Smoke rises from the Iranian embassy annex building in Syria’s capital Monday. Image Credit: AFP

DAMASCUS: Israeli strikes destroyed the Iranian embassy’s consular annex in Syria on Monday, killing and wounding everyone inside, Damascus said, as Iranian state TV reported a Revolutionary Guards commander among the dead.

Britain-based war monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said eight people were killed when “Israeli missiles... destroyed the building of an annex to the Iranian embassy”.

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Israel did not immediately comment on the deadly attack in Damascus which comes at a time of soaring tensions over its Gaza war against Palestinian militants Hamas, and intensifying violence between Israel and Iran’s allies.

Earlier, Iran TV said several diplomats were among the dead.

Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps senior commander Mohammad Reza Zahedi has been killed in the Israeli attack.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian called for the international community to act after the Israeli attack.

Amir-Abdollahian, in a telephone conversation with his Syrian counterpart Faisal Mekdad, "blamed the consequences of this action on the Zionist regime and stressed the need for a serious response by the international community to such criminal actions", according to a statement by Iran's foreign ministry.

AFP reporters saw the annex building had caved in, and emergency services were rushing to treat the wounded and search for victims under the rubble, in the upscale Damascus district of Mazzeh.

Syria’s defence ministry said “the attack destroyed the entire building, killing and injuring everyone inside, and work is underway to recover the bodies and rescue the wounded from under the rubble”.

Iranian state TV said among those killed was a senior commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ foreign operations arm, the Quds Force, Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Zahedi.

Revolutionary Guards: Powerful group with wide regional reach
A senior commander in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds force, Mohammad Reza Zahedi, was killed on Monday in what Syrian and Iranian media called an Israeli airstrike on Iranian diplomatic premises in the Syrian capital, Damascus.
Following are some questions and answers about the IRGC, Iran’s dominant military force, with its own army, navy, air force and intelligence wing:

WHAT IS THE IRGC? It was set up shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution to protect the Shiite clerical ruling system and provide a counterweight to the regular armed forces.
It answers to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The IRGC has an estimated 125,000-strong military with army, navy and air units. It also commands the Basij religious militia, a volunteer paramilitary force loyal to the clerical establishment that is often used to crack down on anti-government protests.
Basijis mounted human wave attacks against Iraqi troops during the 1980s war. In peacetime, they enforce Iran’s Islamic social codes. Analysts say Basij volunteers may number in the millions, with 1 million active members.
The Quds Force is the IRGC’s foreign espionage and paramilitary arm that heavily influences its allied militia across the Middle East, from Lebanon to Iraq and Yemen to Syria.
Its members have fought in support of President Bashar Al Assad in Syria’s civil war and have backed Iraqi security forces in their battle against Daesh (Islamic State) militants in recent years.
Its top commander, Major-General Qassem Soleimani, was killed by the United States in a drone attack in Iraq in 2020.
His death raised fears of a major conflict. The killing of all American leaders would not be enough to avenge the assassination of Soleimani, a senior Iranian Guards commander said later.
The IRGC, branded a terrorist group by the United States, has sought for years to shape the Middle East in favour of Tehran. For instance, it founded Lebanon’s Hezbollah in 1982 to export Iran’s Islamic Revolution and fight Israeli forces that invaded Lebanon that same year.
Hezbollah is now a major military force that has played a role in regional conflicts.

WHAT ARE THE IRGC’S MILITARY CAPABILITIES? The IRGC oversees Iran’s ballistic missile programme, regarded by experts as the largest in the Middle East.
The Guards have used the missiles to hit militants in Syria and Iranian Kurdish opposition groups in northern Iraq. The United States, European powers and Saudi Arabia blamed Iran for a 2019 missile and drone attack that crippled the world’s biggest oil processing facility in Saudi Arabia. Iran denied any involvement in the assault.
Former US president Donald Trump pointed to Iran’s missile programme as one of the points not addressed in its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and cited that as a reason for pulling out of the agreement in 2018.
The Guards have extensive conventional combat hardware and capabilities which were showcased in their involvement in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

WHAT IS THE IRGC’S POSITION IN IRAN’S POLITICAL SYSTEM? Former Revolutionary Guards officers occupy key positions in Iran’s establishment, from the government to parliament. Most of President Ebrahim Raisi’s cabinet are former IRGC officers.
The IRGC’s mandate to protect revolutionary values has prompted it to speak out when it felt the system was threatened.

WHAT ABOUT BUSINESS INTERESTS? After the 1980s Iraq war, the IRGC became heavily involved in Iran’s reconstruction and has expanded its economic interests to include a vast network of businesses, ranging from oil and gas projects to construction and telecommunication. Its business interests are worth billions of dollars.
-- Reuters

The Observatory later said it had “confirmed the killing of a high-ranking leader who served as the leader of the Quds Force for Syria and Lebanon, two Iranian advisers, and five members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard”.

The Damascus strikes were the fifth in eight days to hit Syria, whose President Bashar Al Assad is supported by Iran, Israel’s long-time arch foe in the region.

Sana had earlier reported that “our air defence systems confronted enemy targets in the vicinity of Damascus”.

President Joe Biden is aware of reports of Israeli air strikes in Damascus striking an Iranian consulate on Monday and the "team is looking into it," White House spokesperson Karine Jean Pierre said.

Image Credit: Reuters

Ambassador safe

Iran’s Nour news agency said “Hossein Akbari, ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Damascus, and his family were not harmed in the Israeli attack”.

The ambassador later said that “the Israeli attack on the Iranian consulate shows the reality of the Zionist entity which recognises no international laws and does all that is inhumane to achieve its goals”.

Akbari told Iranian state TV that “at least 5 people were killed in the attack which was carried out by F35 fighter jets”.

‘Heinous attack’

Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad denounced the attack after visiting the site.

“We strongly condemn this heinous terrorist attack that targeted the Iranian consulate building in Damascus killing a number of innocent people,” Mekdad said in a statement carried by official news agency Sana.

The Gaza war started with the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel has devastated the territoty and also seen Israel and Hezbollah exchange near-daily fire along the Lebanese border.

Israeli has also struck targets in Syria, mostly army positions as well as those of Iran-backed combatants including from Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah movement.

The Damascus strike came three days after the Observatory reported Israeli strikes that killed 53 people in Syria, including 38 soldiers and seven members of Hezbollah.

It was the highest Syrian army toll in Israeli strikes since the Israel-Hamas war began, said the monitor.

“Syria and Lebanon have become one extended battleground from the Israeli perspective,” Riad Kahwaji, head of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, told AFP after the Friday strikes.

“Israel warplanes hit targets in both countries almost daily in a sustained effort to destroy Hezbollah military infrastructure and to also tarnish the group’s image,” he said.

“Israeli strikes have clearly escalated in size and depth” in Lebanon, he added.