained response that managed the risks of escalation. While significant retaliatory strikes on militias in Iraq and Syria followed, foregoing broader escalation created an opening for Iran to restrain militias in Iraq and Syria and dissuade them from further targeting of U.S. forces, which led to nearly two months of cooler regional tensions. This latest Israeli strike thus risks upending the tentative truce that followed and putting U.S. troops in harm’s way once again.

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