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Source: NY Times

Jan 20, 2024

Widening Mideast Crisis - Iran Accuses Israel of Killing 4 Military Advisers in Syria

A new attack in Syria raises tensions between Iran and Israel.

Iran accused Israel on Saturday of launching an airstrike on the Syrian capital, Damascus, that killed four Iranian military advisers, the latest sign of the growing regional turmoil rippling out from the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza.

A top intelligence figure for Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards force, which operates outside of the country under an arm known as the Quds Force, was among those killed, according to Iran’s semiofficial Mehr news agency and an Israeli defense official. Mehr reported that his deputy and two other members of the Guards were also killed.

The strike intensifies an already volatile mix of tensions in the region.

Iran — a longstanding adversary of Israel — supports militias around the Middle East. That includes Hamas, the armed Palestinian group that attacked Israel on Oct. 7; Hezbollah in Lebanon, which has been trading fire with Israel; and the Houthis in Yemen, who have been firing missiles at ships in the Red Sea to protest Israeli attacks in Gaza.

Israel and Iran have been locked in a shadow war for years, long before the latest war in Gaza began.

They have traded covert attacks by land, sea, air and in cyberspace. Israel has conducted targeted killings of key Iranian figures and strikes aimed at crippling Iran’s nuclear and military capabilities. It has also tried to chip away at Iranian supply lines to its proxy forces in the region.

The Revolutionary Guards said in a statement published online that, in addition to the four Iranian military advisers, several members of Syrian forces were killed in the strike. Syria is a close ally of Iran and a conduit for Iranian weapons shipments to its proxies, especially Hezbollah.

The Israeli defense official, who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence issues, would not say who was behind the attack.

The airstrike hit a four-story residential building and killed five people in total, causing a powerful explosion, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war in Syria.

Tensions escalated in December when Iran accused Israel of killing a high-level military figure with a missile strike on Syria. Israel declined to comment directly on Iran’s accusation at the time.

The Iranian killed at that time was identified as Brig. Gen. Sayyed Razi Mousavi, a senior adviser to the Revolutionary Guards. He was said to have helped oversee the shipment of missiles and other arms to Hezbollah, which has been attacking Israeli from the north ever since the latest war began in Gaza, following the deadly Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7.

Iran launched a missile strike this week on the city of Erbil in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, saying it was aimed at an Israeli base for intelligence gathering. Iran said its attacks over the past week were in retaliation for, among other things, the assassinations last month of two senior Iranian commanders in Syria that it blamed on Israel.

Israel has not responded to the claim that the target in Erbil was an Israeli spy outpost. But Iraqi officials rejected the accusation, saying that only civilians had been killed, including a businessman, his 1-year-old daughter, her babysitter and another businessman visiting the house.

Iran also hit targets in Syria and Pakistan with missiles over the past week, hoping to signal to hard-line supporters at home that it was not passive in the face of threats. Supporters of Iran’s authoritarian clerical regime have been incensed by recent attacks on Iran that made it appear vulnerable, demanding a powerful response.

But so far, Iran has appeared to stop short of a major escalation. Analysts say Iran wanted the attacks to be measured, flexing its muscles without getting into a direct fight with Israel, the United States or their allies.

In the past, Iran has often lashed out at its enemies through its proxies, relying on the armed groups — including Hezbollah, Hamas and the Houthis — and sometimes disavowing any involvement in attacks. But this week, Iran acted on its own and announced its actions, publicly framing the missile strikes as vengeance.

Iran said it had attacked targets connected to major terrorist attacks, including one earlier this month that was the country’s deadliest ever.

Ronen Bergman and Victoria Kim contributed reporting.

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