War by assassination

Bassel Oudat , Tuesday 23 Jan 2024

Israel’s assassination campaign against Iranian military officers abroad escalated last week with the killing of four senior figures in Damascus, reports Bassel Oudat in Damascus

War by assassination


On 20 January, the Israelis struck a multi-storey residential building in the Mazzeh neighbourhood in the centre of the Syrian capitalDamascus.

The building, which was totally destroyed, was used by Iranian advisers to the Syrian regime. Four Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) members were killed, including General Yousef Omidzadeh, known as Haj Sadegh, deputy intelligence commander of the IRGC’s Al-Quds Force in Syria, and his deputy who went by the name Haj Gholam.

At the time of the strike, Iranian officers and others close to Iran were in a meeting in the building. Iran often sets up its political offices and even military headquarters in Syria in residential neighbourhoods as a form of camouflage precisely to avert such strikes. Military flights transporting important personnel or shipments from Tehran have also been reroutedto Aleppo and Latakiainstead of Damascus for the same purpose.

Israeli intelligence clearly has an extensive network of covert operatives on Syrian soil able to provide accurate information on what Israeli authorities classify as major strategic targets. It is believed that the IRGC, the Al-Quds Force, and the Lebanese Hizbullah forces operating in Syria and even Syrian regime forces and intelligence serviceshave been heavily infiltrated by Israeli espionage networks.

“Without the presence of Israeli agents inside Syrian territory, it would not have been able to assassinate important figures in the Revolutionary Guards, Lebanese Hizbullahgroup, and Palestinian factions,” Rami Abdel-Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

According to press leaks, the participants in the meeting in the demolished residential building were discussing changes in the routes of arms deliveries from Iran to Syria and shifting from air to overland deliveries. The purpose wasto avert Israeli air raidsthat aim to keep Iran from using Syrian territory to smuggle weapons to pro-Iranian forces in Syria and to its allies in Lebanon and Palestine.

The Israeli strike occurred four days after the IRGC attacked what it described as a Mossad headquarters in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, killing Kurdish businessman PeshroDzii and his son. Dzii reportedly had ties to Israel and had let Mossad operate out of his property.

The Iranian strike in Erbil wasin retaliation for Israel’s assassination of the commander of the Al-Quds Force in Syria, General Radhi Mousavi, in Damascus in December. The Iranian intelligence officer who was killed in Mazzeh, GeneralOmidzadeh (Sadegh),was said to be close to Mousavi.

Omidzadeh was also on the US hitlist for having masterminded attacks against US forces in Syria and Iraq. According to US press reports citing confidential sources, he was one of “the most wanted” Iranian operatives in Syria because heoversaw the planning of the IRGC’s operations against US forces in Syria.

The strike may have been a joint Israeli-US operation in the framework of an assassination campaign targeting Iranian security officials in Syria.

Neither Damascus nor the Russians activated anti-aircraft or anti-missile defence systems to intercept the Israeli missiles. Instead, the two countries have confined themselves to strongly worded statements of condemnation. One reason for this may be that they want Iran to reduce its security and military presence in Syria and perhaps also to cater to Arab sentiments.

Israel has stepped up its targeted assassination policy against Iranian security and military officials andHizbullah, a close ally of Iran. The Israelis “have been engaged in their assassinations project for some time,” said Mustafa Al-Nuaimi, a researcher in Iranian affairs.

“The American and Israeli assassinationsstrategy has recently shifted to high-profile figures, which is intended to send a direct message from the US and Israel to the Iranian axis saying, ‘you’re exposed, we can see you, and we can hit you hard, regardless ofunderstandings and agreements and the escalation on your part,’” Al-Nuaimi said.

The tit-for-tat exchanges between the Israelis and Iranians cannot be seen independently from the Israeli war against Hamas, a strategic ally of Iran. This was underscored by a recent IRGC statement after the strike in Erbil saying that “in response to the recent terrorist crimes of the enemies of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the spy headquarters and gatherings of anti-Iran groups in parts of the region were targeted by IRGC ballistic missiles in the middle of the night.” 

Despite the target’s linkage to Israel, especially against the backdrop of Israel’s war on Gaza, the IRGC strike in Erbil angered Baghdad. The Iraqi Foreign Ministry recalled its ambassador in Tehran for consultations, and Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani denounced what he described as a “flagrant aggression against Iraq and a dangerous development that undermines strong bilateral relations.”

Israel has been carrying out air raids and strikes in Syria for years. Most, if not all, of these target Iranian and Lebanese Hizbullahassets, such as weapons and ammunition depots and aircraft carryingsuspect shipments to Syrian airports. Israel rarely takes responsibility for these attacks, but it frequently reiteratesits vow to counter Iran’s attempts to entrench its military presence in the country.

Out of its growing concern over the Iranian influence in Syria, Israel has also begun to target Iranian military advisers and other personnel in Syrian towns and cities. Iran used to confine its responses to angry denunciations and threats, but recently it has begun to retaliate more actively.

It has targeted Israel’s main backer and arms supplierthe US by targeting US bases and oil fields controlled by the US in northeastern Syria, thereby sending messages to Washington and Tel Aviv at thesame time. For the most part, the damage inflicted on the US targets has been minor.

The Iranian strategy has managed to shift the arena of Iran’s battle with Israel and the US away from the country’s borders and into Syria in particular. As a result, the Syrians have been sacrificing their territorial sovereignty for the sake of Iranian military interests.

This serves to bolster the Iranian military project in the Middle East, which is not necessarily a Syrian projectand is certainly not an Arab or liberationistone. The Syrians see themselves as being caught up in a war between two occupying powers and one that is wreaking even more attrition on the already debilitated Syrian state.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 25 January, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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